The other morning, on a dirt field just outside Paris, you could have seen a curious sight. A pudgy, middle-aged man in shorts and a green Ireland replica shirt lumbered around shouting obscenities at younger men wearing Argentina replica shirts, occasionally trying to kick them but always arriving too late. That man was me. I felt ashamed not merely after the match but during it. I realised then that, at 37, I needed to retire from football, or at least from young men’s football.
This would be just one man’s sad story except that in some form or other it happens to all of us. Retiring from sport is one of those little deaths we experience on the road to death.
George Orwell asked: “What have
you in common with the child of five whose photograph your mother keeps on the mantelpiece? Nothing, except that you happen to be the same person.” Often, the one thing we share with that child is a love of games.
Football is probably the thing in
life that brings me closest to the seven-year-old who used to wake up before dawn on Saturdays, dash to his club’s ground and hang on the locked railings outside until, finally, at eight o’clock, someone opened them.
In surveys of boys, some astounding percentage of them predicts they will later make a living playing professional sport. They don’t, but during their decades on park fields, the odd moment – a clean tackle, a shot in the far corner – feeds the essential sporting fantasy of being the perfect human specimen.
Life is a series of disappointed expectations – that’s the narrative structure – but one of the first things that lets you down is your body. “Only at 20 does your body function perfectly,” mused the legendary Argentine footballer Alfredo di Stefano, who is now 80. Ben Hurley, professor at the University of Maryland’s Center on Aging, once explained the sequence of decline to me. Flexibility goes first. Then, from about the late 20s, cardiovascular capacity declines, robbing you of endurance. At the same age you start losing “muscle power”, which Hurley defines as the velocity at which you can produce your maximum force. At 30 you will jump more slowly and less high than before. Reaction times drop too.
Gerald Vanenburg, a brilliant Dutch footballer, told me that he discovered in his early 30s that even his co-ordination had declined: he was no longer as tricky on the ball as before. Strength goes last: muscle and bone mass only start diminishing in one’s 30s. Meanwhile, the injuries picked up
over a lifetime take a cumulative
toll. The best advice on aging remains: don’t do it.
By the time you’re 37 there isn’t much left, particularly if you have torn your knee ligaments twice. In a game the other week I was moving to a loose ball knowing exactly who I was going to pass it to. I had the scene planned in my head but, by the time I arrived, the ball had already moved on. It seemed I was even slower than I thought I was. In soccer, with apologies to P.J. O’Rourke, youth, innocence and a bad haircut beat age and guile.
In my last game against “Argentina” (really a bunch of Argentines living in Paris), we had 14 players. I was 14th man. After more than an hour freezing on the sidelines, I was finally sent on. There were only 20 minutes left to play but I exhausted myself even before the match was over. During my time on the field Argentina scored two goals to win the match. I have, in my life, been humiliated more soundly in a shorter space of time, but not very often.
There are various last times in
life. And When Did You Last See
Your Father? asks the title of Blake Morrison’s memoir of his own father’s life and death. There is the last time you kiss a certain person and the last time you leave a particular house, but your last proper game in your chosen sport is almost of that magnitude. After that last time, you know that certain of your ambitions will never be realised. After it, you can also look back and recognise the peak: for me it was a match in Spandau outside Berlin when I was 21, the best I ever played, the closest I got to the footballer I wanted to be.
Another time that year in Berlin, due to a mix-up, my team ended up playing an over-35s side. Our opponents amused me: pudgy middle-aged men lumbering around trying to kick us but always arriving too late. Now I’m hoping to join the over-35s’ team of a friend in Paris. Last year one of his teammates died on the pitch of a heart attack. In that sort of company I might just pass as nippy. But presumably in over-35s football it’s no longer possible to fantasise about being the perfect human specimen. The players’ have just one ambition: to spend a morning away from their children.
Yet I’m glad to be quitting proper football. It had become too stressful.
A friend of mine, a mad-keen cricketer, told me this summer that he’d never properly enjoyed a cricket match while he was actually playing because he always was too nervous. Only when the game was over did he enjoy it in hindsight.
That’s how I had been feeling about football lately, except that I rarely enjoyed it in hindsight. I would spend the days before the game worrying about humiliating myself. When I did, I would dwell on it all weekend. Football was the activity of my week that confronted me most keenly with my shortcomings. When I was seven I never feared the game like that. But I never imagined then that I would become a wreck.