Life’s A Pitch, Then You Thrive – World Cup 2022

Hours after the most thrilling sporting match I have ever watched which was the 2022 World Cup, PJ and I were at the park playfully arguing about which of us would take on the identity of Lionel Messi and who would pretend to be Kylian Mbappe.

Taking the Pitch – World Cup Between Papa-Mbappe and PJ-Messi

PJ excitedly placed his bright orange cones on the grass the same length apart to mirror the gap between my cones some 20 yards away. Having already played a make-believe game of football after the World Cup Finals match between Argentina and the 2018 Champion, France, I managed to push beyond my exhaustion to take the pitch for what would be an epic one-on-one match between two legendary players whose epic performance galvanized the world, father and son included.

To anyone who knows about my upbringing and my role as a father now, the irony of this matchup was clearly present. My short son who looks African American is half Mexican American. For this match-up, PJ’s beautiful display of innocence, confidence, and truth was prominent when he declared that he was going to play the role of Messi because he saw himself in Messi. I, being raised by an African American family and for most of my life identifying with African American culture, played the part of Mbappe because on the surface, he, too, felt familiar to me.

High five with my son as I take the pitch

With the brisk evening breeze sweeping across the empty park, PJ-Messi eagerly dropped the under-inflated soccer ball onto the soft pliable green grass and began his slow and steady approach towards his father, Papa-Mbappe.

With a quick lateral dribble to my right side, left-footed PJ-Messi had a sudden advantage that was made known by his exuberant scream. He quickly pushed the ball past me before kicking in his first goal of the evening. Like that, all of my fatigue was replaced by a dogged determination to match my son’s energy goal for goal.

“First to ten!” I declared.

“Game on!” shouted my son.

With the memory of the 2022 World Cup fresh in our heads, we began to build on the galvanizing match between both premier national teams. It was no surprise we were intent on channeling the otherworldly performances of both superstars for our own moment to shine.

For fathers who spend time at the park playing any sport with their sons, you might understand how hard it is to dial back your competitive spirit. For PJ-Messi and Papa-Mbappe, our competitive juices were ever present even if just under the surface of our fun-loving match that left us trying to outperform one another.

In my son’s attempt to feel the on-pitch thrill of the World Cup game as experienced by the players, he purposefully sought out situations to recreate those pressurized moments on the pitch.

PJ-Messi took absolute pleasure in purposefully picking up handball penalties so he could take on the role of Argentina’s goalkeeper, Emiliano Martinez. Within a moment’s time, PJ-Messi morphed into PJ-Martinez and became determined to succeed in the same scenario where Emiliano failed four times against Mbappe.

A bouncing PJ-Martinez stood before the makeshift goal with his arms outstretched awaiting my penalty kick. With a stiff old man juke to my left, I kicked the ball toward my right. Just like that, PJ-Martinez dove towards Papa-Mbappe’s penalty kick only to erupt in laughter as he saw the ball whiz past him.

Penalty kick against my son.

Admittedly, I looked crazy running around the park with my shirt flipped over my head. I gave no thought to how the piercing cold wind would shock my body because I only cared about the thrill of the moment that was fueled by my son’s delightful laughter.

Back and forth we went.

Papa-Mbappe wheezing from chasing after a lighting quick PJ-Messi. Recognizing that my only advantage was my size, I may or may not have bodied him a couple of times to score some easy goals as I mounted a late-game comeback rivaling that of France during the World Cup, or that’s what it felt like in my mind and PJ-Messi’s too.

With an 8-9 score favoring PJ-Messi, he felt the momentum shifting and knew his only chance at victory was to score the game-winning goal. But I wanted to score the equalizer to put pressure on PJ-Messi to respond with the same killer instinct as Messi in the 108th minute of the World Cup.

With a large nervous grin sweeping across his face, PJ-Messi took the pitch from the goal opposite mine. We awkwardly countered the movements of the other until he was close enough to naturally sweep the ball to his left side as I mirrored his movement. But before I could get planted on the ground, PJ-Messi suddenly pushed the ball back towards his right side, which caused me to twist around at the very moment he took the game-winning shot. PJ-Messi hit me with a nutmeg instep kick that left me shaken as he raced down the pitch with his arms spread wide because, at that moment, he felt bigger than life.

PJ-Messi truly believed he just experienced his crowning moment in an exhilarating fashion by winning the World Cup. That moment together enhanced our core memory from earlier in the morning.

Game Day – World Cup 2022

I was awakened early Sunday by the voice of my son telling me it was 6:35 AM. A slight smile graced my face because I knew that was his way of letting me know it was game day.

After acknowledging him, PJ laid back down until 6:50 AM when he called for me again to provide his update on the time. But this time I had a big smile on my face because I knew he’d be startled by my alarm going off.

When he nervously jumped at the sound of my alarm, I asked if he was telling me the time because of the game.

“Yes, daddy. I couldn’t go back to sleep because I kept thinking about the game.”

“Well, Buddy, let’s make it happen!”

Together we walked into the living room where I turned on the T.V. just in time for the national anthems.

Setting the Stage for the Championship Game

Before PJ returned home to me, I had started doing some research on Messi’s soccer upbringing. During dinner, I used the time to share what I’d learned about Messi’s triumphs and travails from the night before.

During this second-grade experience, I’ve learned that my son is growing into a history buff. Having earned my B.A. in History from UCLA, it’s fascinating to watch how PJ’s interests have naturally developed and how my studies have been able to fuel his ever-evolving interest.

“Daddy, which war was worse, WWI or WWII?”

“Daddy, would you rather have been in the Revolutionary War, Civil War, WWI, or WWII, and why?”

“Papa, was D-Day more than a day?”

These are the types of questions that my son asks. So I knew he’d be intrigued by the account of how Messi’s physical health challenges as a child could’ve dashed his dreams of being a professional footballer. I shared how FC Barcelona’s belief in Messi’s skillset resulted in Messi’s family accepting Barcelona’s invitation for him to join their youth league partly on the condition that the team would also cover the cost of expensive hormone injections that Messi would need to spur his growth.

I coupled the storytelling with short video clips of child Messi on the pitch evading bigger boys left and right on the dribble before making a perfect shot on goal.

As an educator, whenever I discuss something abstract or conceptual, I’m mindful that I need to pair that concept with something equally concrete, hence the video images of a young Messi on the pitch at roughly the same age as PJ now.

With PJ engrossed in Messi’s story, I began explaining the concept of the World Cup in relationship to the club sport. Here I brought our globe to the dining room table and an Expo marker to draw on the globe. I had PJ find various countries that participated in the World Cup by hinting at the continent where the countries are located and had him outline their border.

From there, I explained how Messi has had a lot of success playing for the local Barcelona team compared to struggles playing for his national team, Argentina. How Messi’s Argentina team lost in the Finals against Germany in 2014. How Messi’s national team then lost to the eventual World Cup champions, France in 2018. How Messi, as someone at the end of his career, was in pursuit of his first World Cup for the final time after already declaring this would be his last World Cup game and how he was doing so against Mbappe who already won a World Cup and was seeking a second.

Little did I know how this moment at dinner would establish the foundation for what was an amazing experience together as we watched the game a couple of days later.

World Cup – Game Time

While PJ was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, I was disheveled-looking as I stumbled into the kitchen to begin boiling water for my much-needed cup of French-pressed coffee. Only after writing the previous sentence do I realize that I should have set aside all things associated with France that morning and just made a cup of disgusting instant Folgers coffee considering my unwavering loyalty to Messi.

After taking a few quick sips of coffee did I remember the gifts I bought for us in honor of our allegiance to Argentina. I opened the Amazon package that had been sitting on my desk and then rushed to grab some white T-shirts for our makeshift Arab keffiyeh that had become a common adornment of fans at the Qatar World Cup.

PJ laughed at the light blue headband I placed over the white t-shirt that laid on my head to resemble the Arab keffiyeh before shouting, “Daddy, what the heck!”

PJ’s keffiyeh was only worn for a selfie before he took it off in favor of just nuzzling his little head on my stomach to watch the game.

We intently watched the game in the lead-up to Messi’s first goal of the game on a penalty kick at the 22nd-minute mark. When a poised Messi slotted the ball in for a goal as the goalkeeper dove in the opposite direction, we jumped for joy and high-fived each other. Then at the 35th-minute mark, we shouted as Messi secured the pass, and instinctively passed it to a dashing Alvarez who then sent the ball to a seemingly isolated MacAllister who touch-passed it to the far side for a Di Maria goal!

We went berserk with the second Argentina score and then naively settled back into the game thinking it was only a matter of time until Argentina and Messi secured the victory.

That’s Why We Play The Game!

Once halftime started, I told PJ he could play his Nintendo Switch since the game was actually intruding on his gaming time, and because of the way the game was turning out it seemed unlikely that France would mount a comeback.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Mbappe’s penalty kick with 12 minutes left in the game was enough to reengage PJ. All game I had been telling PJ that if France scored, everything would change because France would gain momentum.

Nobody could anticipate that less than 2 minutes later Mbappe would score his second goal to equalize the game. Mbappe’s late-game heroics sent the game and the world into a frenzied whirlwind of emotions as the game moved into stoppage time with France and Argentina exchanging and defending against shot after shot that sent the game into extra time.

By this point, PJ was riveted by perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime game and performance by two of the world’s most high-profile soccer superstars. Having convinced PJ that we needed some good luck, I asked if he wanted to wear his Argentina-inspired keffiyeh to which he emphatically said, “yes!”

No sooner than the keffiyeh was created for PJ did Martinez attempt a shot on goal in the 105th minute that was wide and left us in a state of disbelief.

Before we could even process our grief at the missed tie-breaking shot, a calvary of three Argentina players launched into an attack that penetrated the defenses of five French defenders with a Martinez pass to Messi who whipped the ball to a galloping Fernandez to his left who then passed it back to a leading Martinez who missed his shot on goal before a perfectly positioned Messi scored the goal on a right-footed kick!

Just Call It A Comeback


As I looked over at PJ he was jumping in the air with his hands on his head shouting his little lungs out! I was convinced that his keffiyeh was the good luck charm Argentina needed to pull off the victory, albeit that belief was short-lived.

We embraced believing that the end was near and Messi would have his first World Cup championship.

In a heightened state of emotions, our expectations of an Argentina victory were suddenly shattered when an Argentina handball resulted in Mbappe’s third goal that secured his unbelievable hat-trick that also tied the game with only a few minutes left.

Now pacing back and forth and seemingly talking to PJ but more so talking into the ether, I kept pleading for Argentina to play smart and not make a mistake that would cost them the game.

“Just get into the penalty kick stage, just get there…”

As I uttered the words to calm my nerves, France broke Argentina’s defense with 20 seconds left in the game that pulled Argentina’s goalie towards the attacker at the precise moment the shot was taken and deflected to save the game.

By this time the vicissitude of emotions had beaten us up. I quickly explained to PJ the next phase of the game that would decide who would win and told him how absolutely crazy it was that he was watching a complete game.

During the final penalty kick stage, Mbappe set the tone with a decisive goal to give France a 1-0 advantage. Messi countered with a score to tie up everything. With France’s second attempt, Argentina’s goalie blocked it to save the goal which gave Argentina the advantage and sent PJ and me into a momentary crazed hysteria.

When I quickly glanced down at PJ who was now cuddled up on me, I noticed a change in his mannerism as his nervous energy matched mine. With Argentina’s second successful goal, Argentina’s goalie decided to play mind games with France’s third kicker which arguably caused the France kicker to miss wide.

By now, PJ was holding Daddy Blue Whale snug in his arms for comfort as Argentina scored their third penalty kick. France scored their next must-have penalty kick. And before Argentina’s fourth and possible game-winning kick, I noticed PJ’s hands clamped against his mouth, as his nerves were getting the best of him.

Wanting to leverage the moment, I began vocalizing what I would do if I was in the moment.

“I’d take deep breaths, power posed, and visualized making the game-winning goal.”

I shared those thoughts intentionally because I’ve used this approach to help PJ learn how he can calm his nerves before his own soccer matches and baseball games. Honestly, who knows if he even heard me but I know sharing my thoughts actually served to calm my nerves.

Within nanoseconds of Argentina’s fourth and final penalty kick did PJ raise his arms in silence perhaps as a welcome sign of relief than a celebration. When I excitedly asked how he was feeling after Argentina’s victory, PJ gestured with a quiet thumbs-up. Instinctively, I looked down at PJ and noticed tears in his eyes.

The Game of Life

As I pulled him onto my lap, I rubbed his back and allowed our emotions to summon words that spoke to the significance of the moment that seemed bigger than the game itself. What I shared reflected what little he knows of my life that I’ll surely share with him when he’s older.

“That is why you never ever give up. That’s why you keep fighting. Life is hard, PJ. Life will break you if you let it. Life will destroy the weak. Always fight. Always keep going. Always believe. Believe until there’s no more reason to believe. It’s never over until it’s over. Trust me, PJ, there will be times in your life when you won’t know the outcome of a game. The outcome of a situation. There will be moments when it will feel like the world is against you. When that moment arrives, you’ll only have one choice. That’s to fight. To keep going. To prove everyone wrong and to prove yourself right. That’s what Flores’ do, buddy. And you are just like your daddy. You are a proud Flores and we are overcomers. This game is just like life. Both teams never gave up. They believed in themselves. They prepared for such a moment. And when the time came they handled the pressure. They embraced the challenge and they can sleep assured that they are winners regardless of the outcome.”

To be transparent, I was channeling my lived experiences. I believed every word because I lived those words.

I can’t believe otherwise.

Being abandoned on a bus at three years old. Being raised in foster care. Losing friends to gang violence. Getting shot at 19. Going to jail. Graduating from UCLA twice. Getting married. Then divorced. Being unemployed for 9 months with a newborn at home. Losing my sense of identity and purpose due to unemployment. Making the toughest decision of my life by agreeing to every other weekend with my son because I exhausted my savings while unemployed and couldn’t secure proper living arrangements for myself let alone my son. Court battles for more time when it came clear that the status quo was desired despite my improved employment situation and overall lifestyle. Hearing my son’s pleas for me and how that fueled me to modify the custody arrangement. Settling for more time but being frustrated that it wasn’t enough for us. Watching my son being moved 50+ miles away from me. Enduring 80 miles round trip in L.A. traffic to pick up and return my son 3 times a week for 3 weeks out of the month during the pandemic just to be a constant presence in his life after his residence was suddenly changed. Experiencing my body breaking down from such a commute but never hearing my son complain about the drive because he just wanted to be with me. Realizing I needed to move to regain more time with my son. Uprooting myself from family and friends to be 14 miles from my son and gaining all of our time back. Then fighting for 50/50 time only to hear the judge tell me “it’s not enough to be a good father” as he denied my request in favor of maintaining the status quo since my son was thriving in the current arrangement.

All this fueled what I shared with PJ immediately after the game.

My message to PJ was rooted in my lived experiences. While he doesn’t know the truth behind my soothing words, I do. And, just as I’m proud of the Argentina team and Messi along with the France team and Mbappe for their resiliency in the face of seemingly insurmountable adversity, I’m proud of myself.

I look forward to sharing these details with my son when he’s a man so there’s even more substance behind his present-day belief that I am his hero.

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