From ‘Size 5’, first published in Issue Eleven of The Blizzard.
In my footballing heyday cricket and rugby were distant sports. I loved Lineker and Barnes, Robson and Waddle. I loved dealing Panini stickers and playing football manager for hours on a ZX Spectrum. I loved Match of the Day and spending school break-times trying to recreate the goals of the weekend.
Yet something happened to the game between the gritty 80s and the meretricious glamour of the modern Premier League. Diving and money. Teams where players are shipped in from across the globe and owned by restaurateurs and oil thieves. Etc, etc. Blah, blah, blah. The old fan’s lament that the olden days were the golden days, when Stanley Matthews played in hobnailed boots and you could have ten pints of bitter and a bag of chips and still pay your bus fare home.
Nothing stays the same, but some sports change for the worse. Or perhaps they evolve on a tangent opposite to our own shifting characters, values and attitudes.
Cricket, despite IPL wealth, match fixing and bird-brained administration, still has pretensions of grace and sportsmanship. Rugby, I used to contend, was about truth. No player bullshitted about his abilities in the changing room after a game. It was a measure of who you were, how you’d stand up and fight when the opposition were stamping your head into the mud.
It’s truly a shame that I don’t follow football with the fervour I used to. The goal glimpsed in a crowded pub, a scan of the headlines to see which team is where and how the Foxes are doing.
Yet despite my cynicism, and regardless of the dollars and roubles pumped into that grossly inflated size 5, football is forever special. A game bigger and better than a global megasport.
As a travelling journalist I’ve played matches in refugee camps and shanty towns. On the day the Abu Ghraib torture photos hit front pages around the world I faced up against a team of Palestinians, a side of scarred and serious men set on restoring cultural pride by thrashing a team of foreigners. In a Guatemalan slum I played on a pitch made of glass-chipped mud and lethal cans, and here I was dazzled by men dribbling like Messi. On a dust bowl pitch in a Kenyan orphanage, watching a skinny kid streak down the wing and skip over slide tackles before beating the keeper with the most delicate of barefoot lobs, the game is still beautiful.
Read ‘Size 5’ in full in Issue Eleven of The Blizzard.