Walking Football, or Paradise Regained

The Long(ish) Read

Today and tomorrow/And yesterday too/The flowers are dyin’/Like all things do

It comes to us in a dream sometimes – some subtle scent of the person that we once were, à la recherche du waistline perdu. Skewed by the random freedom of our neurons to take liberties while we snore, I sometimes dream of playing football as a younger man.  I’m in the zone, floatin’ like a butterfly and exchanging knowing nods with Messi, framed in a strange fusion of Wembley and Grimsby, with the Argentine encouraging me, looking to pass me the ball – applauding me.  At some point I become vaguely aware that this is incredible but that perversely, I deserve it.  This recognition has always been coming, and here, on the brink of my old-age pension, I’ve made it at last.  This is the point that usually precedes the disappointing return to reality, the quick chortle to oneself.  It’s another day. Time to put the kettle on and pop the statins.

Messi – before you wake up

I packed the game in for good fifteen years ago, when I’d just turned 50. I’d been playing 7-a-side for a few years with a wild pack of younger Basque stallions on an unforgiving gym surface, and one night, after I’d fallen like an old horse, I knew it was over.  The knees were complaining and you can only kid yourself so much.  I’m neither the first nor the last to go through this type of doleful withdrawal, for it comes to us all, sooner or later. 

You get used to it – the lack of team involvement and the accompanying drop in your fitness, but you never quite get the better moments out of your system.  Like sexual memory, the brightest twinkles pursue you relentlessly through the rest of your life, refusing to grant you the comfort of gardening or knitting, or whichever replacement activity was supposed to float your older boat.  It’s probably best to omit the lover aspect from the rest of this extended contemplation, so suffice to point out that I do recall playing football well on scattered occasions as a kid and as a young adult.  I can remember with a saddening clarity those giddy moments when it all came together, when you couldn’t put a foot wrong, when you were uncannily in the zone.  If you could have found that magic territory every game then you would have become a pro, or something approaching it.  But the zone seldom visited.  There was no calling card, no pre-game announcement.

 Nevertheless, like other deluded young bucks, I kidded myself that I might be good enough – only to realise in the dread-filled darkness of adolescence that this was not the case.  The one guy who eventually turned pro from my school was on such a different level that any pretensions on my part or on those of my mates were cruelly stifled, dating from the crucial moment when I decided to stop bullshitting myself and he signed for Aston Villa.   Only then could you move on, bolstered occasionally down the line by those Messi-infused dreams of what might have been. 

My schoolmate (right) knocking it past Ray Clemence. Yes – a bit better than us

When you subsequently have children, it can be difficult to avoid projecting your stunted ambitions onto their own independent dreams, but you fall prey to temptation.  My son is a much better player than I was, and I hope he will forgive me some of that projection that I foisted on him as I approach my dotage, but it was with some pleasure last year that I texted him with the message; ‘I’ve been signed by Real Sociedad’.  His immediate response from his flat in Amsterdam was quite reasonably ‘WTF?’  Delaying the drama a little, I explained that I always knew it would happen – that it was just a matter of time before they recognised the quality in their midst, etc.  

I had in fact signed up for the over-55 Walking Football initiative of the club, with sessions every Tuesday in Zubieta, the mythical out-of-town quarry from whose rock the likes of Xabi Alonso and Mikel Arteta were hewn.  Spain has been slow to take up this sport, originally invented by a chap from Chesterfield around 2009.  In the UK there are now over 1,000 registered teams and 40,000 players and it’s become something of a craze.  England now have an official side and the first World Cup will be played in Derby this August, organised by FIWFA – with its crafty ‘W’ slipped in there.  The initiatives in Spain are scattered about at local level, but are stronger when backed by an autonomous region’s football federation, as in the case of the Basque Country.  The RFEF (the Spanish Football Federation) do not seem to be officially involved as yet, and a glance at the aforementioned World Cup shows that both Spain and the Basque Country (Euskal Selekzioa) have registered their squads and will take part.  Political issues aside, the presence of those two squads in the same tournament suggests that the registration for this grizzled gathering cannot enjoy – for the time being at least –official backing.

Paul Carr,the Chief Executive of FIWFA, told me in a cute phrase; ‘Both FIFA and UEFA have confirmed their disinterest in the new sport of Walking Football.’ That’s probably because it won’t make them any money, but it would certainly make them more humane. At the time of writing, 41 countries/nations are registered for the pensioners’ party in Derby, with Israel and Saudi Arabia tucked in there amongst the Isle of Man, Jersey, Nepal and Ukraine.  Could be interesting.  The Russian walkers appear to be staying away.

Anyway, when I first turned up in Zubieta we were given official Real Sociedad Foundation kit, freebie tracksuits and all manner of accessories – which was generous but smacked slightly of a commercial venture, as if we were the willing old fodder for some sneakier purpose.  More of that later, but on that first day it was comforting again to sit in a dressing-room full of fat smelly blokes talking bollocks. I’d missed it enormously, almost as much as the football itself.  And to be doing this in the hallowed surroundings of Real Sociedad was almost too much to bear. 

The first few weeks were nevertheless challenging.  On receiving a ball at pace after fifteen years, surrounded by opponents crowding your space and attempting to dispossess you, the result was an instinctive reaction to run….which culminates in a free-kick for the other team.  Try as I might, and despite the obvious dangers involved in stop-start running for someone my age, for the first month it was almost impossible to overcome the old reflexes, hard-wired and stored in the dormant neurons of youth.  The other problems were ones that I thought I’d left behind – the annoyance at losing, of making a mistake – of not being as good as some of the other players.  Pathetic but predictable, I found myself measuring myself up, of wondering where I might fit into this new little hierarchy.  

Who’s the handsome dude behind the ‘c’ of ‘Broche’?

Even in the dressing-room, as the group began to relax and the cliques began to form, the myriad character types from my playing days emerged with an inevitability that was actually comforting.  We were assigned two ex-pros as models to observe – Alberto ‘Bixio’ Gorriz, Real Sociedad’s appearance record-holder (599), a Spanish international and a much feared and respected centre-back during the club’s golden post-Franco period, and Mikel Loinaz, an old centre-forward in the traditional mode and a bit-part player in the 1980s and 90’s, moving on to Villarreal and Eibar, but fondly remembered for a post-goal provocative celebration in the  old Atotxa stadium during a derby against the old foe, Athletic. 

Mikel Loinaz, banter-merchant with mullett extraordinaire

Gorriz, 65, was immediately kind and generous, softly-spoken and clearly intent on reducing the reverence shown implicitly to him by a group of men from his generation – try as they might to be natural with him – whereas Loinaz (55) was the alpha in the pack, the banter merchant, the piss-taker, happy to bask in the deference that a bunch of ageing amateurs will always show to an ex-pro, and unforgiving out on the pitch. 

Alberto ‘Bixio’ Gorriz. Hard man, hard rain

Their abilities shone through, of course, even in the more limiting conditions of walking football.  With the younger Loinaz it was the sheer power and the accuracy of his passing, whereas with Gorriz it was more about his positional sense, anticipating your every move, luring you into a pass and then pocketing it, equipped as he is with some radar that ordinary mortals lack. If you managed to get past him, you felt euphoric – the additional bonus being that he wasn’t allowed to kick the fuck out of you for doing it. But others also began to emerge, once the euphoria had settled, once the cards had been dealt.  Some were obviously along for the social ride – a weekly escape from the confines of retirement, whereas others were middling, desperate for a second chance – and a small gilded few were brilliant, in some ways better than the ex-pros, able somehow to turn the spatial and dimensional limitations of WF to their advantage, perhaps better than they had been in the rough and tumble of real football.  Some of the women were excellent too, freed from the physical constraints of a contact sport. 

And that was precisely the life-changing discovery of WF, because when I’d played as a youngster I was technically alright until the going got physical, whence I was snuffed out of contention.  It was a brutal thing back then, that another man’s genetic inheritance, his mere physique, could reduce your Georgie Best pretensions to nothing – but here, in this new gathering in the dusk of life, something could be recaptured, some paradise regained. 

Basque men and women of this generation, born roughly between 1955 and 1965, are as hard as nails, have seen a lot of tragic stuff and have had to put up with a cartload of shit.  They don’t suffer fools easily.  Most of the men from this generation are called ‘Iñaki’, six of whom make up 20% of our now expanded squad of 29.  It can be complicated to ask for the ball if they’re all on your side, but if three of the good ones are, you invariably win.  And I still like to win, despite the surface absurdity of such competiveness at this slow-motion ox-bow stage of the river of life. One of these Iñakis is thin and hunched, and looks like he drinks too much.  He looks like a gale would blow him away like a flailing Mary Poppins, the umbrella wrenched from his skinny hands.   And yet if you try to tackle him, he drifts away from you like David Silva, into some space entirely of his own making, and plays a pass that invariably sets something up.  He must be pushing 70, and yet he is probably the best player.  After the weekly aerobic warm-up, conducted by two young track-suited bucks from the Sociedad Foundation, we go through a series of ball control and tactical routines in small groups, to then be assigned teams for the day’s game.  Like the cheat I always was, I try to make sure that I’m in Iñaki’s team, by hanging close to him when the bibs are given out. 

Spot the six Iñakis.

We get either Gorriz or Loinaz, but Iñaki’s presence is the one I most crave.  It brings back another feeling I thought I’d lost forever – that of an instinctive understanding with another player, a sort of unspoken relationship, a marriage of sorts.  He’s a much better player than me – and insists that he wasn’t even a semi-pro, but I don’t believe him.  Like a child, all I want is for him to show that he also wants me on his team. 

Some weeks I drive away from the ground in a foul mood, unable to accept that I can make mistakes, frustrated by the deteriorating relationship between my brain and my legs.  And then there are weeks when I drive away and realise that I might be a better player now, that the limitations imposed by the game suit me better, that I’m sometimes half a yard ahead because I see it more quickly than some others do, that I can still do an occasional step-over without falling on my arse, and that crucially, there are moments when I feel in the zone – that it’s come back to pay a belated visit before the knees give up for ever.  I’m sure the other guys and gals are boosted by the same delusion.  But that’s what we live for isn’t it? That’s why we want to keep going for longer than our own parents did because every now and then – and it might just be a single moment in a match – you do something that reminds you of when you were a kid, of when you only saw possibilities ahead of you, instead of that box of statins. 

We were rewarded with a game in Anoeta last summer, and now we’re now playing (and winning) competitive games against other teams, and there’s talk of us entering a tournament in Getafe, before summer.  We’ll be kitted out in the blue and white of Real Sociedad, and It’s fucking glorious, like Harry Potter has appeared with his wand and declared ‘Senex expelliarmus!’  The Whatsapp group is massively annoying, with its prostate-laden discourse and crappy jokes, and the general banter is sometimes tough for me, in a second language – but as the lone foreign signing I’m hanging in there. 

Kiss the badge, and make my day – punk.

To conclude, the entire experience can be summed up in the precious moment, during some session early this season, when I walked out onto the pitch with local hero and ex-Spain centre-back Alberto Gorriz.  As we vaguely took up our positions, I turned to him in a foolishly pro-active gesture and proclaimed the two sentences that I will recount to my grandchildren, one future evening as the shadow of the flames flicker on the walls of my fading days:  ‘Alberto? Tu de central y yo un poco mas atrás, ok?’  (Alberto?  You go centre-back and I’ll sweep behind you, ok?)  It was his gentle response of, ‘Ok Phil’ that I treasure.  I’ll die happy now.  It’s dumb but it’s true.

Phil Ball, San Sebastián


Multiple choice examination.  Tick one answer only. Only one answer is correct. (Answers now in bold – apart from Number 2, in case she sets her lawyers on me. But you know the answer, m’lud.)

  • Q1:
  1. Gary Lineker is a left-wing snowflake
  2. Gary Lineker is responding correctly to an important ethical issue.
  3. Gary Lineker is not a patriot.

What did Lineker ever do for his country?

  • Q2
  1. Suella Braverman is a deluded fascist
  2. Suella Braverman is a delusional fascist
  3. Suella Braverman is a patriot
  4. All of the above.

  • Q3:
  1. The Tories are justifiably aghast at Lineker suggesting that the Tories are like the Nazis
  2. Some Tories have Jewish backgrounds and are therefore correct to criticise Lineker’s referencing and label it ‘offensive’.
  3. Lineker is not comparing the Tories to the Nazis but is suggesting that Braverman and Sunak’s discourse is similar to that used at the onset of Nazi fascism.  The message is therefore an important one.
  4. Suella Braverman’s discourse is not, and has never been, remotely offensive.

New mug for BBC employees

  • Q4
  1. The right-leaning reaction to Lineker is correct because he has broken an impartiality clause with the BBC.
  2. The BBC impartiality clause is a convenient way for the Tories to avoid discussing the actual ethical issues surrounding the proposed law.
  3. Lineker is an ex-footballer and therefore unqualified to talk about issues of importance.

  • Q5:
  1. The Tories are not ex-footballers and are therefore qualified to determine the fate of people experiencing persecution and war.
  2. The Tories are genuinely concerned about these people, and that is why they want them to go to Rwanda – a stable democracy.
  3. The UK is not a stable democracy.

Democracy – this way

  • Q6:
  1. Lineker cannot express his views publicly because he is an employee of the BBC and his salary is paid for by the British tax-payer.
  2. Tory MPs cannot express their views publicly because their salaries are paid for by the British tax-payer.
  3. Lineker doesn’t give a fuck about (a) above because he is so outraged by the issue that he has decided to use his platform to speak out.
  • Q7
  1. The Tories are a party of moral probity and exemplary ethical behaviour.
  2. Marcus Rashford and Gary Lineker have achieved far more for the country than the Tories.
  3. Tories, and the media who float their boat, admire people like Rashford and Lineker and would never try to discredit them.
  4. The Nazis never tried to discredit anyone unfairly.

Here’s a wee clue to Number 4 above.

  • Q8:
  1. Lineker has taken in refugees and looked after them, but has not made a song and dance about it.
  2. Rishi Sunak would also take in refugees if he had the time.
  3. Suella Braverman would also do this if she had the time.
  • Q9:
  1. Right-leaning people favour freedom of expression.
  2. Right-leaning people favour freedom of expression until it contradicts their views.
  3. The left-leaning tofu-eating wokerati do not favour freedom of expression.
  • Q10
  1. Ian Hislop, editor and contributor to Private Eye, has been expressing his views politically on the BBC’s ‘Have I Got News for you?’ for years.
  2. Karren Brady works on a flagship BBC show but also sits in the House of Lords.
  3. Richard Sharp, chairperson of the BBC, is a Tory donor.
  4. Gary Lineker is not a Tory donor.
  5. All of the above are true.  

Impartial buddies

(Tick three only). Having successfully completed this examination, you now realise: (answers now in bold)

  1. That the fuss is not about the BBC and impartiality but rather about populist criticism of (Tory) government policy – which rarely occurs in mainstream media.
  2. Gary Lineker is wrong, on all counts.
  3. The BBC is left-wing.
  4. Impartiality clauses were invented before the age of social media.  They are therefore ineffectual and should probably be scrapped/re-worded.
  5. Suella Braverman is a first-rate intellectual.
  6. Match of the Day might be better without fucking pundits anyway.  

Phil Ball, March 11, 2023 (amended March 1th)

Wot – no beer?  Give us a break.

If instincts do actually plead, then mine are pleading with me not to write this piece, but bollox to that.  It’s been 9 years in the silent making, and on the eve of the World Cup in Doha that I allegedly kissed ass for in an (in)famous article for ESPN back in 2013, I thought I’d re-visit this dangerous ground – more aware now, of course, of the bilious nature of social media than I was back then.  Better writers than me are still being lynched for attempting to say anything positive about the event, so I’d better mind my proverbials, but anyway….whether or not silence is more golden, here’s my little cliff-leap contribution. 

Continue reading “Wot – no beer?  Give us a break.”

A curious communion. 

Grimsby v Solihull, June 2022

When anyone asks me which team I support, I always flinch slightly at the verb. I don’t ‘support’ Grimsby Town. The word suggests a pastime, a hobby, a magnanimous gesture.  My relationship with this team is something entirely different, as if they were an inexorable part of me, and me of them. They’re not an appendage, because that suggests something physical, but rather a part of my personality.  I’d prefer this not to sound too holistic or spiritual, but for those who worship at altars outside of the church of football, it’s a notion that cannot easily be understood. 

Continue reading “A curious communion. “

It’s The Balls! 2021-2022 LaLiga round-up.

It’s The Balls! 2021-2022 LaLiga round-up.

 Never mind the bullocks – it’s The Balls

Omicron arrived on a free transfer, the crowds came back, masks were breathed into and sarnies smuggled whilst Real Madrid, and not their noisy neighbours Atlético, won the title with an ease that was not on the cards in pre-season.  Strange and unexpected things also took place – Vinicius suddenly decided to be a world-class player, Luis Súarez finally looked just a little too tubby and Xavi Hernandez returned from the desert to claw back his beloved Messi-less Barça from the brink of implosion to the runners-up spot.  Several teams with Euro-competition squads were rubbish, for example Valencia and Celta, with Villarreal the unlikely heroes of the Champions League but failing to make an impact in the league. 

Continue reading “It’s The Balls! 2021-2022 LaLiga round-up.”

No Karim no party?

Real Madrid’s decision to wear black for the clásico at home – unprecedented if you ignore the time they once wore pink – gave the headline writers some cheap and instant metaphors for their weekend round-ups.  The obvious one being that they’d dressed up for their 120 year anniversary with a kit designed for the occasion, but ended the game in funeral colours.  Madrid remain nine points clear of Sevilla who could only draw at home to Real Sociedad, but the 0-4 result says a lot about this season’s rather curious dynamic.

Continue reading “No Karim no party?”

Good day Barça sunshine

If Real Madrid win their visit to Mallorca on Monday night – or if by the time you’re reading this they already have – you might be tempted to conclude that the race for the title, if thus it can be called, is over.  In truth it hasn’t really been a race, and Sevilla don’t really look as though they can sustain any meaningful challenge now, with ten games to go. If Mallorca were to surprise us all, then hope might spring eternal, but it would still be a long shot.  Even a bad result in next Sunday’s clásico for the leaders – entirely possible given Barcelona’s current form but equally improbable given their visit to Turkey on Thursday – would not cripple Madrid’s pretensions. 

Continue reading “Good day Barça sunshine”

Of cows’ arses and banjos

Funny old thing, isn’t it – the way that certain teams become a byword for a certain approach, or a certain ability – and then they suddenly forget how to do it, for no apparent reason?  But football’s a funny old game, and that’s why we love it so.  I refer principally to the rather splendid game at the Wanda on Saturday which saw Atlético Madrid, desperate for a tranquil victory as in their duller but effective days of yore, win 4-3 at the death with ten men on the pitch.  Suddenly they can’t defend, but they can score. As the Spanish say, ‘Mundo al revés’ (It’s a topsy-turvy world).    They’ve now shipped eleven in the last four games, and ice-man Oblak has suddenly turned all fallible, as if it had been a sham all along. 

Continue reading “Of cows’ arses and banjos”

Oh Dani Boy

Oh what a lovely weekend, with lots of interesting games and results to keep LaLiga lovers happy – where the sun finally broke through the clouds at Barcelona, shining on the Catalan paupers as they fielded their glossy new collection of Premier League rejects.  Only Griezmann was missing from the party, but Luis Suarez did manage to score against his old mates, even apologising as he ran back to the centre-circle…….but nobody seemed particularly interested.

Continue reading “Oh Dani Boy”