Friday, May 23, 2014

The Lonely Walk


Last Saturday was, to date, the hottest day of the year. My nine-year-old son and I ventured out after breakfast to a sprawling local park, where the annual end-of-season junior football tournament was about to take place. Stretching across the vast green expanse were a dozen half-size pitches, alongside which stood marquees, gazebos and ad hoc food outlets. Excitable youngsters of all ages, and wearing every colour of kit imaginable, warmed themselves up in preparation for their festival in the sun.

My son and his six teammates, decked out in their usual bright yellow and blue – they have been together for three years now – accumulated in the goalmouth of Pitch 1, in readiness for their first match, scheduled for 10 a.m. The format was simple: each team had been placed in a group of six. The best placed, after completing five short matches, would qualify for the knockout stages (quarter-finals, semi-finals and final) in the afternoon.

They began brightly (Figure 74.1), and played with the fluency and relentless work-rate by which they had secured the local league and cup double during the previous fortnight. When the final whistle blew, we (parents) instructed them to come straight out of the sun, relax and drink cold juice in the shade of a thick tree canopy, underneath which we had set up camp. Unlike most of the other teams, we – owing to holidays – did not have the luxury of substitutes. Each boy would have to play every minute of every match, in 20-25°C temperatures, and try to ignore any cuts and pains that happened along the way.

Figure 74.1: The day’s tournament kicks off ...

Copyright © 2014 Paul Spradbery

Undefeated in the five group matches, they collapsed in the shade, ate lunch, and enjoyed the usual banter with their ever-loyal ‘old men’ and a relaxing break before the knockout rounds.

The quarter-final, beginning at 2:30 p.m., went to extra time. Legs and lungs were visibly tiring, before one sweet strike from distance won them a semi-final place. Without needing any encouragement, the boys returned straight to camp. Legs were massaged, cold water was poured over heads, and litres of fluid were hastily guzzled by seven small warriors who were never going to give up.

At 3:30, back out they went, for the semi-final. The first half was goalless, partly the fault of my own son who missed a relatively easy chance, the likes of which he would usually convert without stopping to think. He made up for his miss, though, scoring two late goals and giving his mates a boost in readiness for the final.

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more. At 4:30, much of the park had emptied, all the other matches having already been settled and presentations made. Seven young boys, the same seven who had been undefeated in seven previous matches, returned to Pitch 1. The other finalists, it must be said, had five substitutes, which were rotated at will to conserve energy. By half-time, their advantage was beginning to tell. Our boys no longer possessed their characteristic capacity to dominate their opponents. It was as if the pitch had slowly tilted and they were playing uphill.

It was goalless at the final whistle. I could see that my son ached to sit down – or lie down. He remained on his feet. I splashed cold water onto his face and neck. His mouth-breathing was heavy. There was a nasty six-inch stud-mark down his left leg. His hair was oozing with sweat. Every part of him looked spent – except for his eyes.

Extra time was almost an exercise in cruelty. When all else had been used up, all that remained was a bloody-minded refusal to submit. The boys held out to the end. The final, and the whole tournament, would be decided by a penalty shootout (Figure 74.2).

Figure 74.2: In one of the most (in)famous penalty shootouts ever, Italy’s Roberto Baggio misses the target in the 1994 World Cup Final, thereby handing the cup to Brazil.

Copyright © 2012 International New York Times

Five players were selected to take penalties. Only my son and the goalkeeper would sit it out – unless the shootout ended all-square. Two of our first three kicks were unsuccessful. There were tears, inevitably. Somehow, our goalkeeper made two saves to level matters at 3-3. It was now ‘sudden death’: the first to miss would lose. What followed I can describe only as being akin to a public trial. In 1996, British broadsheet journalist Richard Williams compared ‘sudden death’ to a flogging in the market square. This is not mere lazy hyperbole.

Pitch 1 was, by now, surrounded by parents, grandparents and players from teams already eliminated. The referee stood in the penalty area and called ominously to the two sets of exhausted players, huddled in the centre circle: ‘OK, it’s sudden death.’ My nine-year-old boy knew that it was down to him. He raised his head and took a sharp breath. I, along with every other helpless spectator, watched him make the lonely walk all the way to the penalty spot. He picked up the ball in both hands and placed it deliberately on the spot. ‘Just imagine you are in the back garden, son,’ I thought to myself. The whistle blew. He steadied himself, then paused to stare for a moment at the goalkeeper. Almost without warning, he bolted forward and dispatched the ball into the bottom right corner of the goal. I breathed again.

It was 5:15 when we finally packed up and left. Each of the boys limped away carrying a large trophy and an even bigger ice-cream. The huge car park was all but deserted. My son struggled to remove his boots and shin pads, then rolled down his wet socks and climbed into the car. As I started the engine, he switched on the radio. The FA Cup Final had just begun. The unfancied Hull City had scored twice against Arsenal in the first ten minutes, thus ensuring that the rest of the match could not be anything other than thrilling. On exiting the car park, I glanced back at the field, with its magnificent avenues of mature trees, endless grassy carpet, and, to complete the tableau, a small church spire in the background. ‘You see all this, son?’ I said with mock seriousness. ‘It belongs to us.’ He smiled, then looked at me and laughed aloud.

We freewheeled down a broad, winding lane. Left and right were hedgerows filled with fresh, light-green foliage, masses of cow parsley and spent dandelion clocks. The Cup Final commentary filled the late Spring air. I looked across at my weary but contented companion. He had wound the passenger’s window right down, his arm resting along the top of the door, eyes half-closed as the cool afternoon breeze swept obligingly across his sun-tanned, ice-cream-splashed face.

‘Dad, this has been one of the best days ever.’

So it had. One of the most precious gifts a father can give to a son is to fill his young head with memories – glorious, fade-resistant memories which have the illusion of being free from contrivance. In other words, life is good simply because it is. All fathers must harbour dreams of a day exactly like this. Tragically, modern life dictates that many can never come true. Yet ours just did (Figure 74.3).

Figure 74.3: If you can keep your head when all about you   
    Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,   
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
    But make allowance for their doubting too;   
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
    Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
    And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;   
    If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;   
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
    And treat those two impostors just the same;   
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
    Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
    And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
    And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
    And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
    To serve your turn long after they are gone,   
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
    Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,   
    Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
    If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
    With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,   
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,   
    And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

‘If’ by Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936)

(Photograph) Copyright © 2014 Paul Spradbery

Copyright © 2014 Paul Spradbery

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