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a love letter to the beautiful game
My mother would tell you that I’ve played football for longer than I’ve lived.
Much to her chagrin, I found my knack for kicking things while in the womb. And this mortal obsession has followed me through three continents, two broken toes and several smashed-up houseware (sorry mum).
As a teenager, I ripped my palm in two; a rusty, iron nail split my flesh apart like a famished jaguar while playing room soccer, a forbidden but frequently-played version of football in Nigerian boarding schools. A game we played because we couldn’t wait till sports time to grace the pitches. But while the resulting stitches have healed and softened, my obsession has only intensified and deepened.
My knees have come to accept and love scabs, scrapes and cuts. Like the uncle who shows up at your door uninvited, I know they’re always a moment’s visit away. My right ankle snaps, crackles and pops like your favourite British cereal when I rotate it counterclockwise. The night before travelling to the East Coast to meet an ex’s parents for the first time, I fractured my hand on a futsal pitch…and kept on playing.
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To the uninitiated, football is a silly game. It’s a bunch of grown, (hopefully) tax-paying men and women running around like headless chickens, kicking a round ball into a rectangular goal. People who ought to have better things to do - bills to pay, dishes to wash, or kids to feed. Yet, if you visit La Bombonera in Buenos Aires and feel it shake, shiver and swivel from the seismic chants and beaten drums of the fans, you will know that this is serious business. How is it that football makes otherwise seemingly unemotional men to break down weeping and wailing?
What’s all the fuss about?
Like all beautiful things in life, football is layered. You can admire her superficial beauty from afar: a non-believer can appreciate the skill of a stunning goal. But the more you peel back the layers, the more interesting it becomes.
Football really is a simulation of life. The pitch is the stage that provokes every emotion from deathly disappointment to jaw-dropping feelings of awe; from crippling hopelessness to resurgent heroism. From moments of sheer madness to glimmers of pure, unrestrained genius. It’s a mirror held up against the heart of man.
The pitch is the church of the improbable. A place where more Goliath’s are slain by workmanlike David’s than in any other sport. At least that’s what this Nature study tells me, and my unrepentant bias leads me to believe it.
The pitch is the cathedral of creativity. What looks like white lines on green grass is really a sanctuary of skill and an altar of the audacious. A theatre of dreams, drama and dizzying spectacle.
A single game can take you through an emotional rollercoaster. As a player, somedays you wake up feeling loose and limber like you’re ready to destroy any opponent. Other days, you feel a little slow, a little sluggish like you’re treading through treacle. Your warm up isn’t quite as dynamic and your legs seem a few seconds off the pace. Your technique has betrayed you and you look like a bumbling giraffe on ice-skates.
Then, the game starts, and you try to get your first touch of the ball. Hopefully, something easy just to get the confidence going. The ball’s coming your way. You come closer so your teammate can pass it to you. They ignore you. Boom, they pass over to other direction. No biggie. Just run over to the other side and make yourself an easy option.
You sprint across to help the opposing winger. Unfortunately, for you, that player has decided that this is his moment to shine. He’s opened his bag of tricks and is swaying his hips in various contortions to try to dazzle the defender. He loses the ball. Now, you have to run for him. Shit. You still haven’t touched the ball. You still feel a bit slow. But you double down and try to win the ball back.
A little shoulder bump, and you retrieve it easily. You pirouette out of that space like a graceful ballerina and make a fiercely-zinged forward pass. As you waltz by the person you stole the ball from, you leave a cheeky wink at their door. Your teammates love it. Okay, you’re awake now. Welcome back, you baller. In six minutes, you went from insecure and impatient, then determined, and exuberant and finally, a little cocky. Isn’t that a microcosm of life?
When the storms of life are seesaw-ing and making you nauseous, there’s something calming and restorative about playing footy. Something you’ve always done. A blissful oasis in the middle of the desert. You need your brain for all that serious stuff like prepping for an interview. But not here. I’ve used football to grieve friends departed and relationships sadly changed for the worse. It’s not a spiritual meal replacement, but at least it helps you get out of your head for a few hours. It helps you forgive yourself when necessary.
Football is therapy. All fellow fanatics can attest to this. On those days when the sun isn’t shining so brightly, and the grey fog has refused to clear, football has a way of picking you up. It quells the storm. If only for the moment. It distracts you. And reacquaints you with your inner child. The person who played for joy. Not for the stupid coach that tried to force you to play a certain way. Nor for the potential or acclaim of making it pro.
Football connects us. When Morocco made it to the semi-finals of the World Cup last year, the entire African and Arab world were united in her support. Everyone loves an underdog story. Border skirmishes, territorial disputes and political disagreements were temporarily halted so we could support one of our own. In my own life, I’ve made two intercontinental moves from Lagos to Cambridge, then Loughborough to San Francisco. Each time, I've been able to make my first friend in a new town through pickup football.
Football is artistic expression. For me, football has always had more in common with dance than brutish affairs like ice hockey. We are born to dance: before children can communicate verbally, they bop and dip to rhythms. When played from the soul, football is the same. It’s freestyling in the kitchen without a recipe. It’s an old jazz record on replay in the background. It’s letting your intuition and inner maverick take the wheel.
Look at this video. What do you see?
For me, it’s the same as watching a flock of birds migrate for the winter. Their whims and wonts so perfectly aligned that it appears they’re a super-organism. Every player in yellow faultlessly tuned into the same frequency. Each unit aware of exactly what the other needs at the right moment. Each player merely kissing the ball with a single touch, a mere brush of their easel. All in sync, they dance along and manage to evade the opponents like a dragonfly you can’t swat.
Isn’t that art?
Football is simple: Put the ball in the net without letting the ball touch your hand unless you're a goalkeeper. Sure, there’s VAR and offsides but those are the only hints of complication. Meanwhile, I’ve lived in the US for six years, and I still don’t understand American football. Too many players, rules and ads for me to get it. Maybe that says more about me. But football, or soccer, lest I offend, is the everyman’s game. You only need a ball.
Growing up, I played a lot of 2v2, 3v3 and 5aside football. On paved roads, in gated properties, on concrete courts, sandy beaches, lush artificial pitches and thick grassy fields. In boarding school, we made improvised footballs by tightly wrapping tissue paper and notebook paper from our books and taping them together so we could play during lights out…when we were supposed to be sleeping.
Following football is like watching a reality TV show that gets better every year. The plots thicken, storylines entangle and the cast manage to get fitter and faster. Every year, the director finds new ways to twist even seasoned watchers into a wreck.
I’ve been watching football for twenty odd years and last year’s World Cup final was the best final I’ve ever seen. Messi, undoubtedly the greatest player of all time pitted against his ascendant successor, Mbappe. In the first half, Argentina made it look like a training game, pressing, whipping and bamboozling the French. Enzo, McAllister and the timeless Di Maria were chief conspirators. The rebranded All-African team (oops, I mean the French team) was shocking in that opening half. So much so that the coach subbed off two of their best players before half time.
Monsieur Mbappe decided to take the game into his own hands in the second half. Two quick-fire goals stunned the South Americans. The Latin music was abruptly cut off and the tango would have to wait. Messi scored again in extra time and we thought that was his crowning moment. Until, Mbappe responded with another penalty. The first player to score a hat-trick in a World Cup final. Game on. Tied at 3-3.
In the last minute of extra time, both teams squandered sublime chances to seal the deal. Emi Martinez made perhaps, the best save in World Cup history to deny Kolo Muani. The French bench were literally on the pitch already celebrating what seemed a certain goal. The ball never went out…and the Argentinians fashioned a golden chance only for Lautaro Martinez to screw up a header that could have driven a dagger into French hearts. Penalties, it is.
With a no-look, reverse whipped kick into the bottom-left corner, Gonzalo Montiel sent his nation into eternal celebration. And my Apple Watch beeped to ask if I was running. A few friends around me let tears out. Mind you, none of us is Argentinian or French. What a bloody beautiful spectacle. Kudos to the writers’ room.
What bigger drama is there? Listen to the depth of emotion in this commentator’s voice:
In August 2021, I watched Brentford, a small team from West London host a match against Arsenal, their substantially bigger neighbours from North London. In their first game in the top league, the Brentford Bees buzzed, battered and bruised their fancy, upperclass opponents. They won 2-0. But it felt like men against boys.
During the post-game celebrations, the camera cut to an older gentleman who sat solemnly clapping his team on as a few single tears streamed and rolled down his cheeks. His countenance was not broken. He was both overcome with emotion and confidently effusive in his support.
A lifelong fan, he had supported his little local team for decades. Brentford hadn’t won a topflight match for seventy-four years. He never dreamed they would make it to the Premier League, not least manhandle a European superpower. How could he? It was unthinkable.
And in that very moment, tears fell out of my eyes too. Because the beauty of football transcends the goals and the skills. Football is beautiful because it’s incredibly human: the stories, the narratives, the arcs, the joy, the dance and the art.
So what’s the fuss about football?
It’s a drug that lets us soothe our souls, quell our fears and make us feel alive. Is there another activity where I feel more in flow? Where there’s more alignment between mind, body and soul? Where I can blend art and movement in such perfect unity? Perhaps dance and writing, but nothing else comes close in my mind.
I’ve experienced everything on the pitch: the hero’s peak when I delivered when my teams needed me most and the gambler’s high when I take a ridiculous off-the-cuff risk and swindle my way out of trouble. The immediate regret I’ve felt whenever I snapped and stupidly kicked someone when the ball was miles away. The feeling of telepathy when I assist a friend by passing right exactly as I know they want it; a moment’s glance enough to transmit a sea of words. Shock horror when I see a friend fracture bones in their face.
From self-confidence and assuredness to improperly-calibrated aggression and utter disgust. The ecstasy of winning seven or eight amateur league titles with my friends in San Francisco. The hair-pulling anguish when my groin refused to heal no matter how much physical therapy, yoga, and verbal affirmations I gave it.
Football breaks down the silly walls and barriers that humans erect to distract and divide ourselves. On the pitch, we’re all teammates. Your demographics don’t matter a jot. As long as you pass me the ball 😉.
Sure, playing football makes us fitter and makes our hearts healthier. But that’s a happy coincidence, I’d play football if it were carcinogenic.
If you know of another drug, that offers half as much joie de vivre and doesn’t have any vicious side-effects, please let me know. Until then, you know where my allegiance lies.
"Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I don't like that attitude. I can assure them it is much more serious than that.”