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.
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Roberto Martinez picked a ball up from by his feet, rolled it across a tray of thick brown paint and tossed it across the field to Victor Moses. Moses stopped its flight with his chest and let it fall to his feet. He moved forwards with the ball, lifted his head and sent the ball arcing across the field at knee height. The paint lightly sprayed as the ball spun, tracing a curved line over the grass. Hugo Rodallega trapped the ball with his foot on the edge of the box. The line stopped and twisted into a knot at his feet. Without pausing he lifted the ball into the air and struck the ball at its centre. A cloud of paint rests in the air for a moment as the ball skips towards the bottom corner of the goal before it stops at the outstretched hand of Ali Al-Habsi. Another cloud breaks off the surface of the ball and a halo of paint settles on the grass. Al-Habsi rolls the ball to one side behind the goal. Roberto Martinez picked a ball up from by his feet, rolled it across a tray of thick white paint and tossed it across the field. Another quick exchange of passes shifts the ball across the field and towards the corner flag. There’s a tangle of legs and the ball rolls free laying jagged line over the ground. Paint scatters over paint until the white chalk lines of the field are lost to a dribbled maze of blacks and browns. Feet shift lightly so as not to leave foot prints. Moses collects up the ball again, lifts it over an incoming tackle and lofts it in towards the penalty area. It’s headed away before it can fall and rolls out of touch. Steve Gohouri stops to wipe the paint from the top of his head and dries his hands on his shirt, already marked with drying fingerprints. He waved to the figure on the sidelines and Roberto Martinez picked a ball up from by his feet, rolled it across tray of thick black paint and tossed it across the field to Victor Moses.
By the time Roberto Martinez had called the players from the field the air was heavy with paint and sweat and stagnant breathing. A series of curling lines and light splashes of paint twist away across the grass in front of them. Black spirals and yellow-brown knots are snaking over and underneath intersecting whites and dark blues. In places there is a space and a little green breaks through. A thin film of paint obscuring the earth. An opaque thickening of paint congeals on the edge of the centre circle. The far corner is laced with a centrifuge of tones where the left back had struggled with his pressing wing forward. Everywhere the lines converge like arrows of movement that show where the ball had moved and lifted, where it had bounced, where a player had found space to hold it for a moment before breaking forwards into a run. Roberto Martinez unrolled a large canvas at the edge of the pitch and as they so often had, Wigan Athletic huddled around him as he steadily highlighted each player’s lines and movements and cross examined them next to to Jackson Pollock’s Autumn Rhythm: Number 30, 1950.
“Football and painting have always posed the same problematic.” Roberto Martinez started the way he always did. “Both ask us how we should fill space. Both are concerned with drawing movement from space. In each we layer a sequence of lines over and over until they are thick and we begin to read the traces of our body on the earth itself”. He paused to take a drink from a bottle that was being passed around. He wiped his lips and continued. “Victor’s lines are perfect” he said, tracing his finger through the air. Everyone’s eyes followed the end of his finger as it rose then dropped in the air. “He touch is light. He does not try to break the ball in two or flatten the earth under his feet. He does not think. He lets the spaces in the field think for him. He sees where they open and close. Sees spaces that have not formed yet and knows when to drift towards them, when to let the ball into them and how long until they close and then open again.”
Roberto Martinez smiled. This was what he wanted from his team and why they were training to Autumn Rhythm. Last year he had wanted movement and nothing but movement in every direction. He had wanted a spiral to flow on the edge of the opposition penalty area where his forwards would pass and move and alternate and drop back into space and drive forward into the box. He wanted the fluidity of Pollock’s Lavender Mist: Number 1, 1950, but the result was more rigid. Charles N’Zogbia would trace a straight line across the field and the circling free movements of the 1950 Pollock would mutate into something closer to Night Mist from 1945. If he closed his eyes he could imagine it. The cold darkness of the empty black space broken by straight, brutal lines. You could read N’Zogbia’s runs, every one of them with the ball at his feet, breaking from the right into the area, drifting into the middle to make room for a shot, tearing down the heart of the pitch like an arrow. Each one repeated over and again until the lines convalesce into dirt white shapes. Rodallega had drawn a small circle on the earth where he had spun with on the edge of the box. Ali Al-Habsi had scratched out the entire of his six yard box with lines that blocked shots and caught crosses and intercepted passes and stopped clever balls and checked runs. His work had been hard and Roberto Martinez needed his defenders to control the space around Al-Habsi. He wanted a defence that shifted the opposing forwards into the deep opaque spaces in midfield, into the sides of the field and away. He wanted a shifting carousel that would give his goalkeeper time to breath and lift his head and feel the air against his cheek.
So N’Zogbia was sold and Roberto Martinez had his team training to Jackson Pollock’s Autumn Rhythm: Number 30, 1950. Mario Boselli was gone. Boselli had a good reputation in South America as an abstract painter, but his work had been no better than a Rothko or a David James. Roberto Martinez was happy. His team were playing well. He had forwards dropping deep and midfielders arcing forwards and the whole pitch pulsated in rhythms of lines and curves and movements. He knew that his rivals were working at nowhere near the complexity of his methods and was looking forward to playing them. Blackburn were moving backwards again. Bolton had lost Sturridge’s sharpness and Elmander’s shading. Chelsea were still trying to find a striker for Abramovich to display alongside his Francis Bacon tryptic. Roberto Martinez had not taken Liverpool seriously since Rafa Benitez had signed his name to Alberto Aquilani and plumbed him into the Anfield toilets. And even now as they fielded an aerial threat without legs and free kick taker tied only to a bloated gullet and a hideous deformed torso with Joe Cole’s head on it in a grotesque parody of a Hieronymus Bosch painting, he could not help but smile a warm lazy smile.
The new season was approaching and Roberto Martinez was happy to think of circling lines and drifting spaces and movements of blacks and browns. He closed his eyes and dreamed, as he so often did, of Lavender Mist: Number 1, 1950.
Phillip is the pround owner of Space Football, where he spends his time avoiding more serious philosophical writing.
by Phillip Roberts · September 9, 2011[contact-form 5 'Email form']