November 20th, 2006

International Kittens of Mystery

Three Fêtes and a Football Match Part Ten (Dribbling in Public)

It's June, 1995 again. Somehow I got drunk at a French fete and accidentally signed up to become a professional footballer. Three weeks later I'm thrown in at the deep end. A match in front of 300 people...

The match began. I had been hoping for one of those slow-paced summer matches, where the players stroll around in the heat, exuding great skill interspersed with occasional bursts of speed. A less accomplished version of the 1970 World Cup finals, perhaps. I was quickly disabused. The game began like an English cup tie - fast and furious with tackles flying in from all angles. It was tiring just watching the ball.

And as for pacing myself, that plan evaporated with the first attack. It was end to end football with no time to settle on the ball. A game I knew very well. Especially the bit about it not being particularly suited to unfit forty-year-olds who hadn't played for four years.

I slotted into position and started playing from memory, running off the ball, creating gaps, tackling back. All the time hoping that I was fitter than I imagined. And that somewhere I had some deep reservoir of untapped stamina - like a spare fuel tank that I could switch over to in time of dire need.

And then it happened. The ball flew towards me. My first touch. Was this the moment I stunned the crowd with unimaginable feats of skill? ... Or the time that stupid Englishman let the ball run through his legs for a throw in?

I think I froze the ball in mid-air with the power of concentration. Certainly there was no way I was letting that ball past me. I brought it down and then set off. Ideally, it should have been one of those mazey dribbles where the ball appears attached by a silken thread to the educated feet of the right winger.

But I hadn't played for such a long time and, besides, the last time I'd dribbled in public had been when I got drunk at the Tuco fete.

Not to mention that a few weeks practising in the back garden dribbling over hummocks and piles of stones is not ideal preparation. A few touches and the ball flew ahead of me. If there'd been a hummock on the pitch it might have been different - but there wasn't. And my back garden hadn't had defenders either - two of whom were now bearing down on me from different directions. And both likely to reach the ball before I did.

But football is a game of the unexpected.

The first defender lunged forward and tried to clear the ball but only succeeded in driving the ball against my shins, whereupon it flew towards the second defender, ricocheted off his knees and came back to me. The next thing I knew, I was stepping over bodies, the ball at my feet and the penalty area fast approaching.

If only it had been deliberate.

With my confidence returning, my next move became clear. The hard low cross, whipped into the penalty area with a hint of swerve to curl around the remaining defender and land at the feet of the advancing centre forward. I could see it all.

Unfortunately my right foot couldn’t.

(next instalment: in which I rediscover my old speed but our opponents counter by employing cloaked forwards)