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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The Tuesday Portrait: John Terry

The Structure of His Face

Is in three layers, with each outer layer fitting slightly too largely over the layer it contains, so that the overall shape is one of sculptural creasing and drape, like the skirt of the Winged Victory. At the far-underneath level, the skeleton level, his head is fox-sleek and trim, but is then covered up with muscles and skin that rest on it only incidentally, like a sheet thrown over a sleeper. And on this loose, folded, drooping and lightly lined face, the expression he wears is once again something too vague and big for the form, something in the downturned corners of his eyes and the upturned corners of his mouth, in the sleepy smirk and look of dull command, in the impatient eagerness to please, suggesting the spirit of a giant lounge singer in the body of a suffering mouse, or the collision of a happy drunk and a sleep-deprived submarine captain.

John Terry makes a clearance.

The odd lack of mooring between the layers makes his identity seem to float, in some lazy cycle, from one depth to another, which is one reason, I think, that we were so enthralled by the plastic mask he wore to protect his broken cheekbone: because as another shell loosely fitted over the outer layer of his face, it appeared to deepen his character, to clarify some essential rule of his construction by slightly exaggerating it. It was one step beyond nature, but it was consistent with his face as we saw it.


Down from history, the redcoat quality of stoic acquiescence to whatever had to be suffered in the course of doing one’s duty, that weatherbeaten old-pine endurance and Waterloo-winning Major Dobbin lip, turned out to be partly transferable to football and a pub fight and gave birth to the quality of “hardness,” the virtue along the back of which one is able to absorb a barstool to the head through a sheer determination of the muscles and a talent for giving one back. That John Terry is seen as a “hard” footballer, despite his game being built more on accurate positioning and efficient headers than on any overpowering physical attribute, is a testament to the fact that as it is broadly understood in England the principal aspect of hardness is simply the urge to possess it.

John Terry in his plastic mask.

Terry plays like he wants to be hard and goes bravely into danger, although with his bad back, his breakable feet, his vulnerable face, he is susceptible to damage and must often be removed on a stretcher. But there’s no obvious descriptive category for his optimistic relentlessness and vigor around the goal, and so hardness proposes itself, even though, like his plastic mask, it distorts the thing it covers and is not a natural fit.

The Referee

Why is it that he seems to hate the referee so much? What goes through his mind in those moments when, a call having gone against his team, he rushes up to him, and accuses him, and, one of those too-large expressions of disbelief and outrage twisting his drowsy face, huddles over him and pleads with him like he’s warming his hands at a fire? When he tries to take the referee’s card away, as though, a higher justice being realized, he would be not only the captain of his own team but the referee for both? Is it that, working harder than anyone else and with a worse need pricking him, he can’t tolerate what he perceives as human weakness coming between him and the thing that he’s worked for? Is it that, having been called a leader but not precisely being one, he compensates by bullying, by bringing too much vehemence and too little discretion to moments in which leadership is called for? Or is it merely a tactic, a calculation that a latter call can be won by the torment he shows at a former? Or is there some anxiety about judgment involved, some sense that he’s not quite fitted for the roles he’s been universally urged to play, so that now, resenting assessment, he’s screaming on some level out of fear of being found out?

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The Tuesday Portrait: John Terry

by Brian Phillips · December 18, 2007

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