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.
Anyone who has crossed from the leafy district of Hertfordshire to that of Brockhall Village will probably have been struck by the sharp difference between the natives of the respective provinces of Arsenal and Blackburn. The peasant of Brockhall is short, stooping, sullen; he looks at you from under his brows, lives in flimsy huts of poplar wood, does labour-duty for his master; never goes in for trade; eats badly, wears pleated shoes. In Hertfordshire the peasant pays rent and lives in spacious cabins of pinewood; he is tall, with a bold gay way of looking at you and a clean white face; he trades in oil and tar, and on feast-days wears boots.
Arsenal’s village—I am speaking about the defensive part of the province—is usually situated among ploughed fields, near a midfield ravine which peters out into a dirty pond. Except for a few willows, which are always ready to oblige, and for two or three lank birches, like Per Mertasacker or Laurent Koscielny, there is not a tree to be seen for a verst around; one hut huddles against another in zonal marking shapes; the roofs have a rough thatch of rotten straw. . . At Blackburn, on the other hand, the village is largely surrounded by forest; the huts have a freer, sturdier look and are often roofed with Nigerian planks, the gates are well-fitted thanks to traditional man-marking, the wicker-work fence round the back-yard is neither tattered nor tumble-down, nor does it offer an open invitation to every pig that may come along. . .
Even the sport, at the moment, is better in the province of Blackburn. In Hertfordshire the remaining tracts of forest and bush will have vanished in about five years’ time, and there is no question of marshes; but in Brockhall Village, forests where no timber may be cut stretch for hundreds of versts, and marshes for tens of versts; the header from set-pieces (a noble black-beaked bird) is not yet extinct, and the generous snipe abounds. Sometimes, to be fair, a fussy partridge like Alex Song, tall and good-looking, showing a row of snow-white teeth under a clear and cultivated glide of blonde-auburn hair, still cheers and startles both sportsman and dog as he flies violently up from cover—like he did on two consecutive occasions during the very first acquaintanceship of both Gervinho and Arteta with the back of the English net. Yet, apart from these rare and entrepreneurial strides, the field at Arsenal is, as I have already said, prone to deepen its own stammer and failings.
In the middle of the pitch of Hertfordshire stands the lonely farm where Song lives. It consists of several cabins of pinewood grouped together behind fences; in front of the largest hut is a lean-to roof hanging down to the back, supported by the slender poles of Bakary Sagna, another curly-headed and ruddy-cheeked peasant, with increasing difficulty keeping control of the opponent’s well-fed roan stallions descending on his side. (On a good day, when there are no skittish, roving beetles, nor lurking cockroaches to be seen, and Jack Wilshere himself is patrolling the area at the glimmer of an oil-lamp, the Cameroonian lad would soon appear with a big white jug full of excellent kvass, laying the victuals on a freshly scraped table of limewood.) With hundreds of head of livestock coming through the midfield at each fixture, dust and mud are constant features in Song’s life.
Choking, white-yellow clouds, stirred up by hooves and swirled about by prevailing winds of football, powder Hertfordshire residents like talcum. The necessity of a high defense turns inches of accumulated limestone grime into impassable sloughs. Playmakers are forced to adopt a uniquely Arsenal approach to dealing with the provisional threat of overhead balls (as with Dortmund): whereas the fullbacks push forward and holding midfielders want, however hesitantly, to start pressuring from deep, a Gunner coachman would simply shout out to an oncoming driver, “Go to the left!” or “Go to the right!” depending on the location of the obstacle alongside the major thoroughfares. The general effect is one of sanitation, dust, and decay. Like hawkers and organ-grinders filling the squares of Odessa with their tin-pipe tunes, the words ‘hides,’ ‘wool,’ ‘hemp,’ and, now and then, ‘tallow’ are, however, to be distinctly heard above this midfield hubbub, one observer remarked since the early 1930s, the scars and pockmarked appearance of wind and salt air being too harsh for unprofitable slander.
Once, when I was shooting in the district of Ar***, I met in the fields, and got to know, a thin Russian landowner from Hertfordshire, Arshavin by name, an enthusiastic sportsman and proportionately excellent fellow. It’s true that he had certain weaknesses—the reader will excuse me from reproducing his shortcomings—as when, for instance, he had courted all the wealthy marriageable teams in Europe and, being rejected and forbidden the transfer, he would broken-heartedly confess his sorrows to all his friends in the dressing room of the Emirates Stadium. These efforts notwithstanding, Mr. Arshavin’s high regard in his own excellence certainly had never made anybody doubt that his footballing garden would give out, in one and the same story, sour peaches and other unripe produce. He called his dog ‘Laika’; he said ‘aye’ instead of ‘yes’; he admired the works of his coach Arsène Wenger. Wenger, who was himself spotted, at angering times, scraping a huge hunk of wheaten bread and a dozen salted cucumbers in a wooden bowl, had introduced Arshavin into a French style of cooking which, as understood by his cook, consisted in completely transforming the natural taste of every dish: meat, from the hands of this expert, tasted like fish; fish, of mushrooms; winger, of adjunct striker; striker, of auxiliary player retreating to link passes; macaroni, of gunpowder; and, with it all, no carrot in the Alsatian bistro of Wenger’s parents ever fell into the soup without taking the form of a high-diamond, of a rhombus or a trapeze.
Since the inception of Wenger’s municipal improvements in Hertfordshire, each year, tactical buildings have been refaced and plastered and, bit by bit, streets of passing paved or macadamized, covered with a packed layer of broken stone. Projects took shape in late spring. Every effort of modernization always happened in that magnificent season where ashy herons were overflowing, unbuttoned backgammon games turned into tentative Marxism, poplars in Azerbaijan were stretched to bursting against a sky that was light again. . .
Deep down, slowly, head and heart of goalkeeper Wojeich Szczesny pushed out their shoots, while benchwarmers like Djourou or Vermaelen, set to rejoice, would gaze over the fertile land, their bones rustling like a charcoal in the gutter. (While I quibbled over this item, Frimpong disappeared in order to work himself into a lather.) In a landscape of Arsenal size, it is all a question of scale; even a rider at full tilt gives the impression of dawdling.
The charm of such slow voyages overland—once the exoticism has worn off—is that you become aware of details, and thus of minute shifts in geography. Arsenal is like a whirling Pushkinian rendez-vous in the blurred moonlight. Even a few months of hibernation in Hertfordshire had made us stunned by the least little thing. At each stage we discover tiny changes that changed everything—a way of rotating the midfield, the angle at which sweating is worn—and, like some Auvergne bumpkins arriving in Paris, we scribble on a tabletop, the storm-lanterns hissing gently in a café with a turquoise sign. At first we used to refuse: Arsenal was on a tight budget and a winger is a winger. Like an Imam nominated by the distant Shah, Wenger holds sacerdotal power in the village of Hertfordshire. In his library, the margins of works by Proust and Bergson are covered in notes, whereas outside a twopenny issue of the Russian Ogyonok’s is featuring his best caricature as The Blind Owl. His disciples at Arsenal are a class of young, curly-haired provincials—dull, desperate boys, who’d never thought of being able to think two banks of three over a roster of four. Then you find yourself alone, barely twenty-one, but already jittery and more nervous than you should be, as if, instead of the Premier League, you’d joined an English oil company in Abadan to study for an engineer’s certificate.
It was in this atmosphere of funerary wantonness and abandon, and during a surreal tea-dance in Baku, that I received the practical advice of a man, Sohrab, with large, sweat-beaded, Mongol features. (I can’t say how I deserved his confidence, but he was too absorbed to be really aware of me.) Two liquid black eyes and a small walrus moustache, he spoke with a soft elegance befitting the submissive and fetishized landscape of Hertfordshire:
Even if your night’s shelter is uncertain
and your goal still far away
know that there doesn’t exist
a road without an end —
don’t be sad.
by Stefano Gulizia · October 14, 2011