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