Bubble Trouble

by Tamatha Roman
Metropolis Magazine

Want to beat up your friends without the risk of liability? Try bubble soccer, an innovative and addictive sports off-shoot, where the goal is to win … even if that means angrily bouncing your friends out of your war path.

Bubble soccer, which is soccer played in a protective sphere, is a relatively new phenomenon. Literally created as a joke in 2011 by Norwegian friends Henrik Elvestad and Johan Golden, the sport really exploded after a viral YouTube video. Nowadays, it’s played globally and is especially popular in the U.S., Europe, and parts of Asia, with dedicated leagues and championships to boot.

While the sport originally had some clinches—equipment was scarce and there were no rules governing what made a good bubble—it now has a well-established National Association of Bubble Soccer. I first played in May 2014, when it was a fledgling sport in Japan. Though I had an absolutely amazing time, the activity wasn’t well-coordinated and the bubbles tended to fall apart. I had neck pain for a week after thanks to the faulty straps inside my bubble.

Two years later, what is now the Japan Bubble Football Federation has its act together. Just sign up online as an individual, a small group of friends, or a complete team (¥3,000 per person), and show up to one of their three designated spaces.

I decided to give it another go, if only for the chance to push my boyfriend over.

In organized Japanese fashion, the three-hour session was divided into four sections: introduction, what I call “get to know your bubble” practice, the actual games, and an award ceremony. First were the rules, all in Japanese but easy to interpret. Just like regular soccer, your goal is to get the ball into the opposite net.

You’re in a bubble, so full contact is allowed, though a certain amount of cheating must be avoided. No storing the ball within your bubble or climbing on top of it to shield it from others. No intentionally attacking opponents who do not have the ball (boo!). The list goes on. As there are more team members than what is allowed on the court—5 to 6 players—competitors have to substitute each other when they feel it’s necessary … or at least when they get too disgustingly sweaty.

We were then assigned teams. My group of three plus several random strangers—who looked like they belonged in a real soccer game—completed “Team Pink.” Next was “get to know your bubble.” This consisted of learning how to wear the bubble, as well as two competitive games against the other teams. The ball itself is heavy at around 15 kilograms, and visibility inside the bubble is low. (It’s hard enough to know where you are, let alone magically kick a ball.) The first game was “bubble sumo,” where the aim is to try to be the last person standing after pushing the others out of the ring. The other game challenged players to balance in their ball so that their feet were pointing skyward. Whoever was first to balance for five seconds was the winner. Team Pink dominated every round, a sign of things to come.

Then it was game time. Each game comprises two 10-minute halves and begins with the ball placed in the middle of the court. When the whistle blows, both teams run full speed toward the center, often epically bouncing off one another. Now, I’m a soccer spectator, not a player—my feet betray me on a daily basis. Therefore, I was more than confident that playing bubble soccer would result in my being upside down and pouting. Surprisingly, this wasn’t the case. Call it American aggression or chihuahua tenacity—I’m 152 centimeters in height—I emerged as an actual asset to the team. Capitalizing on the other players’ initial fears, I tackled opponent after opponent, toppling over innocent and scared-looking Japanese individuals. I even managed to score two goals during our time on the court, simply because I knocked someone out of my way. When it was time to swap bubble time with another team member, I emerged, panting from exertion and smiling like a lunatic. People on the sidelines avoided eye contact with me.

In the end, Team Pink reigned supreme after crushing the competition in all four games. No neck pain this time, but definitely a renewed faith in my own ability to succeed in team sports. And I earned some street cred to boot.
For booking and schedule information, visit www.bubble-football.jp.

Metropolisjapan.com

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