Football, it seems, is a game of high and contrasting emotions. Players who grimace like gargoyles will later hug each other in rapture. Spectators who shake their fists in fury will later erupt in delirious ecstasy. At the end of the game one sees tearful virgins, sitting in the crowd with painted faces, seeking comfort in the arms of their chaperone. The coach of a losing team must sit before the nation’s press, with the face of a condemned man, making excuses for the failure of his players. And all, supposedly, in the cause of recreation.
I have only ever played football once. Smacker Ramrod (the circus vet) asked me to make up the numbers in an old boys’ reunion match against a rival public school. There were a few raised eyebrows from the opposition at my inclusion as goalkeeper, along with inevitable satirical remarks about whether King Kong would be playing right-back. But their smirks turned to frowns after the game started and I proceeded to catch all their shots with consummate ease. The other players in our side were clearly outclassed, never getting near the opposing goal, but as long as I was behind them the score stayed zero-zero.
In their frustration, our opponents tried a new tactic. Instead of shooting with their feet, they began to lob high balls into the goalmouth for their tallest players to strike with their heads, like cobras. This was obviously bad sportsmanship and against the spirit of game, which is called “football” rather than “headball”. But the referee brushed aside my complaints, while the “headers” became increasingly difficult to block at such close range. I then received some advice from my team mates: “Use your fists!” they said. So the next time a high ball appeared in front of me, I jumped into the air and punched the opposing centre-forward on the chin. The blow was a clean one and knocked the man as cold as a stoat.
I was immediately surrounded by irate members of the opposing team, who swore furiously without daring to lay a finger on me. I tried vainly to explain that I had been acting under instruction and looked to my team mates for moral support, but they only shook their heads in disappointment. Eventually, the referee broke through the huddle and took me to one side.
“Mr Referee,” I declared, “I am willing to apologize if I broke the rules, but this business of heading the ball is an underhand tactic which should be purged from the sport!”
“Broke the blooming rules!” exclaimed the referee. “You’ll be lucky if you’re not charged with assault!” He then removed a red card from his breast pocket and waved it in front of my nose. “Off!” he shouted, pointing towards the touchline.
It was beneath my dignity to argue with him, but I made a final statement for the record: “Your punishment for a first offence is harsh, Mr Referee – and especially so for a misdemeanour done in ignorance rather than malice.”
The referee awarded a penalty kick to our opponents. As an additional forfeit, he refused to allow a replacement goalkeeper until after the kick had been taken. The ball was passed into an empty net and the score remained one-zero until the final whistle.
After the game, I apologized to the opposing centre-forward, who having speedily been revived with a bucket of cold water appeared none the worse for his experience. He accepted my apology graciously and encouraged me to pursue a career as a professional goalkeeper.
“We’d never have got the ball past you!” he exclaimed. “You’d be the best goalie in the country if you learned how to deal with crosses. You’ve got to punch the ball instead of the player.”
“Thank you, my dear fellow, it’s most kind of you to say so,” I replied. “But I shall never play this vulgar sport again. The crosses I could bear, but the referee I could not. A man who exerts his authority by whistling and pointing is too much like a dog trainer for my liking. Moreover, a game played between congenial acquaintances requires no umpire. From now on I shall stick to backgammon.”
I gave the man my goalkeeper’s shirt as a souvenir and departed with Smacker for the circus.
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