As noted at length elsewhere, it’s been a bumper few weeks for followers of football. The European Championships have been hugely entertaining, it’s been fabulous to see fans back in stadiums, and – for those who’ve been paying attention – the Copa America has also been humming along nicely in the wee small hours.
As we build towards this evening’s game and then the respective finals on Sunday, this seems as good a time as any to ask: what are your favourite things about football? Could be a great goal, a player you hold dear, a favourite stadium, a match you personally played in, a song, a shirt, a tradition, a particular brand of half time pie – whatever you like.
You may lament the crass commercialization of the game, VAR may have sucked the joy out of it for you, or you might believe that the serpent simulation has despoiled the sport’s garden of eden to the point where it has become unwatchable – simply unwatchable – for you.
Nonetheless, for the vast majority of us, there will be something, somewhere, that football has contributed that, at one time, sparked joy in us. Here’s the place to share that joy. It could be Cantona’s Kung Fu kick, Roberto Carlos’ magic bullet, Tardelli doing his nut, Van Basten’s impossible volley, Keegan and Bremner throwing punches, a game you once saw in a park, or the memory of standing on the terraces next to your Dad. Whatever it is, I want to hear about it.
I’ll start you off with 9 of my own. There are a thousand others, but these are the first ones that jump to mind. Why not 10? Because I hope, as ever, that the tenth will be written this weekend.
1. Playground Football
I fell in love with football on a school playground. I suspect many of us did likewise.
I can’t remember when it happened, or how – maybe I stuck a leg out, deflected in a fluky goal and got that first tingle – but I remember how it felt. Out there with my mates, playing games that seemed epic in scope but which were, in reality, boundaried by the lunch bell.
I remember the kid who was the best goalkeeper in the school, because he had a thick duffle coat and could therefore dive on concrete.
I remember the week where my year played a seemingly endless game against the year above, extending through multiple break times and with scores into treble figures. The sheer drama of that epic contest, as the result swung back and forth. The rush to leave the classroom and get back to it.
I remember the debate over who was the best player in the year above, and I remember their individual styles: Matt, quick and tricky and always running with the ball; Shaun with his quiet efficiency, his movement and the way he kept his touches to a minimum. I remember Shaun’s signature; he never celebrated goals, just turned and impassively walked back into position, poker face in place. I remember wondering how he did that: how he kept a wrap on the firework display that must have been going off in his soul as the ball went in, how he didn’t yelp for joy like the rest of us.
It was my first football, the football that claimed me, and the football that’s now hardest to replicate: the football where you’re free, where the result doesn’t matter and everything you do is in service of the beauty of the game: can I thread that ridiculous pass, what happens if I nutmeg him and then nutmeg him again, can they stop me getting down on my knees and rolling it across the line with my head, what happens if I use the puddles to do a really long slide tackle, etc, etc.
Every now and then I’ll be playing football and it will devolve back to something approaching this nirvana. It’s very rare, and it’s often provoked by heavy rain, which seems to bring out the child in people. Whenever it happens I take a moment to look up to the heavens and thank my lucky stars that something so profoundly beautiful exists in life, and that it can be so readily shared with others.
Whenever I feel a bit jaded by modern football, by the money and the cynicism and the need to grind out a result, I try to remind myself that underneath it all there is and will always be playground football, and that somewhere in each of these players is a kid who just wants to run with the ball forever and see what happens, and that – just maybe – if it rains heavily enough, those kids might yet come out to play.
2. Diego Maradona Celebrations
I’ve written at length on this site about my love for Diego and what he has meant to me down the years. What I’ve not yet eulogised is the absolute mania he seemed to whip up in celebration of his many on-field achievements.
Here’s the translated commentary of Victor Hugo Morales on Maradona’s second goal against England.
This, for me, is the absolute essence of football: “Gooooooal!…. Sorry, I want to cry!….. Dear god, long live football!… Maradona, it’s enough to make you cry, forgive me!”
Football is a game of emotion. It’s 22 (wo)men kicking a pig’s bladder round a patch of grass, they say: yes, yes – all true, but we decide to care about it, we elect to put our hearts and souls in it and it allows millions of people who might otherwise live lives almost bereft of expressed emotion to shout and cry and hug and dance. That’s what’s amazing about it – it’s absolute nonsense, imbued by our collective will with all the properties of magic. That’s why this commentary is so elemental, and why football without the fans will always be a hollow mockery of the real thing. Don’t’ apologise: cry your heart out, it’s what it’s all about.
Here’s another one: Maradona in the Napoli dressing room after they won the Scudetto, singing his own song with the rest of the squad.
Anything – and I mean anything – that induces people to get together and sing and dance in their pants like this has to be a good thing. It’s worth all the downsides; all the dull transfer speculation, the negative football, the terrible “bantz”, the broadcasting career of Danny Murphy.
For as long as people need to weep and laugh and curse the gods, there will be football. And that will be forever.
Sometimes when you’re defending there’s this moment. It happens when your marker receives the ball, and you let him bring it down. He’s got his back to you; he’s shielding it. Maybe he’s got his hand on your shoulder, keeping track of where you are, checking for signs of aggression.
For a second or two, you do nothing. You let him kill the ball, start to get his bearings. Through that extended arm on the shoulder you feel his body tense and then relax as he satisfies himself he has the ball under control and that you’re not about to come through the back of him.
In that moment of relaxation, he gets his head up and starts to look around; is there a pass on, do I need to turn, what are my options. You’ve still not made your move, you’re just jockeying, jockeying, waiting for him to make up his mind.
And then it happens: as he finishes his calculations and makes his decisions, he’s distracted for a moment, or maybe he’s shifting position to open himself up for his next move. For whatever reason, the angle of his body changes slightly, and with that change he shows you just a bit of the ball, like he’s already mentally moved on a step or two and forgotten you’re there.
In that second, you pounce: your movement whips his hand off your shoulder, jolting him awake, you extend a leg and nick the ball away. As you do so, you catch a glimpse of his face: like a man who’s just been rudely awakened from a pleasant daydream. He’s off balance now, and you’re able to step forward and move away with the ball, and it’s all happened so smoothly and without effort or violence and it feels absolutely bloody fantastic. Like the pair of you have executed a ballet that only one of you choreographed.
I love those moments. The older I get, the few of them I have left ahead of me, and the more I treasure them as they arrive.
4. The Madness of the Game
There are moments in football, many of them, where you forget that thousands upon thousands of games are played and televised every year, and that inevitably the odds begin to lends themselves to the occurrence of unusual events. Moments where you convince yourself that the football gods are real; that a script this insane, this perfect in form and conception could not possibly have emerged organically, and that there must be some centralised presence pulling all the strings.
Zidane’s headbutt, Law relegating Utd, Darren Bent scoring off a beach ball.
Consider the sheer nonsense that is the Miracle of Istanbul. Look at the Milan starting XI – it’s a who’s who of European greats. Liverpool had Steve Finnan and Traore as their full backs. And a three goal deficit. How is it possible? What voodoo allows any of it to exist?
Goalkeepers scoring corners, Greece winning Euro 2004, Cameroon in 1990. Uruguay horrifying the Brazilians in 1950. The German gumping the Brazilians in 2014. Who writes these storylines?
Anfield 1989. A team winning the league title on the last day of the season, in the last minute of that game, away from home, against their title rivals, not even on goal difference but on goals scored. Steve Nicol – one minute left. Not so fast.
The mind knows that if you play enough football these mad events are sure to occur. But the heart does not get that memo, and in football the heart has, or should have, the greater agency. The sport has molten romance in its very soul. Every now and then, it bubbles to the surface and erupts. You can install as many corporate boxes as you like; that animus is still there, waiting, lurking, ready to bite you and your billion pound sportswashing operation right on the backside. I bloody love it, and I will never understand those who leave early.
5. Arsene Wenger
I’m biased, of course, and I could easily have written a top 10 here re: Arsenal alone, but I have to spare a word for our dear Arsene.
I love him because he understood that football is about beauty: about entertaining the crowd and attempting to move the soul. I love him because of his inherent decency, his manners and his grace (albeit he was an appalling loser at times). I love him because he prioritised attack over defence, even when the latter was so clearly what was needed. I love him because he upset all the right people, all the ones without an ounce of magic or madness in their hearts, and because he made my team play football from another dimension.
Most of all, I love him because he is a romantic in a game that has sometimes become too cynical for its own good. And he never lost that romanticism; not through match fixing, not through appalling abuse from the terrace and the tabs alike, not when he won and never when he lost.
Sometimes when the game exasperates me, I like to imagine the true football that sits within. I know there are others who can perceive it too, and I know that Arsene Wenger is one of them.
A couple of years ago, a friend questioned why I enjoy playing football so much. Was it not, she asked, a game of thuggery – a bunch of blokes charging around the pitch booting one another? What was I, possessed as I am with the soul of a poet (clearly), doing in the middle of all that?
Well, I answered….
Football is thuggery. It can be violent and aggressive and sometimes it involves getting booted up in the air, or doing likewise to some other hapless sod. But, to be honest, those times are few and far between.
Generally, football is a game of finesse. It’s the feeling when you play a through ball to a team mate with the perfect weight on it, that sits up begging for a shot on goal, or which has the information on it to prompt their next pass. Or when you’re on the ball, looking for your next move, and time sort of slows down and enables you to spot a gap in the defence that will be opening in a millisecond or two if everyone keeps moving on their current trajectory; and then not only do you spot it, but you thread it.
Or when you play with a new team mate for the first time and find yourself so entirely on the same wavelength that it’s like you’ve known them all your life; they have the type of movement you like, they play the type of pass you want to receive, and it all just flows like great music.
When my playing days are over, that’s what I’ll miss the most – that feeling when you figure out in your head what you want to do as the ball arrives, and then proceed to execute it just so. That “if I can bring it down in one touch I’ll have a runner on my left” moment. I’m not by any means saying it always works out that way (or even half the time), just that when it does come off, it’s so so sweet, and it stays with you.
I also thought back to my childhood holidays, when my brothers and I would arrive somewhere with our parents and immediately head off with a football to find some local kids to play against. Sometimes that means kids from other parts of the country. Often it meant kids from further afield, some of whom didn’t speak a word of English. Invariably, we’d show them the ball and half an hour later we’d all be consumed in a frantic game of 3-a-side. Somehow, the language which springs up from a touch of the ball was universal, and for a short while transcended whatever our differences might have been. I loved that.
7. South American Football
Invariably, a lot of the holiday moments I’ve referred to above were in South America, the only place we ever visited outside the UK, with long trips to see family and an opportunity to experience a different football culture entirely.
I remember playing football with street kids, and in country clubs. Learning the histories of the exotic sounding Uruguayan teams (Penarol, Nacional, etc), and occasionally hearing from my grandfather about the football he’d watched as a kid in Argentina; the packed stadia, the near-religious fervour of the support and most of all La Nuestra, the belief – for a long time central to the national game – that there was a correct way to play football, prioritising aesthetic beauty and utterly eschewing defence. Perhaps I internalised the grace of that idea at a young age. Perhaps, in a roundabout way, it’s what I’m still arguing for here. It’s probably what stopped Argentinean football from developing properly until the 1970s, but I still love the concept. I sat, as a ten year old, on the stone steps of the Gran Parque Central stadium in Montevideo, eating churros and listening to all this, and I felt like my heart might stop at any moment.
Many years later, I got to spend a few months in Argentina as an adult, and to go watch a number of the teams native to Buenos Aires. I loved that opportunity to reach out and touch a football history so different from that of England, with its own texture and tradition. I loved being able to reconnect with some of what my grandfather told me, and to see the last remnants of it with my own eyes. I loved watching the young Carlos Tevez, bull-necked and wild-eyed, rampaging his way around La Bombonera, so clearly destined for greatness. Most of all, I loved the idea, however fallacious, of a golden era of Latin American football when the game belonged to the people, and to the workers, and where tens of thousands flowed into stadiums ancient by today’s standards in search of truth and beauty.
I also got to attend a couple of River/Boca games – good god, what a spectacle that is. I hope to see it again one day.
As a teenager I discovered the writings of the great Uruguayan Eduardo Galeano, who for my money has written about this sport as well as anyone ever did. In particular, this quote has always stuck with me:
“Years have gone by and I’ve finally learned to accept myself for who I am: a beggar for good soccer. I go about the world, hand outstretched, and in the stadiums I plead: ‘A pretty move, for the love of God.’ And when good soccer happens, I give thanks for the miracle and I don’t give a damn which team or country performs it.”
In this modern era, where the teams are so well matched, so physically fit and so well drilled, I sometimes think that those pretty moves have become harder to come by. Games – particularly during lockdown with no crowd to inject some adrenaline – can often boil down to attack against defence and a lot of the beauty has fallen by the wayside. But I was reminded yet again of the above words by the Spain/Italy game last night, when I found myself giving thanks for the miracle all over again.
Another Galeano quote here:
“Have you ever entered an empty stadium? Try it. Stand in the middle of the field and listen. There is nothing less empty than an empty stadium. There is nothing less mute than stands bereft of spectators.
At Wembley, shouts from the 1966 World Cup, which England won, still resound, and if you listen very closely you can hear groans from 1953 when England fell to the Hungarians. Montevideo’s Centenario Stadium sighs with nostalgia for the glory days of Uruguayan soccer. Maracanã is still crying over Brazil’s 1950 World Cup defeat. At Bombonera in Buenos Aires, drums boom from half a century ago. From the depths of Azteca Stadium, you can hear the ceremonial chants of the ancient Mexican ball game. The concrete terraces of Camp Nou in Barcelona speak Catalan, and the stands of San Mamés in Bilbao talk in Basque. In Milan, the ghosts of Giuseppe Meazza scores goals that shake the stadium bearing his name. The final match of the 1974 World Cup, won by Germany, is played day after day and night after night at Munich’s Olympic Stadium. King Fahd Stadium in Saudi Arabia has marble and gold boxes and carpeted stands, but it has no memory or much of anything to say.”
There’s not much I can add to that. Magic places, even more so when they’re empty and you can feel history tugging at your sleeve.
9. Juan Roman Riquelme
A hipster choice, and potentially a whole other essay in the making, but there you go.
A footballer who could slow and speed up time at will. Seemingly none of the physical attributes necessary to play the modern game, but he had it all; the touch, the vision, and the supernatural ability to find space and a few precious extra moments where they seemingly did not exist. The second coming of La Nuestra – I loved watching him; too good for Barcelona, too good for any club that busied itself primarily with the ugly business of winning. An aesthete’s footballer in an age of utility, a glorious throwback to an imagined past that probably never existed.
Here he is playing an extraordinary through ball for the legendary Martin Palermo to score against Real Madrid. The first touch is beautiful, but the way he hits the pass, the way he makes it sit up for his striker; oof. I dream of playing a pass like that.
Plus, he had the innate decency to miss a very important penalty against Arsenal. The man really did have it all.
So there we are. A couple of thousand words, and no closer to articulating the glory of the game, but a little load off my mind.
Enjoy the football tonight, those who are watching. I have to confess that I fell out of love with the England team quite a long time ago, but I’ll be tuning in hoping to see some quality football, and for a result that will guarantee a national party.
Once it’s over, my mind will turn to Sunday night, when Leo Messi will attempt to finally (finally!) bring an end to his long wait for an international trophy. The odds are against him; Brazil are by far the stronger team, but he’s having an electric tournament, having scored or made 9 of Argentina’s 11 goals, and it would take a cold heart not to feel that the little genius has earned this one final reward for this art.
Here’s to truth and beauty and all the quite incredible things that can happen when 22 men (or indeed women) gather on a patch of grass to kick a ball around as if it all means anything at all.
Please feel free to chip in your own reflections below.