From an old website, Alien in Montreal
I haven't played football since I had the ball kicked in my face by a smiling Indian several years ago, on a beach in Goa. And the time before that had to be when I was forced into playing at school as a child – uneasy memories of frozen playing fields, football-studs in the face and communal showering. In Goa I had been out of breath, red-faced and never getting even a kick of the ball. At half time, just before I had the ball slammed into my face, I was told,
'It's because you're chasing the ball.'
Ah, I thought, and then the memories of the sadistic child-scaring teacher I had when I was 8 came flooding back – he wanted to stop us chasing the ball, so arranged a demonstration. We stood in a group and he said to us,
'What will happen if I kick the ball over there?' And pointed to some open space on the field.
We, confused, said we didn't know. Nothing perhaps. So he kicks the ball into the space, and from nowhere, a boy we hadn't seen storms up to intercept it, kicks it on, and is suddenly in front of the goal, he knocks it in with his second touch... I was impressed, and, as I ran onto the sandy pitch to put this into action (space is the key, don't chase the ball), I had my facial incident, and went off in a huff, to have a beer.
So, I had misgivings about playing again, something that is always suggested in the summer, when you have enough people together. I thought, perhaps, I would be safe in Canada, as not much football is played here (yes, football = soccer for me), but, my peer group is made up of a lot of ex-Euros, so it was only a matter of time.
It was suggested in a bar, of course, after beer had been drunk. I was naturally resistant, unwilling to break my own rule about never arranging anything (especially sports) in bars with people.
But it gained momentum, and before I knew what was happening I was standing in the park, in the sun, wearing an old t-shirt, trainers and some Thai boxing shorts that make me look like I'm in the wrong decade, somehow.
Kicking it about is okay – I can do that – it's drilled into you during your youth in England. I actually enjoy the kicking it back and forth bit.
Then follows the inevitable difficulty of dividing up the players into two teams. Obviously everyone is wearing an assortment of colours, so we try for 'light vs. dark', but this provides an uneven team, so, perhaps one yellow moves to 'darks', and one red too. There, simple. Now when you're about to pass you just have to look for black, blue, green, yellow or red, but not (under any circumstances) white, pink, grey, or the other red player.
Confused? You bet. The imaginary whistle goes and we all run about like bees around a queen - in a big ball, and kick at each other's shins for ten minutes until we all get tired and start to hang around in the magical, zen-like space that my teacher was trying to bring to our attention all that time ago.
After two minutes I'm panting, red-faced, my legs are wobbly, and I have a stitch.
'You're very red,' says someone, as they run by.
'It's the sun...' I shout back, lamely.
There is (unlike school) a queue of people who want to take a turn in goal, to relax a little and stop wheezing like a chain smoker. Lax defenders run by and shout, 'When you've had enough in goal, let me know, eh?'
I don't play too badly, after I recover from my stitch and get my second wind. I play the ball into the magical space when I get it, and my team-mates intercept it and run away with it. Great. I don't score, but create a goal, which is almost as good.
So, after two hours or so in the afternoon sun, with little water consumed, the latino boys arrive and just start playing.
'Who the hell are these guys?' I ask.
No-one knows. And no-one wants to tell them that they can't play with us. We're all too tired.
The latino boys obviously play football more than we do... they also seem to take it rather seriously. They shout and scream for the ball and never pass it once they have it. They push and barge and tackle like their very lives depend upon it.
At some point one of our team neglects to pass the ball to one of them and the latino boy comes running over to shout at him,
'I was here! Why didn't you pass the ball to me?!' And throws his hands into the air in disgust.
Talking about in disgust, I walk of the pitch in it, to sit down and worry about my hurting legs, dodgy knee and weak ankle.
Then there is the pitch invasion.
A group of footballers, after finishing their game, decide to walk through the middle of ours, to leave the park. Right through the middle. Well, they did have real football tops and shorts, so they must be allowed to walk through our game. The match is stopped and they are glared at as they cross the pitch, but don't seem to notice, or care perhaps.
We pack up and go the pub for a pint. Someone actually thanks the latino boys.
It took me two weeks to recover the proper use of my legs. No, really.