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: Jermain Defoe

He sits calmly. His elfin face peeks sadly over the high collar of his fleece pullover.

He sits calmly.

He sits calmly.

He sits calmly.

An aura of righteousness slowly gathers around him.

His team is down 1-0 in the 67th minute. He watches calmly, almost unconsciously, his head turning from side to side as the action moves between the goals. But the camera keeps cutting back to him, and the camera means only one thing: Why isn’t he in the match? Why wasn’t he started? Why hasn’t he been brought on? No one posed the question. The question just exists.

The crowd is aware of it. The fans watching the match at home are aware of it. A minor tension, a sort of psychic tightening, moves across the match.

He sits calmly, his small face partly obscured by the back of the seat in front of him.

Now someone gestures, and he bounces to his feet, peeling off the outer layer of his clothing, snapping his head from side to side.

A big arm—the coach’s—goes around his shoulders. He looks like a pupil being quietly chastised in class.

When he goes into the match, something changes: not dramatically, not so your nephew would notice, but it does. A thread of something passes through the air, calmly, delicately, a little sadly, like the band of light bending on the ceiling in a bedroom by the sea.

Now the portrait splits into, shall we say, six parallel possibilities.

In one of them, he takes the ball on the edge of the box, slips it past two converging defenders, and lifts it powerfully, brilliantly, into the top right corner of the goal. The crowd flowers and blooms, he races to the sideline with his arms gliding behind him, and for the moment, his sorrowful expression is replaced by a mask of justification and joy.

In two of them, he takes the shot, but the ball recoils off the post. The feeling in the air remains, and he threatens once or twice, but he never comes quite so close again.

In three of them, he disappears as though he’s been swallowed up by the game; as though, if you harpooned the game and sliced open its stomach, you’d find him patiently waiting inside, calmly, if a little plaintively, enduring the time till he was set free. After a couple of minutes, the feeling in the air dissipates.

The question, though the camera never asks it, is: Which version of him is the real one? Where can he be found? In the hero who proves his point? In the quiet disappointment? In the man who comes close but never quite seizes the day?

Is he so essentially the unjustly neglected second-choice player that he’s the unjustly neglected second choice even among unjustly neglected second choices?

Or is it the case that the real Jermain Defoe, since he’s the only one to appear in every version, is the one partly hidden behind the high-backed chair in the dug-out, cocooned in his dark warm-ups, sitting calmly, his tiny, mournful face turning from one side to the other as he waits for us to decide?

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The Tuesday Portrait: Jermain Defoe

by Brian Phillips · January 8, 2008

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