November 13th, 2006

International Kittens of Mystery

Three Fêtes and a Football Match Part Nine (Hummocks, Woolly Mammoths and the Referee's Dad)

It's June, 1995 again. Somehow I got drunk at a French fete and accidentally signed up to become a professional footballer. Now I have three weeks to get fit...

As the day of the match neared, I gradually increased my training regime. Very gradually. On the second day, I managed an extra fifty yards before giving up. The third day, another fifty and I jogged back instead of walking.

I started slipping in the occasional sit-up during the day and bought a football and started a few simple routines to drag back my ball skills from distant memory.

By the third week I was managing to walk and run over an undulating seven kilometres of road and track. A very undulating seven kilometres with fast downhill stretches and lung-killing steep climbs that sapped my calves and knotted my long-dormant muscles. But I was getting there.

Practising my ball skills, however, was another problem. There was no flat piece of ground I could use or a decent wall to bounce the ball off. And worse - the heat. Between eight in the morning and nine at night it was like an oven. Walk out the door and the heat hit you, a few minutes exercise and all your energy was drained.

And I had to play football in this heat? A competitive match in mid-afternoon in mid-July? I could barely walk in the heat, let alone run.

I started praying for rain. Perhaps a polar ice cap could melt for the day and set up some vast climatic shift. An Ice Age would be good - just for the day - no need for woolly mammoths.

When the day of the match came I couldn't believe it.

It was cloudy.

And cool.

After three weeks of nothing but cloudless skies and perpetual heat, the sun had taken a day off. Surely there was a God.

At three thirty we pulled up outside the Racing Club stadium. It was an impressive sight. There were even turnstiles and the occasional advertising hoarding. And although there was no grandstand there was a sloping grass bank that formed a natural seating area, ten feet high and bordering two sides of the pitch.

And it was already covered in spectators. About three hundred of them.

For me, most impressive of all was the player's tunnel - which looked suspiciously like a drainage culvert. It cut through the grass bank, joining the changing rooms to the pitch. Presumably to cater for those times when the crowd became too thick for the players to push their way through. I think the designers of the ground were possibly a tad on the optimistic side concerning the club's future.

Fifteen minutes later, I was running onto the park in the red and black of Racing Club. With my number seven on the back and a swimming pool manufacturer on the front, I felt very professional.

And very old.

A quick scan of the other players revealed a handful of teenagers, an armful of players in their twenties, one or two in their early thirties ... and me, who, according to which rumour you believed, was either the referee's dad or Bobby Charlton on a goodwill visit.

Unfortunately the truth lay somewhere in between - I looked like Bobby Charlton and played like the referee's dad.

(next instalment: in which an old right-winger is seen dribbling in public)