The Football Game
- Length: 489 words (1.4 double-spaced pages)
- Rating: Excellent
One one thousand. The stands are filled with men, women, and children waving their hands and homemade signs. The cheers coming from the crowd make it hard for me to hear. I smell the hot dogs, popcorn, and pizza being sold at the concession stand. The marching band has just left the field with the tuba player’s last note still ringing in my ear. In the fourth quarter with us in the lead by five the scoreboard shows six seconds. The coach yells, “It’s time to go”! I strap on my helmet with great enthusiasm and head towards the field to take my position.
Two one thousand, three one thousand. Their quarterback quickly shouts out a play. I think to myself “Are my pads secure?” My thoughts quickly turn back to the game as I look up just in time to see two hundred and fifty pounds of blue and white running toward me at full speed. As the sweat rolls down my face my eyes start to burn. My legs suddenly grow weak with fatigue. My hands start to shake as I start to run towards my opponent. I feel a sudden breeze. I start to gag on my mouthpiece. I look up, but all I can see is a glare from the sun, which begins to blind me.
Four one thousand, five one thousand. My bones start to crack. I suddenly realized that I have been hit, and hit hard. I’m now lying on the ground thinking to myself “What happened?” I taste a thick substance and quickly realize that my lip was bleeding. Now I’m in so much pain, my bones ache as I start to get a headache. I hear a whistle and see my opponent standing over me. His sweat starts to drop down from his face to mine. I’m thinking to myself “What went wrong”? I feel the mud on my hands as I slowly start to come back to the rest of the world. I hear the crowd roar. What is going on? Who has won the game? Is it over? I turn my head a little to the left to see the scoreboard. They’ve won by one, and we’ve lost.
Six one thousand. Crowds heading for the exit. Staring at the field covered with empty cups and trash left behind by careless children, I notice that everyone is starting to leave.
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Football Marching Band Hot Dogs Bleeding Rolls Shake Legs Popcorn Helmet Bones
Parents congratulating their sons, others are being comforted, siblings laughing. I’m overcome with disappointment. I’ve realized that the reason we’ve lost was because of me. I lay there thinking “Its all my fault, its all my fault”. My adversary had pummeled me to the ground, which left an open gap for the running back. I didn’t even see him coming. He was like a mad cheetah on the verge of killing. He must have slipped right passed me. Depression, frustration, regret. Anticipation for the next game.
Clichés crowd the mind whenever we try to speak meaningfully about the things we love, but the congestion is especially thick around discussions of soccer. The beautiful game seems to mock our best efforts to describe its beauty. In-game commentators, who have the unfortunate task of trying to capture the sport’s nuances in real time, resort to formulas, bleated and bawled with gusto (“It’s a game of two halves,” “End-to-end stuff,” “What a goal!”), that are hopelessly incommensurate to the action they are supposedly describing. Those who regularly watch Barcelona’s Lionel Messi, widely regarded as the contemporary game’s greatest player, will have observed a note of candid helplessness creeping into the announcers’ patter. These days, every time Messi scuttles through a thicket of defenders and, looking less like a striker than a golfer pensively lining up a putt, slots the ball neatly home, the commentators tend simply to acknowledge that they have already exhausted all possible terms of approbation.
Martin Amis has some fun with soccer punditry’s verbal torpor in “London Fields,” when the otherwise hyper-inarticulate petty thief Keith Talent delivers an impromptu summary of a game he has recently attended between West Ham (“the Hammers”) and Queens Park Rangers. In a few sentences, the speech gathers together the whole bouquet of soccer’s most withered stock phrases:
During the first half the Hammers probed down the left flank. Revelling in the space, the speed of Sylvester Drayon was always going to pose problems for the home side’s number two. With scant minutes remaining before the half-time whistle, the black winger cut in on the left back and delivered a searching cross, converted by Lee Fredge, the East London striker, with inch-perfect precision. After the interval Rangers’ fortunes revived as they exploited their superiority in the air. Bobby Bandavich’s men offered stout resistance and the question remained: could the Blues translate the pressure they were exerting into goals? In the seventy-fourth minute Keith Spare produced a pass that split the visitors’ defence, and Dustin Housely rammed the equalizer home.
Commentators ought to be cut some slack, however, since they are talking off the cuff, and to an audience watching the same events unfold. It’s not as though a great deal depends on their finding the perfectly modulated cadence, the best words in the best order. When the ball goes in the net, no one is paying much attention to what they’re saying. The job of the soccer writer is thornier. Unlike a literary critic, say, who can quote from the text under discussion, the soccer writer is profoundly alienated from his subject matter. His prose must do double-duty, at once vividly describing the game and analyzing its subtleties, the strata of activity that hovers just beneath the surface of our perception.
[#image: /photos/590953daebe912338a37333b]Few writers rise to this challenge as admirably as Simon Kuper, whose sprightly, skeptical, and vastly informative “Soccer Men: Profiles of the Rogues, Geniuses, and Neurotics Who Dominate the World’s Most Popular Sport,” has just appeared from Nation Books. Kuper is explicitly concerned with the incommensurability of language and experience in sport, though it is the players’ more than the commentators’ shortcomings on which he dwells most.
In his essay “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart,” David Foster Wallace wonders if “those who receive and act out the gift of athletic genius must, perforce, be blind and dumb about it—and not because blindness and dumbness are the price of the gift, but because they are its essence.” Most of the players with whom Kuper speaks would seem to bear out Wallace’s theory. Not only do the men Kuper interviews have nothing to say about anything soccer-unrelated (Michael Owen “has never read an entire book and only once seen an entire film…he has no outside interests”), they have nothing to say about soccer itself. “I want to win everything again,” drones the affable Brazilian wunderkind Kaka. “World Cup, and Champions League, championship and Golden Ball, Wolf FIFA Player of the Year, and…” In most cases, Kuper writes, the burnished demi-gods “turn up hours late, say, ‘I hope we’ll win on Saturday,’ and then drive off again.”
Of course, it isn’t for their table talk that we turn to these men, and it would be naïve to expect them to distill their brilliance in a few finely turned phrases. This is the soccer writer’s job.
Style, in soccer as in prose, is less the product of “personal expression” than of poise, discipline, patience, and infinite care. Most people who kick a ball, like most people who put words down on paper, do so with little distinction: they could be anyone. The more one masters the impersonal demands of technique, however, the more a personal style begins to emerge. Beckenbauer, Cruijff, Pele, Zidane: these figures are as unmistakable on the pitch as are Joyce, Woolf, Nabokov, and Updike on the page. Just as it’s difficult to imagine a writer before Joyce who would think to describe the night sky as “The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit,” it’s difficult to imagine a player before Cruijff who would think to pass the ball with the outside of his foot, or a player before Pele who would attempt a dummy as audacious as this.
It is this personal style that Kuper proves himself to be so adept at pinpointing. Again and again he deftly articulates the experience of watching the great players at work—or rather, at play. Here he is on Messi:
The overwhelming sensation when you watch Messi is still this: He’s a child. The nerd with the flowerpot hairdo looks like a kid who has won a competition to spend a day with [Barcelona]. His physique seems to mock all the man monsters and fitness rooms and ‘food supplements’ of modern sport. When Messi receives a ball and doesn’t bother touching it, but just sets off running and lets it trot alongside him, he looks like a boy out with his pet dog.
And here he is on Frank Lampard, the greatest English midfielder of his generation
One of the delights of soccer is watching Frank Lampard prepare to shoot. He stands almost perfectly upright, and raises his head for a good look at the goal. The right arm is held out for balance, the left arm is flung out for power, and the inside of the right foot strikes the ball just off center, so that its swerve will confuse the keeper. Lampard kicks only as hard as he needs to. Rarely do you see him trouble the crowd in the second tier. In short, he could be a photograph in a training manual.
Watching Messi or Lampard (or any of the players included in “Soccer Men”) after reading Kuper is a bit like going back to Shakespeare’s sonnets after reading Helen Vendler’s book on them. He turns us into more alert, more intelligent, more grateful spectators of the beautiful game.