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Beware the Carnies
Before searching for the world's wildest grassroots sports, Dundas captained perhaps the worst team in Missoula soccer history
Excerpt of The Renegade Sportsman by Zach Dundas reprinted by arrangement with Riverhead, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., Copyright (c) 2010.
The world soccer explosion, well under way elsewhere, hadn't quite happened yet in late-1990s Missoula. Social trends tend to wash over Montana about a decade late. (About half the time, this is a good thing). Isolation breeds creativity, so my friends and I were used to making our own fun. Sometimes that meant hauling a rented generator down to the riverside to power a show by an extreme-leftist punk band on tour from North Dakota. All too often it meant those weekends aptly described as "lost." In '97 and '98, it meant the Carnies Football Club. The Carnies wore black T-shirts. Our team crest consisted of a wobbly, hand-drawn shield bearing a skull, a switchblade, and a bottle marked "XXX." When I solicited a sponsorship at a sports bar the owner gave me a blank look and said, "Soccer, huh? Well, I guess. We wanna see you guys in here after every game, ordering puh-lenty of beer. Think you can do that, buddy?" Yes.
I can't say for sure, but I feel confident that Missoula Co-Rec Division 1 never before saw and never again would see a team as awful as us. For our debut match, about thirty rookie Carnies, lured perhaps by the team captain's talk of puh-lenty of beer, showed up. Our sideline resembled a protest against the World Trade Organization, and every substitution opportunity devolved into total chaos. If memory serves, we trailed a well-kempt team from a law firm 5-0 at halftime. The referee—a tallow-skinned, fifty-something character who wore a vintage Santos FC warm-up suit and chain-smoked straight through the break—strolled over. "Captain," he said, "you've got to get your team organized." I didn't ask if he had any teargas I could borrow. We did bag a consolation goal in the second half. A Carnie striker, one of a handful of our players with real experience, nailed a scorcher from twenty-five yards out. A fantastic goal from any perspective, it must have looked equally beautiful to him. Before the game, he told me he had ingested hallucinogenic mushrooms.
As the season progressed, the Carnies improved—a little. A Belarusian named Pavel, a paternal gent with salt-and-pepper hair whom none of us had ever met, mysteriously started showing up promptly at game time to play for us. He proved good for a couple of goals a game. Our pugnacious goalkeeper, a National Guardsman who both served in Afghanistan and played bass for Missoula's most venerable punk band, put a little muscle in our defense. So did the linebacker from the Montana Grizzlies football (the other kind) team, recruited by my brother, who spent much of his time in Carnies black trying to start fights with opposing players. Our female players, it turned out, were much better than our men—for some reason, the Carnie women tended to be physically fit and less lifestyle-impaired than their male counterparts. I don't know why.
Other teams—genuine amateur athletes seeking bona fide recreational competition, I suppose—seemed unimpressed by our freewheeling approach. "This is ridiculous," one snotty hotshot whined to a referee. "These guys don't belong out here." His team had scored three goals in fifteen minutes while dodging homicidal slide tackles, so maybe he had a point. That didn't stop me from screaming "That was for you, motherfucker!" when we (Pavel) leveled the score in a game that we (Pavel) almost stole.
The Carnies put together an immaculate winless streak. No other team, however, could match our party record. About half the core squad, including the hapless cap'n lived in a nine-bedroom decommissioned nunnery behind Missoula's oldest Catholic church. By postmatch midnight, a choreographed wrestling match usually took place in the living room, with Heinz 57 used as fake blood. We chewed over tactics, technique, and lineups, but soon enough the day's result started to feel irrelevant compared to olive-oil belly flop contests on the kitchen linoleum. Sadly, Pavel never joined us. I believe he was a religious man.