This piece is by Alastair Bellany – a historian working at Rutgers University. Alastair boasts a single chili pepper (denotes hotness) on ratemyprofessors.com. He is unlikely to garner more.
It is difficult to convey just how bad my primary school football team was in the 1978-9 season. They always lost; and they always lost heavily. Playground opinion blamed the goalie—he had all the vices of immobility (he couldn’t or wouldn’t move to get the ball) but none of its virtues (hit the ball straight at him and, miraculously, his legs would move—just enough to let the ball roll between them). I blamed the coaching. One kid got onto the team after watching a show on TV about Brazilian football. He became convinced he was Pele, and started dancing around the ball Brazilian style. Unfortunately, dancing was more or less the sum of his footballing skills. But this apparently didn’t bother the coach—he was on the team.
I tell you this not to slight my old classmates or my old teachers. No, I tell you this just to make something very clear. I am really bad at football. So bad, indeed, that I never made my primary school team. I just wasn’t good enough. Not even good enough to be goalie. Yes, that bad.
That said, I did have my moments. Once, in a game during PE at primary school, I connected with the ball so well that it soared two thirds of the length of the pitch. This earned me (for a brief stretch of time) the nickname “Iron boots”, a nickname far preferable to my usual playground sobriquet, “Spock”, given not in tribute to my Vulcan-like intelligence but in mockery of my oversized and slightly protruding ears. “Iron boots” actually morphed, momentarily, into “Ironstein”, this time indeed a tribute to my Vulcan-like intelligence: it’s what Einstein would have been called if he had been in the habit of spraying seventy yard passes around the football fields of his youth.
My moments of childhood football competency remained, however, few and far between. I vividly remember a sublime chip over the onrushing goalie in a five-a-side game in secondary school gym class. And I recall with some pride the brutally cynical professional foul on the older sister of the kid whose indoor soccer birthday party I was attending. As far as I can remember, there was no strategy in the foul, no case of “taking one for the team”; it just seemed like a good idea at the time. But more typical of my on-field endeavors is the legendary lunchtime game, up on the grass at the top of the long, hillside complex that comprised my secondary school. Bags or coats as goal posts, a smuggled football, kids in long pants, shirts and ties, a pass that finds me open, with the ball, a foot from the middle of an empty goal, and then, quite remarkably, I contrive to shoot wide.
My football moments improved for a brief period in my early 20s. I had left England for the U.S., and I played regularly for a season and a half for a team of graduate students —“The Revolting Masses”—in the university indoor league. I could talk about the brilliant volleyed goal in a losing cause during the second season—a chipped ball in, met with sweet power and timing, smashed past the astonished undergraduate goalie. But the moment that matters came during the previous season, in The Revolting Masses’ improbable run to C-league glory. We were a cosmopolitan outfit that year—a few Americans, a Canadian, a couple of Brits, a Nietzsche scholar in goal, a Mexican winger, and an Italian economist up front–our tactic, get it to the Italian, he’ll do the rest. And we kept winning. It is the semi-final I remember. For large stretches of the game, large, timeless moments, I was a different person. Every touch on the ball was a good one, every anticipation a correct one, every pass a brilliant one. I felt boundless, inexhaustible energy. I didn’t score, but I played as if I was really a player. I felt for the only time in my life the pure thrill of athletic coordination on a football pitch, and the deeper thrill of complete bodily and mental synchronization with the tactics and the poetry of the game. I still remember a run I made, collecting the ball in defense, bursting up the left flank, crossing with my left foot (yes, even my left foot was cooperating), a cross so good that no one saw it coming, including, alas, the rest of my team, who were probably too astonished to react in time. We won anyway, and then went on to the final, which we also won, and which I don’t remember at all. But I’ll never forget the semi-final; the day I could play.