People are often surprised when I say I used to play football. Or even, that I like football. It doesn’t fit with the image. I’m an introverted computer-guy, a low-voiced writer or a paper-thin, skinny white guy. I’m a nerd, not a sports-dude.
But it’s still really true. I enjoy football. I love it as a game. It is great to play. Now, what I dislike (and what I won’t get into much) is a lot of the culture surrounding football, who supports its fragile, macho-stupid image, the banging chests and the capitalistic fame and all the rest: No, whatever. I’m here to talk about the game. And why it despite all that, means a lot to me.
Football taught me something crucial as a kid. It taught me a lesson I will never forget. It taught me how to throw myself at an impossible mission head-first, and that it was alright that it hurt.
But first, we need to start at the beginning: Childhood.
Like a lot of kids (in some parts of the world) I played football as a kid. Or at least, ran around and kicked a ball in my parent’s backyard, in the school-yard, and eventually, on a pitch (real or makeshift). Some countries have this more than others, but in Denmark, too, football is one of those things school kids do in recess—some kids, mind you. I tended to be one of them, although this was a little later. Earlier on, I mostly played with my dad, in the garden.
And then later, with an older kid, I’ll call Tom (not his real name, it doesn’t matter). He was an older kid, around... hm… 15 when I was 8 or something, and he lived just down the street from me as a child (my dad has since corrected Tom was 12 and I was 7, but I think the memory serves as a clue how big he felt).
Now, obviously, I looked up to him like crazy. He was older, better at everything, and cool. And we played football in the garden, video games, and whatever.
My dad did not like him.
In fact, I didn’t quite understand at the time how much my dad didn’t like him until much later, and now that I look back on it, I totally see why.
See, Tom was, in my dad’s view, what one might call a “bad influence.” Not per se the kind to get me into trouble or bad shit—I was still too young for that—but just a bad influence in more subtle ways.
You see, while he did care that I was little in some ways, he didn’t care in many others. He didn’t really pull many punches when we played football or whatever, didn’t really care that I couldn’t do as much as him.
And as a kid, you love that! You love when you finally get talked to like you’re on even footing as the older ones, like you’re not a child.
However, it made me develop some unfortunate behaviour as a coping mechanism. For example, for what we are talking about today, I was afraid of tackling in football.
He was big! Compared to tiny me, a twice-tall, strongly built 15 year old was terrifying to tackle into. He could trample me with a light kick and I would hurt myself. So I got scared. And I pulled back.
And so, in any future game, I pulled back from tackles, I was afraid to commit, and I was scared of hurting myself.
I kept playing, though. I still enjoyed the activity, the game of it. I joined the club along with many other people from my class (however, conspicuously, from my closest circle of nerd friends were only a couple who also played).
And, as you do with anything you do every week, I did get better at it. However, I was still not much of a player. And I probably would have stopped not too long after, had it not been for a paradigm shift in my entire playstyle.
And I don’t know entirely what caused it, so I’ll just explain what happened.
The Fateful Game
It was a regular weekend match like all the others. We were fighting some other regional team and we were not the greatest team in the division, by a long shot. We were ready to go out and play, and I didn’t expect much.
Except, one thing changed: The coach put me on defence.
Best decision he ever made for me.
I had been a midfielder before (the spot young teams often fill with kids who don’t scream they want to play a specific role—no one wants to be a mid-fielder as a kid), because I was always too nice to say I wanted anything over anyone else. Yet, now he planted me in the back, to test it out.
Suddenly, my lack of fitness or speed didn’t matter as much: My lack of offensive capabilities didn’t matter as much, my lack of being able to follow both offense and defence was not a problem. Strategically, I love defence. The tactics of it, the constant re-adjustment to what the offense is doing, the last minute saves, the backbone of it (I am naturally inclined to be drawn to the backliners rather than those in the spotlight).
Defend, I wanted to do.
Now, granted, I still couldn’t tackle, could I?
Well, that’s the magical thing.
In that game, I forgot my fear. I don’t know why, I don’t know what caused it, but I was no longer afraid.
It was the bloody best game I have ever played. I shined that game. I made good calls, I got great tackles, I defended in the right spots, I did everything right. At least, that’s how I remember it. In truth, we probably lost, but hey, I felt fant-a-stic.
Maybe with less to worry about, with a greater sense of focus, I could relearn what I once hadn’t. Maybe I had finally gotten over it (this was some time after I stopped hanging around Tom). Or maybe it was just luck.
Regardless, in this game, I learned what not being scared meant. It made sense here, that I had to do the last ditch thing to stop the ball from reaching the goal.
And naturally, the coach reacted to that. He saw it too. I was awarded man of the match from him—not necessarily because I played the best but because I showed that I wanted to. I showed strength I hadn’t before.
And from then on, I was dedicated defence in every game.
I remember another, later game, where the opponents goalie shot his goalkicks out to the midfield and literally every time I was the only one with the guts to stand directly under it and take the first ball before it touched the ground. We won that game 7-1 (hah!).
I remember another game where I and an opponent were both going for a ball on the ground and we both ran at it at the same time, hit it with our full strength at exactly the same time, and we both flew in opposite directions, with the ball being completely dead stationary on the ground. It didn’t move at all: All our force was used to fling each other two meters away, on the ground. I rolled around and got up immediately, unscathed.
He was, as I remember it, twice my size (I don’t know, but chances are he was bigger than me. I was scrawny.)
I learned that when you pull back it hurts more. I learned that when you hesitate it hurts more. I learned that when I fall because I fucking hammered my leg into that ball as hard as I could and didn’t look back, it didn’t hurt at all.
Who told me that? My football coach. He said it before I started believing it, but now I knew what he meant. It literally hurts less when you don’t pull back.
And you know what the crazy thing is? I got a trophy for it. Once a year, the club would nominate a player from each team to get a trophy for “Exemplary Play” or “Fighting Spirit” (or whatever the hell they called it), and that year, I got nominated and won. Which was nuts, because I was by no means the best player on any of the teams, but I damn sure was one of the people who never gave up. No matter how far we were behind, no matter how much it sucked, I kept playing the game. And they rewarded me for that. (Which felt pretty awesome.)
And it sounds insane to say that one game changed everything by itself, and it is probably a little wrong, but that is honestly what I remember. Something must have happened, but as far as I remember, that one game was it. And the thing is, my dad remembers that game too (I asked him to read the piece). He saw the change as well. So maybe it’s not so crazy after all.
For several years after that, I continued to play football for our tiny regional team, and I was dedicated defence the entire time, and I loved it. I loved the times when we were just playing, when all that mattered was the game. But slowly, as boys get older, all the other stuff starts mattering more and more.
And then things turned sour. I started perhaps getting too much responsibility: I was tried as captain, which was too early for me: I was way too socially shy for that—especially in that group. I didn’t feel I was ever looked up to.
Then I got promoted to the second-best team (second best! Don’t forget through any of this that I was not good at football. I was alright, at best), and I hated it. The people up there were far worse, and clearly didn’t like or think much of me. I was uncomfortable from the moment I stepped up there and quickly asked if I could go back.
Many of my friends left, and slowly, the only people who were still there was those I liked less.
They got older and status started mattering more. I felt more and more like an outcast. I still enjoyed the playing but slowly the rest began taking up too much space.
And then, after a little more time, I stopped playing in the club. I wasn’t out of elementary school yet. This all happened while I was still very much a child.
But I never forgot the lessons it taught me.
That’s why I, even in High school, during P.E. I often surprised people with some crazy stunts, hurling myself at some high balls and landing square on my back in volleyball, and despite not making it, being happy I jumped—it didn’t hurt.
For anything physical I gave it my all. I didn’t want to have the reason that I didn’t make it to be because I was scared. I wanted it to be that I couldn’t do it.
I didn’t believe I could make it all and I didn’t all of the time, but the few times I did it looked outright magical, because no one expected it, and those times were worth all the rest.
This is why I, today, when I do bouldering (climbing) I always go for the jumps, I am not afraid of falling, and I don’t mind scraping a knee or getting a wound: I know it’s part of the game. And it honestly doesn’t hurt when you expect it to.
(That said, to my worried parents: I’m not crazy: I don’t hurt myself to the point of breaking. I don’t go for things I know I can’t do. I haven’t broken a leg. I land on the mattresses. Don’t worry.)
I never forgot how the game got fun once I started not giving up, how I loved the play far more when I let myself do all I could and when I fought regardless of whether it made sense: The fighting itself was the fun part.
And I never forgot it wasn’t about how good you were! We were the third team in our club, and horribly placed in our division throughout my entire time there, yet I still had a lot of fun! It wasn’t about winning for me. I never minded a loss: I minded playing a terrible game.
When people talk about the beauty of the game when they talk about football, that’s what they’re getting at. It sounds cliché but really, I was in it for the play, and I learned you don’t have to be good for the game to be beautiful.
The odd thing is, if you haven’t played sports or done something physical with me, you might not have seen this side at all. I don’t carry the lesson through to everything, the way I maybe should practice a little more. I’m still shy in social situations, I’m still as nerdy and scrawny as I always was. I still don’t jump at the first sign of a new challenge but prefer to stay at home and write or play games or whatever.
Yet, when I do something physical, for real, that I want to do, I give it everything I have (which might not be much, as hey, I’m not in the beeest of shape but I will damn well give it all I got!). And I will jump for that high-reaching hold. Or go for that tackle. Or run as fast as my legs will carry me.
Because I learned that it’s more fun when I do. And it hurts less when I fall. And the little I do it already means that it damn better be time well spent.
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