Do you remember that chilly afternoon in Edinburgh, years ago now, when we leaned over the wall by the National Galleries, and watched four kids playing football in Princes Street gardens down below. We were almost directly above them, standing in the Gods. It must have been winter as the flags for the putting green had been taken in. They played their game and the city hurried by. No one else stopped.
It was like seeing what the game of football is for the first time: all the palaver that has become attached to it, the fuss of colours and teams and laws all fell away. I remember turning to say to you, it’s a story, that’s all. And so it is. But, however magical the tale, there can only be a few possible outcomes, and just what they are we all know, always.
The team with the ball has a two-to-one advantage. This time it’s the kid with the blue jersey who stays in goal. The ball is passed from one attacker to the other, either left or right, so that it passes the single defender. He runs wildly to-and-fro in that mirror space between attacker number one (the tall skinny one) and attacker number two (who is always laughing). Either the kid who is defending guesses right and intercepts the pass – there is only ever one pass – or he doesn’t. If he doesn’t manage to intervene then a drive is fired in towards the two coat bundles and a goal is scored, or not, and one of two possible endings is written.
The entire game is made up of these two passages of play: first the thing of the pass, left or right, the episode of the defender’s blind-guess made without ever having the possibility to look round; and the second, the thing of the shot, left or right. It doesn’t matter what the outcome of each tale is since the score is already something like 18–13 and they are playing first to 30.
In games such as these, unstated laws are extended with each play: you can trip but ankles only; you can play so wide but not that far out; you can tug but not push. With each kick they discover movement; legs seem to become longer; sockets stretch and roll and knees knock; grass stains and grazes appear. A desperate last gasp tackle is missed, and a kid falls, rolls and slumps onto his elbows, all in one motion, leaving go of all care to laugh and give no attention to the other, the attacker, who is about to score. Another time the ball is carried far, far over the imaginary goal line, and dragged all the way round behind the goals, as the two kids canter shoulder to shoulder like a frisky pantomime horse, to re-enter at the other side, and on it goes.
Everything is at the same time real and imagined. The flat surface of the green earth grips onto the ball but when it’s up in the air the game swings further towards the imagination. The height of the bar is an extension of the goalie’s own height. The play is instantly telescoped in their minds into great sweeping moves: dashes from defence, crunch tackles, rasping drives and incredible fingertip saves. Even from up here we know how to read this dance.
The game isn’t played for winning, not really. The longer that it goes on the richer the stories become. Park until dark, the mud-streaked ball ghosted in gloom; a winter game played for the two episodes; played for laughs; and for something more, the blind-guess, and the ending.