segunda-feira, 21 de dezembro de 2015

FutSábado: «Come rain, shine, birth, divorce, even death, we show up and play»

«We cremated James yesterday. 
For the last few decades he’s organised our regular Wednesday night and Sunday morning football games. Amateur football is a strange brotherhood – whether, as in our case, it’s midweek indoor five-a-side or outdoor Sunday nine-a-side. Artificial surfaces, artificial dreams. Grown men (and now women) still imagining they’re playing for their childhood teams.  
I’ve rarely seen the men alongside me at the Crematorium in non-football clothes before, never mind funeral black. We normally wear a mixed bag of old club shirts (Derby County, Arsenal, Spurs, Chelsea, Charlton) and thinning, well-washed T-shirts that are unfaithful to their original colours.

I don’t know many of the men's surnames. Instead, they’re known by a series of poor tags that aren’t even nicknames - Sunderland Graham, Beardy Dave, Tall Ben, Little Ben. I’ve only been to two of their houses and I don’t know what half of them do for a living or what their wives are called. I know some of their children - but only because we’ve been playing long enough for nippers who occasionally watched from the sidelines ten years ago to turn into young men who play regularly and bring some youth and ability to an ageing game. 
The thing that binds everyone who plays five-a-side is the same thing that made us, as kids in the 60s, 70s, 80s, kick a ball in the playground at school, in the streets as it got dark, and in the park at weekends. It's the overwhelming desire to stay true to that feeling you get when you score or tackle or pass and it gets a round of applause and you feel, just for a moment, like Allan Clarke or Thierry Henry or whoever your childhood hero was. It’s not televised so there’s only word of mouth proof, but even crap amateur players can score world class goals.

Five-a-side (and it’s called that even if there are seven, eight, or nine men per team) runs as an unusual parallel to the rest of our lives. Come rain, shine, birth, divorce, even death, we show up and play. 
When news came that James had died, I tried to explain our bond to my girlfriend, who met him maybe twice in a decade, a passer-by on the street.  He wasn’t a close friend but he was a good friend.
None of my words did our friendship justice. How do you approximate the familiarity that comes with seeing someone twice a week at football for 17 years?
These regular fixtures have lasted much longer than all my jobs and almost twice as long as my longest relationships. Despite occasional on-pitch flare ups, they’ve remained more good natured, more consistent and less painful than following the teams we support. 

They offer windows into the personalities of the people you share the playing field with. The angry player who’s calm off the pitch; the lazy selfish player who won't go in goal; the person that runs round and round in circles not hearing the pleas for passes from others around him; the grown man who will kick a 14-year old; the player who thinks he’s still as good as he was 10 years before; the generous, hard working, selfless player; and the player who’s a long way from a natural but turns up and does their best.

Importantly, James was the man who booked the pitches, collected the money and, in his own statistically fascinated way, took charge of a long running series of annual tables, awarding individual players points for victories or losses. This tended to create more competitive tension than is necessary in a friendly game – but it felt fantastic the year I came top.

It was only in James’s passing that I realised what a strange, open ended family exists on these small astroturf and wood panelled pitches. It’s the same the country over. 
The Sunday after he died, we gathered around the centre circle and stood for what seemed like five minutes silence.  No-one arranged it. Just amateur footballers honouring one of our own.»

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