By David Flin
On the Sea Lion Press Forums, we run a monthly Vignette Challenge. Contributors are invited to write vignettes on a specific theme (changed monthly).
The fourth theme was "Football"
This Sunday, we present a vignette taken from the world of Six East End Boys
The Beautiful Game
“Pressure is a Messerschmitt up your arse. This is just a game.” Keith Miller.
It was different back then. You children aren’t old enough to remember what it was like back then, in the immediate aftermath of the London Uprising. We’d survived. We’d won. We’d gone up against tanks and soldiers and everything that could be thrown at us, and we’d won. The cost had been horrific, but it was for something.
I was a reporter, and I covered sport. I was young, but most of us were. So many had died that we were thrown in at the deep end to do the jobs that needed doing. My job may not have been vital, but it needed doing. I specialised in football, my first love.
We played as London. England refused to play us for a long time, but other countries were happy to play us. We weren’t a polished team, but we had passion, and we had fun. It was a game, and the team would try things, and they’d play with joie de vivre. When you’ve faced tanks and soldiers and survived amongst the rubble of a war-torn city, a central defender holds no fears.
The heart of the team were four players: Halnan, the goalkeeper, Bull; Christof, the left back, Bling; Tucker, an attacking midfield player, Judge. And there was Ebdon, central midfield, Silver. They’d grown up together, all from the same road in the East End. They’d played the game together as children, and it was as though they could read each other’s minds.
Ebdon, Silver, was the organiser, and he was hot and cold. Sometimes he would play like a god, and sometimes he would play like a dog.
I knew them all. I’d grown up with them. I’d played with them when we were children. I wrecked my back during the Uprising, so the closest I could come to playing the game after that was writing about it. I still carry a lump of metal in my back. It constantly hurts and it makes me grumpy, but that helps drive you on when interviewing. Soft words no longer cut any ice.
Then finally, London officially got its independence, and England had to play us. The atmosphere that night was incredible. The London anthem was played, and the crowd stood as one, and those who had been there raised their right arms in salute. Every single one of the team were Minstrel Boys standing with heads lowered, tears in the eyes, and right arms aloft. The atmosphere was electric. It was as though all the ghosts of all those who had fallen were there, willing us on.
The team felt it, and they were inspired. We tore them apart. The England team had prepared and planned. They had the best facilities money could buy, some of the great names of the sport, and it wasn’t nearly enough. We played the game for fun, children playing on the big stage. It was the very definition of the Beautiful Game.
In the carnage, Silver was a god, running things, and he scored the most perfect goal I’ve ever seen. He’d blocked the ball on the goal line, and rather than belting it in to touch, he started to take the ball forward. A shimmy of the hips, and he went past a tackle, and he laid the ball off to Judge, who caught the mood, and he played advancing triangles with Bling. The ball came to Silver, on the edge of the penalty area, his back to goal. He made as if to pass, looked like he was turning one way, actually turned the other, and struck the ball perfectly. It was, quite simply, the Platonic Ideal of a goal. The standard against which all other goals are judged.
The team won comfortably, and it came of age. When they played, they were mercurial. Sometimes it all clicked, and sometimes it all fell apart. Whatever else they were, they were never boring.
The four were not perfect men. They played for fun, they had survived the Uprising, and they lived life in the fast lane. Drink and women and parties. They’d gone from gutter-scum to heroes, and if I’m honest, it went to their head.
They got older, and younger players emerged, and the game moved on. They were still big names, but they were no longer what the managers wanted. They started to drift out of the game.
Bull became a coach, and he ended up managing the women’s team. The media hates him, because he bars any reporter who asks a player any question that he regards as demeaning or patronising, and the players love him because of it and because he always treats them as professionals and keeps the game fun.
Bling left the game entirely, went into business, and now has a successful chain of health food shops.
Judge is now a teacher. He’d said that the only way he had to get out of the ghetto was because he had talented feet, but he wanted to make sure other people had other ways of escaping poverty. He teaches in one of the roughest areas of London.
I think they’re all happy, or as happy as anyone can be in the years after the glory days have gone. All of them except Silver. Silver lived for the game, but the game was changing. He continued to play by intuition and talent and instinct. He was an artist, but the game had become a science.
The end was one of those pointless, futile tragedies. He’d gone back to his birthplace, and a group of kids were playing in the street, and he joined in. At heart, even when playing at the Towersey Stadium in front of 100,000 people, he was still just a grown-up kid playing football in the street.
The streets are cleared now, but it took a while, and back then, it was never entirely safe. There was a lot of ordnance expended during the Uprising, and not all of it went off, and it got buried, and sometimes, wrong place, wrong time, and there would be a bang when it went off.
God knows what it was that went bang. Tank shell, grenade, we’ll never know. What we do know is that it sent rubble flying, and some of that rubble took his left foot off. Shattered the leg completely. That could be repaired. One thing the Uprising had taught us was how to build good prosthetics. What couldn’t be repaired was his shattered spirit, and Silver just disappeared. There were many, many rumours about what had happened to him. I should know, I started a lot of them. There were attempts to track him down; we called it the “Where’s Silver” competition. After a while, the public forgot about him, and life moved on.
The game became mechanical and scientific. Everything was analysed to the minutest detail; discipline and formation and structure and percentage play. To compete, teams had to do this, but the cost was that technical excellence drove out artistic brilliance. The fun went out of the game, and a dreary 1-0 win was considered better than an exciting 3-3 draw. Winning became all that was important.
I progressed as a reporter, and I gave up doing sports. It was no longer fun. It was just mechanical, a battle of systems, not of players. I went into reporting on wars and disasters and tragedies. That wasn’t fun either, but it was exhilarating, and it was about people.
Exhilarating and depressing. You can’t go from one slice of Hell to another and see exactly the same tragic scenes played out time after time without getting depressed. At first, you think that showing people what’s going on will cause an outrage, and that it will cause something to be done. You show scenes that break your heart, and then the story gets knocked out of the schedule because some celebrity says a bad word on television before nine o’clock, and that’s considered more newsworthy than ten thousand dead in some far away land.
You go to refugee camp after refugee camp, and they all start to blur. No-one wants these refugees, and people living nearby are careful not to see them, because if they see, they might start to have pity and want to help. If the camps are out of sight, the people in them can be dismissed as sub-human scum who should be grateful they’re not eliminated.
In one refugee camp, there were soldiers guarding the camp. Obviously, they were there to stop those inside getting out. The soldiers had a game. They’d wait until Aid workers took in food, and as the refugees crowded round, they would take pot shots at some of them, scoring points for the difficulty of the shot. They’d say that they were shooting in self-defence if anyone asked them about it. Then the murdering scum would go home after their duty, and they would be doting fathers and loving husbands, and they’d talk about the football with their friends, and never mention that they’d turned murder into a sport. I reported on this, one of my best reports, full of righteous anger and fury and determined to make the world notice. But it had to compete with rumours of the Mayor seeking a divorce, so it never got aired.
It’s the same the world over. That is humanity, a stain on the world, a vileness that makes you wish for an end and a fresh start.
I had gone to yet another refugee camp, filled to overflowing with people fleeing a war. War. A simple, three-letter word that doesn’t begin to convey the horrors it unleashes. These refugees prefer a camp full to overflowing, with hunger and disease and an uncertain future, to the horrors they have fled.
At the edge of the camp, a group of children were kicking an old, battered ball about. I shook my head in despair. They had no idea about life. Then I saw that a few local boys were also playing, and a couple of adults. This was different, and you learn that different might be a story, that it might be your angle.
Then I recognised one of the adults. I hadn’t seen him for years. He played with the children; he ran with a limp, with a prosthetic foot, but the way he turned his shoulders as he changed direction was unmistakeable.
“Silver, what are you doing here?”
I went over, and he told me his story. How he’d got his prosthetic foot, and he’d been depressed, thinking of suicide. How he’d met an Aid worker also getting a foot replaced, and she’d told him about these camps, and how he should count his blessings. Silver, the Hell-raising Lothario, fell in love with her, and they go to refugee camps, and she treats problems in the present, and he gets kids from the camp and local kids playing football. Just kickabouts between children.
“That way, maybe when the children grow up, they’ll see the people on the other side of the fence as human beings, and not scum.”
He looked happy, content. “Maybe it’ll do no good, maybe it will. Who knows? But it’s what the game is all about. Playing, having fun, and getting to know your opponents.”
A woman waved from the Aid truck. “Hopalong, we’re done for the day.”
Silver smiled happily. “It’s the wife. I’ll be back tomorrow, kids. Maybe I’ll show you how to put a swerve on a ball.” He headed over to the truck, looking for all the world like a giant child called in for tea by his mum. The kids waved goodbye, and then they continued their game, locals and refugees playing together, playing football. This was how football should be.
If there is hope for the world, this is where it lies. In the beautiful game.