Beautiful Game

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IT WAS ALL David Platt’s fault. The outrageous extra-time goal that put Belgium out of the 1990 World Cup was the orgasmic moment that made me want to play football again – and not just play it but follow it, fantasize about being good at it.

Alas, I was never much good at it: a functional and uncertain player who often found himself – a 30-year-old with a serviceable right foot, no more – stuck resentfully at left-back because no other bugger wished to play there. (Karl Ove Knausgaard writes in The End of being put at left back, where he would cause “least damage”.) And this in a game that I had started in the early summer of 1991.

Football had never been a consuming obsession of mine. I’d followed rugby through the ’70s and ’80s. It’s true I stayed up late to suffer Maradona’s goals against England in 1986. (After the imperious slalom of the second, I actually muttered the words “Well, you just can’t argue with that,” as though I were commentating on the game.) But it wasn’t till the altogether lesser talents of “Platty” put England through to the quarter finals that the fever got me.

Nominally, ever since a housemaster let the boarders stay up to watch the replay of the 1970 F.A. Cup Final at Old Trafford, I was a supporter of Chelsea. I was a Londoner, and London had beaten Leeds to win the Cup. In the morning I felt strangely triumphant. Osgood’s diving header from Charlie Cooke’s cross lodged itself in my brain and replayed there all day. (Osgood played at the first Chelsea game I ever saw, when I sat behind the goal as the 13-year-old guest of photographer Roger Charity. Years later I nearly got to interview Ozzie for the only football piece I ever wrote, but torrential rain prevented him from getting down to Ron Harris’ place in Wiltshire.)

My interest in football waned and drifted as rugby took hold at my South London prep school. Slight and puny though I was – and cripplingly self-conscious about it – I was a usefully nifty outside-centre when the occasion demanded. The first time I saw my name on the 1st XV team sheet I thought there’d been a cruel mistake.

I did not see England’s 1990 exit at West Germany’s hands – not as it occurred, anyway. Instead I watched a stiff and shaky Frank Sinatra going through his saloon-song motions at the unlovely London Arena, where many of us (in those pre-smartphone days) sat wondering uneasily what was unfolding in Turin. But the trauma of the penalty misses and the nation’s disappointment put no dampener on my new enthusiasm for the beautiful game. Match of the Day soon became de rigueur, with Channel 4’s new Football Italia a close second. Come the European Championships of 1992, I’d boned up on Serie A and the continent’s other top leagues and knew which Brazilians played for Parma and Sampdoria. I even saw the latter at Wembley, losing the 1992 European Cup Final to the Koeman free kick that won it for Barcelona in extra time.

I was fascinated, infatuated – addicted, as so many men are. (For 30 years I’ve trotted out the line that “football was only invented so men have something to talk to each other about”.) When I found myself, late one Wednesday night, watching highlights of a third-round Coca-Cup replay between Grimsby and Peterborough, I knew I’d crossed the fine line between passion and insanity.

I still watch the game religiously (or just addictively). It’s still my go-to televisual comfort food: the Sky Sports double-bill on a Sunday afternoon, the Champions League clash on a Tuesday or Wednesday evening. If I’m lucky I get to watch with my wife, who loves football almost as much as I do. (Her gateway player was the gorgeous George Best, whose poster she stuck to her bedroom wall as a teenager.) I’m seldom more relaxed than when watching two teams – other than my own – trying to outwit and out-muscle each other in a vast stadium in a faraway foreign city. I live for football’s moments of art and daring, instinctive vision, sudden surging breaks, one-on-ones and give-and-gos. In those 90-plus minutes, the obscene wages and agents’ commissions and pervasive corruption don’t bother me as they should: these men seem heroic to me, playing through fear, intimidation, self-doubt writ large.

The greatest players – Messi, Zidane, Ronaldinho and co. – have given me pleasures, breathless ecstasies, that few other human phenomena afford. “A pretty pass, for heaven’s sake,” wrote the great Uruguayan writer Galeano, who understood that football is art, a choreography of mathematical judgements. (Clearly I’m not speaking of Vinnie Jones or “Razor” Ruddock. But even a hitman such as Sergio Ramos is an athlete of sublime grace and gliding beauty.) How I longed to play with such style and panache; how I wished the Mitre ball I’d bought would glue itself to my boots as it did to Gianfranco Zola’s.

To this day, when people ask what I’d really like to have been, I do not say a rock star or a bestselling novelist or a paradigm-shifting philosopher. I say: “I’d like to have been a great footballer. A playmaker. A No. 10.” I know other men who’d say the same: men of wealth or eminence or erudition who suddenly come alive when asked how their team played at the weekend – who’d rather talk about Kevin De Bruyne than about even their bonuses. They too imagine themselves as playmakers, flying wingers, “cultured” centre-backs.

Sometimes, in the midst of a game, I wonder how something so crudely simple – a spherical polyhedron, two nets with posts and a crossbar, a few white lines on grass, and 46 legs (including the referee’s) – can inspire such devotion, and such heartache. Why is it so addictive to so many? The singer Bjork, whose tiny nation inflicted a great humiliation on my own in the 2016 European Championships, thought that for men the game mimicked the struggle to reproduce – that the ball was like a sperm determined to find its way to the back of the female “net”, hence the orgasmic sounds emitted when the ball crossed the goal line. Certainly there’s something cathartic about goals, an explosion of the tension in the buildup to them. But often the real art is in the foreplay, explaining the greater respect accorded the playmaker than the goal-poacher: anyone can be in the right place to stick a leg out, goes the reasoning; not everyone can split a defence in two with a disguised through-ball.

All of this is why, at the age of 30, I got hooked on football and why, at the age of 31, I started a Saturday morning game on Clapham Common with a motley throng of friends (and friends of friends, and occasional strangers). Some of these friends were, inevitably, rather good at football, where I was barely proficient. While I did all I could to improve, I realized that some attributes – strength, balance, vision, co-ordination – could never be learned or earned. When I watch flickering home video of little Lionel Messi, weaving like Maradona round the helpless limbs of bigger boys, I clearly see that he was born with this “talent” – that all he had to do was hone it.

One of the friends of friends who showed up for that Saturday game – in a vintage ’80s Real Madrid shirt – was a stocky left-footer who reminded me of Maradona. He was Jewish, multi-lingual, mordantly funny, a self-effacing comedy critic. Another was a thin Liverpudlian poet with a long chin and goatee beard who quoted Rilke but supported Everton. His friends, in turn, included a brutish-looking midfield stopper from Crawley who later moved to Chiswick and became a psychotherapist. Not everyone got along famously: when my pal Oscar scythed down a slim reviewer for The Wire magazine – to be upbraided instantly by every player within ten yards of the tackle – he snarled at one and all the unforgettable words, “Didn’t your mummies ever tell you football was a man’s game?!”

I only ever played in two properly competitive games. In the second of these, colliding with my own keeper in a mistimed effort to cut out a cross, I fractured my jaw and wound up in Guy’s Hospital for three nights. In a later game, back in Clapham, my 36-year-old legs failed to keep up with a lanky young Somalian and I hyperextended my right knee, tearing my ACL in the process.

Not long after the first of two knee ops, I said goodbye to the Clapham game and moved with my young family to Woodstock, New York, where my six-year-old son Jake soon became the star of the Under-8’s soccer side – and where his father, largely on the strength of his English accent, was pressed into service as the team’s coach. Like many a touchline dad I believed my son was a special player – which he was, at least relative to the general ineptitude of the local hippie offspring. As I watched him chinking his way through clusters of mesmerized children with names like Zak and Zephyr, he might have been Manchester City’s Messi-esque maestro Kinkladze (with bright blond hair). Thus commenced three years of exasperated training and rising at dawn to drive my boy to tournaments in depressed Catskills towns such as Cairo (“Kay-Ro”), Delhi (“Dell-High”) and Chichester (“Chai-Chester”).

I continued to play myself, my broken knee in an ugly and constricting brace, until the mysteriously debilitating Guillain-Barré syndrome turned my calf muscles to sticks. (Thankfully it proved temporary.) I also watched what “soccer” was available on ESPN and Fox Sports: frequently my sons and I would wake early on Sunday to catch the lunchtime Premier League fixture. Three thousand miles from the feverish action, I remained obsessed with the fortunes of Chelsea, driving down to Manhattan to watch them – in an Upper East Side bar – win their first silverware in an eternity in the 1997 FA Cup Final win over Middlesbrough.

Returning to London in the summer of 1999, I became a season-ticket holder at Stamford Bridge and was duly treated to a decade of trophies that made Chelsea the most loathed team in town, if not the land. I shared the general distaste for my fellow supporters, many of whom seemed to be racist plumbers from Weybridge. But I loved the way we played in 1999-2000, when our cheeky-chappie skipper Dennis Wise gave us the best football of his career and we were spoiled by the joyous skills of Zola, Flo, Vialli and Desailly. I watched us beat mighty Barcelona at the Bridge – marvelling at the mere presence of Figo, Rivaldo and co. in a stadium which had once had to make do with Gareth Hall and Frank Sinclair – and then flew to Catalonia to see us being torn apart 5-1 in the return leg.

Spain’s La Liga became, if anything, even more of an obsession than the Premiership. Here, surely, was the best football the world had ever witnessed, even if it was dominated by two teams. Perversely I went for Real Madrid as my Spanish team of choice, seduced by the galactico glamour of los blancos without fully understanding the club’s odious political history. With my two older sons and with Brendan, another literary Evertonian who’d become a Saturday fixture on Clapham Common, I went to Madrid in 2001 to see my all-time favourite player Zidane at the Bernabeu – along with the treacherously-transferred Figo, and with Raul, Hierro, Guti and the marvellous Roberto Carlos, though not that night with Makelele, the slight but superbly spry midfielder who’d soon come to Chelsea. Walking into the vast stadium was one of the dizzying thrills of my life.

I remain good friends with Brendan, and with the Jewish Maradona, and with the empathetic bulldog from Crawley. At least twice a year we convene for chat and banter, though these days it’s more likely to be about books, music, film, politics or just random cultural minutiae – free-flowing and overlapping repartee born of deep affection and solid mutual respect. They’re not pals I otherwise see much of during the year, though it’s always a pleasure when I do. It’s as if we need to be together for the dynamics to work.

Very occasionally we reminisce about those long-gone Saturdays on the common: about who actually heard my cruciate snap that day; about Oscar’s hacking-down of the Wire scribe; about the Sunday League team – “Clapham St. Germain” – they formed after my career-ending injury.

None of us plays anymore. For some years I trotted out to the park with my sons and stepsons to play three-a-side in what were often treacherously muddy conditions. The pathos of my old slow body, and the laughs it produced from my lads, became increasingly humiliating. Two Christmases ago, aged 57, I again went out to the park with them and – within minutes of stumbling around with these very fit young men – pulled my left hamstring. It pretty much spelled the end of my “playing days”.

As I limped home, I knew it was over. But there was still Match of the Day to look forward to.

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