"How did you get on?"
In the post-Katrina footballing world of New Orleans, this is not an inquiry about the result of the game. They are asking if the hurricane destroyed your home.
Life in the Big Easy is surreal. The anything-goes, decadent destination, home to Mardi Gras and Bourbon Street, is under curfew. I grew up in Belfast in the ‘70s, but I never thought I’d see soldiers manning roadblocks and patrolling the streets in modern-day America. The city’s population has shrunk to a level not seen since the 1870s and vast swathes of Orleans Parish have been decimated. Areas look like they’ve been nuked with collapsed buildings, boats littering the road, massive trees ripped up and flung into houses, cars and trucks scattered and abandoned. Shops employ armed security guards for crowd control and three gun-toting policemen warily watch the throng swamping the only open post office in the neighborhood. It’s like living in a Mad Max movie.
But even this apocalyptic landscape caused by the most destructive storm in U.S. history doesn’t stop a bunch of ex-pats playing football.
Last January, we formed Finn McCool’s FC, named for the Irish pub where we watch English and Scottish league games every week. Some players hadn’t kicked a ball in years — decades even — and our eclectic squad featured characters like winger Benji Haswell, an ex-political journalist hounded from South Africa for his anti-apartheid views; our Mancunian keeper Mark Kirk, an artist who makes lamps from recycled rubbish; and Londoner Colin Bates, a skillful midfield movie producer working with Woody Harrelson.
After an eight month pre-season and five friendlies, we finally felt ready. We were practicing three times a week despite the oppressive heat and humidity and had joined the eight-team Southeastern Louisiana Adult Soccer Association second division. Kick-off was 13 days away. We signed our 22 player at our last training session. Then Katrina struck.
Our team fled and was suddenly spread from California to New York to Dublin to Amsterdam. Our towering Dutch center-half pot-grower Frank (The Tank) Komduur stayed five days after the storm and had to swim to safety through nine feet of water, passing three dead bodies and then bribing a bus driver to evacuate him out of the city. Our coach, former Fulham and Bolton defender Steve McAnespie, spent two days on a roof waiting to be rescued. He had scrambled up there after being trapped by the fast-rising water and when he was eventually choppered out, his feet were so badly sunburned he couldn’t wear shoes.
Today, the fields where we were due to play have been turned into a landfill site and are under 20 feet of rubbish. From a distance, it looks like building rubble, then when you get close you realize it is not just piled high with wrecked kitchen cabinets but also contains people’s possessions — clothes, pictures, children’s toys. The government says it will take a year to clear the trash, and that’s not including the waste from the tens of thousands of homes they have not even started bulldozing.
Just five weeks after the hurricane hit, and despite the fact that our practice pitch had been turned into a military helicopter landing pad, six players turned up for Thursday night training. Our squad trickled back and at the end of December our Sunday morning session had swelled to 16, and by February we should be almost up to full strength. There is only one player missing - all our league registration papers with contact details were lost when the house of our captain, Paul Medhurst, was flooded by 10 feet of water. Our kit floated away as well.
But a passion for football has kept the side together. Our right-back Dave (The Rave) Ashton lost his home. He and his seven-month pregnant girlfriend (whose mother died in the evacuation) have stayed with three different team members as they struggle to rebuild their lives. There are no dressing room rivalries, hissy-fits or petty jealousies here: When your teammates have lost their jobs and homes, then events like evening matches curtailed by M16-wielding National Guardsmen are put into perspective.
Less than three months after the catastrophe which killed nearly 1,400 people and wiped out entire Gulf Coast communities, we resumed twice-weekly training. Players busy rebuilding their shattered lives and homes were still keen to get on the pitch and escape reality for an hour or so.
Finn McCool’s was drowned under seven feet of water, but despite having no bar, power, water, toilets or even walls, they still threw a Christmas party and 70 drinkers showed up. The next day, training was canceled and 10 of the hung-over team squeezed into my living room to watch Chelsea play Arsenal on pay-per-view. The bar should be open by Mardi Gras, but until then those of us lucky enough to have a home left take it in turn to host the rest.
We don’t know if New Orleans will ever recover. We don’t know when — or even if — the league will start up again. We don’t know where we will play. We don’t know if there will be any teams left to face. But we do know that in the City of the Dead, football keeps this Sunday league squad sane.