The Run of Play is a blog about
the wonder and terror of soccer.
We left the window open during a match in October 2007 and a strange wind blew into the room.
Now we walk the forgotten byways of football with a lonely tread, searching for the beautiful, the bewildering, the haunting, and the absurd.
We wanted him. They wanted him. He was half ours. He was half theirs. Born here, he looked and sounded like he was meant to be there. He fled before manhood and made his mark down there. Then he had to choose. For a while he wouldn’t. Did he not want either? But then he picked us and it all changed.
He’s not wanted. We don’t seem to want him. They wanted him, but now that he wants us, they surely hate him. He defies characterization. Categorization can’t catch him either. We know who he is—he has a name. We know what he looks like—he’s been on television. But still, we don’t know what he is. Sure, he wears our colors, but he lives with them. He has three names—two end in vowels and one flaunts Siamese r’s. It’s as if he’s saying, “I’m one of them, but I’m coming to you, only because I can.”
We see him and we know where he should play. He falls four inches short of a sixth foot. His height is only un-eclipsed by his 135 pounds. But we know this type. England has many of them, these lightweight little men. Gravitationally attracted to the sideline, they are. They run and run and run. Their feet pedal an invisible bicycle up and down. They run into defenders. They run past defenders. They run out of bounds. They always run. An occasionally correct angle will run them into a dangerous area and in the rarest of moments they switch their feet. They stop pedaling and change their gait 90 degrees, moving the ball sideways, shocking everyone and allowing a teammate to score.
But he has the audacity to stand in the center. You can’t run in the center. There are too many men—emphasis on that last word. The middle is for men. This is where they fight, scrap, jump, and kick. They kick each other and occasionally the ball. Yellow and red are universally accepted. In the middle, men do manly things. And he’s clearly not a man. His hair is too long, brushed back without any gel like his mother did it. These men use gel. His face has no hair. It never had any. These men must shave daily. And his team was decided by his mother. These men do nothing but pay for the houses of their mothers. The middle is no place for him.
To win the ball from these men, you must use strength. Jumping high, aiming elbows, sliding cleat-first—these are all ways to defend in the middle. You get the ball back by pushing your opponent off of it, legally, of course. Every attempt at the ball is a risk of being carded. He is in the midst of all this, but wins the ball with minimal contact. He times his jumps and steps into tackles with the right timing, poking the ball free.
Then he gets the ball. We all scream for him to get rid of it immediately. In the middle, you must play fast. He is in danger. The ball is too big for him. These men are coming after him. He needs to get rid of it now.
He swings his left leg back as if to save himself, but then he steps on the ball instead of releasing it. He rolls it backwards, taunting these men. Two more touches slide him sideways—still unharmed. In this chaotic center of manliness, he is calm. A frenzy surrounds him, but doesn’t touch him. So different from the men around him, he’s unaffected.
He takes a bigger swing and the horror creeps back in. Little men can not do that. They can’t kick a ball that far, especially from a stand-still. Their bodies seem incapable of the correct form needed to do so. Clearly, the strength is lacking too. Only, his form is perfect and the ball leaves his foot with a tender power. The ball sails high, over all of these men, diagonally across the field, landing on a teammate’s foot, touching the opposite sideline.
Has he fooled us all? Both sides wanted him, but now it seems like no one does. He proves himself with every touch and every tackle. His play fools us at the same time it proves him. We can’t accept what he does. It doesn’t make sense for him to be doing the things he does and doing those things for us. A boy we so desperately wanted chose us. Now he’s desperately needed.
Ryan O’Hanlon is a recent graduate of the College of the Holy Cross. You can follow him on Twitter.
by Ryan O'Hanlon · June 3, 2010