Carnett: Growing up in an international world

My 13-year-old grandson, Ethan, is quite a soccer player, if I do say so myself.

He's played club-level soccer for the last several years in his North Carolina community, and he's a star on his middle school's varsity soccer squad. Whenever we travel east, I catch his games.

I've become a soccer fan myself. Well, more precisely, I'm an Ethan fan.

Hard work and dedication have turned him into a fine player, but genetics factor into the equation as well. Like the sport itself he's a citizen of the world, and his soccer skills seem to reflect his family's World Cup-esque diversity.

His fraternal grandfather was born in Liège, Belgium, and grew up playing the sport on the banks of the river Meuse. His fraternal grandmother hails from Jalisco where Chivas de Guadalajara is the most successful club in Mexican football. His Dutch-Indonesian maternal grandmother was born on the isle of Java and reared in Amsterdam, where the Dutch football club, Ajax, dominates.

And how do we close this perfect genetic loop with the ideal maternal grandfather? Sadly, with my underwhelming dossier!

I was born and raised in Orange County — a place considered a soccer wasteland throughout my childhood. To be sure, O.C. was a soccer-free-zone when I was Ethan's age, in 1958. We were years away from the first humble beginnings of AYSO.

While stationed with the U.S. Army in Korea in the mid-1960s, I had my introduction to soccer: kids kicking round bundles of rags in dirt alleys. I've never played soccer in my life, except for a couple of pickup matches in a college physical education class after my military discharge. I had no idea what I was doing.

Ethan's maternal great grandfather was a talented soccer player in Indonesia. Ethan's fraternal uncle was an American collegiate goalie, and his dad was a pretty fair American high school player.

His many Dutch, Mexican and Belgian second, third and fourth cousins play the sport at a variety of levels.

Though I contributed precious little genetically to Ethan's football acumen, I bought him his first soccer ball when he wasn't quite a year old. In fact, he began kicking that ball as soon as he started to walk. It preceded him into and out of every room in the house.

I also bought him a mini NBA basketball hoop hoping he'd learn to slam dunk. I'm still hoping.

Ethan is a big fan of the U.S. men's and women's national soccer teams and of Manchester United of the English Premier League. He knows the MAN U fight song by heart, and has a red and yellow MAN U banner hanging above his bed. He also has photos on his wall of English player Wayne Rooney, Dutch player Robin van Persie and Argentine player Lionel Messi.

When I was his age, I idolized Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays and Elgin Baylor. I'd never heard of Pelé. But, since Ethan started playing five or six years ago, I've become a bit of a soccer geek.

Ask me anything you want know about set pieces, Ronaldo's hairstyle, or Hope Solo. I've got the answers.

Ethan's world is very different from the one I grew up in. Mine was far more monochromatic.

Until I was a teenager, I'd never been east of Needles, north of Marin County, south of the San Diego Zoo or west of Point Reyes. He has me beat on all points of the compass.

I grew up in a household where only one language was spoken — English. When my wife, Hedy, and I visit North Carolina, you can hear English, Spanish, Dutch and an occasional smattering of French being spoken in Ethan's home.

For a guy who wasn't raised with the sport, I've come a long way — and Ethan's carried me there on his back.

Now, when he "takes the pitch," I know enough about the sport to understand he's not sitting on a fastball.

And he bends those graceful curving shots just like Beckham.

JIM CARNETT lives in Costa Mesa. His column runs Tuesdays.

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