The image above used to be my idea of football; pick up games on the local field, chaotic playground football and creative street football. What a joy it was to play on the hard concrete against people of all ages and sizes, where skill and great goals were celebrated, and the emphasis was always on freedom and enjoyment. Winning wasn’t important, no one ever remembered the result; but instead, a sublime piece of skill.
However, when I began playing organised football for local teams I realised I was completely wrong, how naive I was. It was plagued with unnecessary violence and unbearable pressure from demanding coaches and threatening parents. The hostile environment was exacerbated by the national win-at-all-costs philosophy. Every Sunday morning match was dreaded. I didn’t eat before it. I prayed it would get called off. I counted down the seconds until the final whistle. During the games I didn’t want the ball, I wanted my mum. This was not the game I had grown up to love.
As a result, despite football having been one of the my main reasons for living, my playing career was dominated by fear. Only 2 or 3 times did I enjoy a match and play to the best of my ability. Sometimes it was due to the fear of playing well and god punishing me for it or realising I wasn’t that good, but mainly it was down to the fear of fighting, from parents as well as players.
Below are two short stories about some of the worst times of my life; playing amateur junior football on local parks…
A tournament abroad
Not only was I thousands of miles from home, I had to play football against aggressive foreign boys with aggressive parents. In spite of that, the tournament had started well, I´d even managed to score a few goals. Normally, getting into a goal-scoring opportunity terrified me, but I even managed to score a header, despite being scared I’d suffer irreversible brain damage. There were also short moments when I forgot to panic and enjoyed myself, but everything was going too smoothly.
During the knock-out stages, I didn’t want to play anymore. I had finally had enough. I could get into a fight. My dad was my manager. Another manager could punch my dad and he could get hurt, I just wanted to go home.
As Murphy´s law would have it, that next game didn’t want to end. The 90 minutes crawled by. Then there was extra time. Then 30 more minutes of extra-time proper. And then extra time of the extra time. It was as though everyone but me wanted to play football forever.
Eventually, the penalty shoot-out was upon us. Finally, it had to end.
Our team formed a huddle.
“Okay who wants to take one?” Dad said.
Everyone looked at each other with the if-you-will-I-definitely-will look.
My first thought was, I hate this, I don’t want to play anymore. Take one and blaze it over the bar, then hopefully we get knocked out.
“I´ll take the first one, I don’t mind” I said.
To everyone else I was so brave, but it was one of the most selfish thoughts I’d ever had.
4 others soon put themselves forward and we had our 5 penalty takers.
The penalty takers formed their own huddle.
“Right, just place it low in the corner, keeper aint saving it.”, one said.
“Pick your spot before you go up.”, another said.
Everyone put their hands in.
“Come on boys!”
I said nothing.
The referee tossed his euro coin, we won. Our captain chose to kick first. That meant that I was first-first, out of everyone.
“Go on Bish lad!” a teammate shouted.
There were easily a hundred people watching: players, coaches, parents, referees, all eyes were on me.
As much as I wanted to miss, I couldn’t do it. Everyone else on the team were enjoying themselves, and not only did they want to win that penalty shoot-out, they wanted to win the whole tournament. I decided I would take a decent penalty and pray the goalkeeper saved it. My plan was to look to the right but kick the ball into the left corner, and give the keeper the eyes.
I picked up the ball and placed it on the penalty spot. I can´t remember anything about the goalkeeper, about what he looked like nor how tall he was. I stuck to the plan, I looked to the right of the net then kicked the ball to the left, at least that´s what I´d intended. Instead the ball travelled almost straight down the middle; the goalkeeper only had to shift slightly to his right to reach the ball. He guessed correctly and leapt towards the ball, easy save, thank God.
Now I remember the keeper, he was shit.
His gloves touched the ball but he palmed it into the roof of the net.
You dickhead. Why didn’t I just fucking sky it over the crossbar? Why did I have to look the other way as well? I didn’t need to do any tricks.
Needless to say, we won. I had to play yet another game, potentially even more.
Thankfully, the next game was against a strong Uruguayan team; it was a horrible match (god wouldn’t make it that easy) but the tournament was over. My teammates were gutted; I was delighted. I couldn’t wait to get back to the pool and have fun, with no more matches to dread.
Of course, we had to go and support the older age groups, where boys were no longer boys but fully grown men with too much testosterone. Those matches were a whole
A Cup Match in Leeds
I was so happy to have finally joined a new team with all my new mates. However, that elation lasted all of 2 training sessions. I was soon, unfortunately officially signed up and it was time for my first game… against our arch rivals. Everyone had been talking about it in training, there was no love lost between us. To make matters worse, it was the knock-out stages of a cup competition. And it was away from home. And it was in a rough part of Leeds. And the sky was blackening. And I had an irrational fear of thunderstorms.
As soon as we arrived it was clear the rivalry was real. Gangs of scary hooded people on BMXs ran the length of the pitch. The home team stared as I walked with my tail between my legs to the pitch, whose name alone, “the wreck”, made it difficult to breathe.
Why couldn’t I be one of those lucky kids who went swimming or visited their grandparents on Sunday mornings? Even something boring, anything but this!
I was ready to give up football there and then. I had threatened thousands of times before but this I meant it. I didn’t care as long as it meant I was spared.
As the game kicked-off, my legs turned to jelly. I prayed I wouldn’t receive the ball, I tried to hide in midfield and watched as the ball flew back and forth over my head. My tactics were; if the ball came to me, get rid of it as quickly as possible.
Initially, the plan worked well; however, midway through the first-half some idiot on my team decided it was a good idea to score; that pissed them all off.
The home team 0-1 some cheeky cunts.
I didn’t celebrate, I thought if i was respectful they´d spare me after the game when they tried to beat us up. For the next 20 minutes I almost lost possession on purpose, as an apology for us scoring.
The first half slowly turned into the second. The clouds continued to dye themselves darker. The goal started to give me mixed emotions; winning after 90 minutes meant no extra-time and getting out of here quicker, but did it have to be us that won!?
The pressure from the home team mounted. Their striker had a great shot well saved by our keeper.
Then came their penalty appeals.
“Fuck me ref! How was that not a pen?!”
Then another. “What fucking game are you wotchin? Are you fuckin joking?! Blind cunt!”
This time, my team-mate replied, “Never a pen, what game are you wotchin!?”
“Fuck off ya cunt! Woch after this match dick-ed! I´ll kick fuck outta all of ya!”
From that moment on, I imagined the battering I would receive. The mob of home supporters continued to incessantly eff and blind at the referee; I was certain they´d take it out us.
Almost simultaneously, the first drops of rain began to fall, the sky was eclipse-grey. I saw no point in asking the referee for the third time how long was left. I knew; we were seconds away from the mother of all thunderstorms and our deaths.
Another penalty incident, this time a “stone-waller”.
Not given. I think the referee secretly wanted extra time even less than I did.
Then, they won what seemed like their 30th corner kick in 5 minutes.
Please! Not now!
Our defender headed it behind; another corner.
This time, the cross was better. The tall boy I was marking shoved me. He ran towards the back post. I didn’t chase him, I just froze and hoped he wouldn’t get the ball. He did. He had a completely free header. 2 yards out.
Goal. And it was all my fault.
He headered the ball towards goal. It hit the cross-bar and flicked over, goal-kick.
Moments later, the final whistle sounded. 0-1. We shook hands. The thunderstorm must have missed us. The beat-down never came. The manager made a clichéd team talk he´d probably heard on Match of the Day, “we didn’t play great but we´ll look back on this at the end of the season as the turning point”; in truth, I never wanted to think about that game ever again.
Quarter-finals here we come….
I thought football was played with your feet; not your fists. If this is football; I´m allergic. I have football fever.