The Airbreakers. Sounds like a club for the flatulent-prone. In fact it is the name of the ultimate frisbee team from Rotterdam. Months before I actually stepped foot in the Netherlands I had checked out the ultimate scene to make sure that I was going to be living in a civilized country. What I found was the Nederlands Frisbee Bond (or Netherlands Frisbee Association).
This year ultimate was organized a little differently. Five divisions were made, each with five teams in them. Over the course of six “competition days” you play everyone in your division a few times. At the end of the period (which I think is about 6 months) the divisions are ranked and the top team in the division gets promoted to the next division up, and the bottom team gets demoted to the next level down. This is similar to how soccer clubs are organized and is designed to make sure that teams are playing teams that are around their level.
The Airbreakers are in Division 4. The team is about 50% beginners, and 50% crotchety old men who are keepers of the oral histories about the glory days of the Airbreakers when they were one of the Netherlands top teams. I emailed them before I moved, and they invited me to join them for their fifth “competition day”. So, I showed up at the Rotterdam Centraal station, having no idea who I was looking for, wondering what I would find, and there sitting on the corner, smoking a cigarette and looking none too happy about being awake at 9:00am on Sunday, was undoubtedly an ultimate player. I introduced myself and got right to work trying to get an understanding of what kind of club they were.
“So, do you guys have practices?”
“Well, we all work. It’s hard to get everyone together.”
“Do you guys have a standard offense you like to run?”
“Uh, not with as many new players as we have.”
“Do you play any zone defense?”
“Well, sometimes our opponents play zone against US…”
But for all of their lack of experience or organization, the Airbreakers loved to play ultimate. They wear black shirts, and they don’t bring a light-colored shirt as a backup. They wear black. Period. They are passionate about ultimate. So passionate in fact that at both of the tournaments I went to with them there was a confrontation that resulted in ending the day with fewer players than we started with.
The first time, one guy started yelling at another guy (I wasn’t aware of their names or relationship) and then before I knew it, the yelling guy walked off the field, got in his car, and drove home. Then, in the next game, the exact same thing happened. They just got upset, and went home. Interesting.
At the second tournament we had two guys who just didn’t want to get up and play for our first game the second day. At this tournament we had a total of eleven players. Two of those were not in the best physical shape and so they generally traded being on and off. Seven people have to be on the field. Then, one of our players got injured. So, if you’re keeping track at home, that means that we had one sub. The entire game. The two guys eventually got up, failed to apologize, asked if anyone wanted to play a pickup game of basketball during our second-round bye, and were then promptly asked to leave and not come back. We played out last game with only seven functioning players. Savage seven, in ultimate terminology.
Now, I love to play ultimate. And I love to play it with people that I can have a good time with. As fun and entertaining as the Airbreakers are, they are just not that committed to playing ultimate. It’s a hobby for them. It’s soemthing they get together and do every now and then when the competition days are scheduled. And I was looking for more than that.
So, after the second tournament, I started looking around. The problem is that there is jut not a lot of choice. There are only about 25 teams total in the country, and many of those are located in one place (for instance Amsterdam has 5 teams). But one of the opponents we played, UFO (pronounce ‘ooh-foh’ in Dutch) from Utrecht, seemed like a good candidate. They were only about an hour away by train and they had enough players to field 3 full teams at the tournament, so that seemed like a good sign. I asked them if they would let me come to a few practices, and that’s when they made their first mistake.
A month later I had been to six practices, three of those in the freezing rain, and they had agreed to let me play on their Division 1 team for the final competition day. Needless to say, I was psyched.
Then I told the Airbreakers. Three days later I got the news.
According to the rules of the NFB, if you play as a guest player on a team, then you cannot play for any other team during that competition period. Even if that team is three divisions higher. Even if you are a stupid American and did not know this, and your team never told you that you were marrying them by stepping on the field. Even if you spent hours getting to and from practice in fucking Utrecht so you could play on a team at your level.
Actually, the rule is for a good reason. The goal is to have teams that are consistent, and consistently play other teams at their level. The purpose of not allowing players to move around is to keep that consistency. Makes sense. Wish I had known that from the beginning though, I might have been less excited about risking pneumonia and sitting in my soaking ultimate clothes on the train for an hour on the way home.
This weekend is the final competition day for this period though, and my choices are to play with the Airbreakers, or not play at all. The Airbreakers are good guys, and they were very generous to me as a newcomer to Netherlands frisbee. I hope we will have a good time and possibly do well enough to get the team into the next level. They are tied for third place in the pool right now, so I don’t know if it’s realistic, but we’ll soon see.
I’ll write back when it’s over.
Until then sportsfans, the moral of the story is: ask for full discolsure from your new frisbee team before you lace up your cleats.