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When I close my eyes and think back to childhood, I am running across a bumpy field in Holland, the ball at my feet, writes Simon Kuper. I am 12 years old, wearing my club’s red and black, and we are playing against farmers’ kids from a nearby village. Each of them is a head taller than us. It is a cold autumn Saturday morning.
The farmers are running out of defence, trying to catch us offside, but I dribble past one of them and then, facing the keeper, shoot (probably quite softly, if you travelled back in time with a speedometer) into the bottom corner. We beat Teylingen 4-1. I have the photographs. My father took them. I can still see him there, freezing behind the goal in his Parka.
I still play football – in Paris, for a team called Ireland – but after 30 years my time is running out. This may be my last season. Before chucking my boots into the mouldy hole that is the spare room, I want to pass on the little I have picked up along the way. The standard advice is to work on your game but who has time for that? Luckily, there are short cuts.
Most of mine come from the Dutch. No other small nation has had more success in football because nobody else thinks about the sport as much. Football, says the national football philosopher, Johan Cruijff, is a “game you play with your head”. Frank Rijkaard, a great Dutchman of the 1980s, now manager of Barcelona, told me he loves “those laws of football, the logical reasoning”. Here are some of those laws:
The secret of marking an opponent, Rijkaard told me, is not to worry too much about the ball. “A ball by itself has never scored a goal,” he said. Therefore, a marker should ignore the ball, if it’s not anywhere near, and glue himself to his man. Touch him often, to ascertain which way he is moving. Even goals you see on television are often scored by a striker whose marker has wandered off looking for the ball. When you’re playing terribly, says Cruijff, do the simple things. Get the ball. Pass it to your nearest teammate. Repeat. The sensation of doing something right will restore confidence.
Generally: keep it simple. We sports journalists sometimes play friendly matches with ex-pros. You then see how simply they play. Instead of flying around like Superman, they give easy passes. The one pro I encountered who was Superman was Micky Hazard. Playing for an old Spurs team against our financial journalists’ 11 at White Hart Lane, Hazard dribbled past four of us on our goalline, turned round and beat us all again before scoring. His teammates, who had been queuing for an easy tap-in, cursed him.
Only morons play while injured. You’ll make it worse. Many injuries never fully heal.
Marco van Basten, Holland’s manager, notes that you have the ball for perhaps two minutes a match. What matters most is your positioning during the other 88 minutes. Use this time to check where everyone else is. Ronald Koeman, the great Dutch libero, would thrust his head violently in all directions. When he got the ball, he could pass instantly because he had mapped the pitch in his head. Few of us can kick with our wrong foot. Cruijff told me the secret. “It’s easy. Whether you kick with your right or your left, you’re standing on one leg. And if you stand on one leg, you fall over. So you need to adjust your balance, and the only way to do that is with your arm.” Throwing out his right arm, Cruijff kicked an imaginary ball left-footed across his Barcelona living room. “Well, that’s not so difficult,” he concluded. I now throw out my right arm too. Strangely, it helps. When a ball bounces towards you 30 yards from goal, you will experience a rush of blood to your head and want to shoot. Don’t. You’ll miss horribly. Pass.
When fouled, walk away. Count to 10. Then, when the referee is no longer watching you, retaliate. Wim van Hanegem, thuggish Dutch genius of the 1970s, recommends elbowing someone while the ball is in the air because then everyone will be looking upwards.
Praise your teammates, particularly bad or new teammates. This has nothing to do with being a good person. It serves a higher purpose: winning. Given confidence, they will play better. I learned this only after leaving Holland, where praise is taboo.
At the final whistle, you may want to throttle the referee, opponents or teammates. Don’t. Walk off the field. Do not speak. Shower. After that, your adrenaline will have degraded, and you’ll feel too weak to throttle anyone. This isn’t much wisdom for 30 years. But if it saves someone else time, my career won’t have been utterly in vain.