Up until a couple of years ago, I played five-a-side football every week with a group of friends, the core of whom worked for the same employer. Because the founders (and I) used to work in a building near Farringdon station, one of them had the bright idea that we should be called… the Farringdon Studs. Or, as a female colleague of mine was moved to nickname us, the Farringdon Spuds, on account of that being a better representation of the average body shape we sported.
Playing football once or twice a week is a vent for folk who spend their days in offices. It becomes addictive, a moment of time during the week when you can lose your mind in something predominantly physical and instinctive. It’s fun, but don’t let anyone kid you that it’s non-competitive. Each week, with familiarity, with new blood, with would-be managers and captains watching your every pass, the pressure builds. It’s fun, but no-one wants to be on the losing team. So much so that inevitably there were dust-ups from time to time; but we always shook hands. You always should.
Five-a-side football has a place in British and I imagine European culture roughly equivalent to basketball in the States. At least, that’s what I think when I read George P. Pelecanos, and his characters are facing off on a neighbourhood court with two hoops. Those hoops, our goals, they carry in their nets echoes of the glory that as children and sometimes even as teenagers we thought might be ours. And for an hour a week, there is always the chance that glory will be ours again.
People play football according to their character. I suspect the differences are considerably more obvious than they are at professional level, where the standard irons out quirks, and media training dampens down personality. I played with some of the Studs for approaching ten years, and socialised with them enough to know that how they played on a five-a-side pitch was more or less how they were in the rest of their lives. You might even say that on the astroturf you see a more intense and honest version of the person, because what is said and done is rarely weighed beforehand.
So let me sketch a few of those characters. Sly Tom, the lazy fuck who lets others do his running, though you might call that positional sense, because he is a hard tackler and difficult opponent; of course he fancies himself (the long flowing locks and Terry Thomas moustache are a giveaway) but is still infuriatingly likable for all that. Dour and mischievous Sanjeev (traits that I always suspected came from being Rochdale born and bred), affects to be lazy but gets on people’s back when he believes they’re not pulling their weight and is himself capable of surprisingly hard work and unexpected flashes of brilliance. Farhan, who’s let himself inflate to a size he shouldn’t have, full of Brazilian trickery and amusement, but an organiser and as loyal as they come. Archie, rugby player build, and a mind that I imagine accords with the better parts of a rugby player’s too, something of a leader, never a lost cause, but gentle and generous immediately off the pitch. Dave, tenacious tackler, sticks to the left wing, cannonball shot, occasionally flaring temper, but more gracious than a long-standing freelancer has any right to be. Jimmy, whose centre of gravity seems to be lower than you’d guess, leaving him able to weave defences inside out before ramming the ball – previously stuck to his mercurial toes – home. Grumbling Wayne, consummately our best player, frustrated at everyone else’s inadequacies, but not apparently aware that he has any himself; by the end of the game disenchanted, talking to himself, quick to quit the scene.
They would all recognise the others, if not themselves, in these descriptions, even with the names changed to protect the guilty. And me? Number 7 shirt, good passer of the ball, determined runner, reluctant but never less than positive captain. On the other side of the balance sheet, dodgy shot in front of goal, the tackling ability of Paul Scholes (translation: not good verging on dangerous), and prone to lapses of concentration. As is the lot of most players, it has been my destiny to know only occasional moments of glory; nothing has joined the MHFA (London) Five-a-side Winners 2001 trophy on the mantelpiece. It’s been downhill ever since.
I could offer the same kind of sketch for the Rovers with whom I risk my dodgy ankles on Regent’s Park’s baked and uneven surface come summer; or for any of the people with whom I’ve regularly played. Everyone has had something to offer on the pitch. Now I’ve found myself a new game, and the characters are all taking their place alongside all the other great and not-so-great five-a-siders I have known. My new team-mates might each remind me of certain of the Studs or Rovers, but in the final analysis – the one which is occasionally conducted in the pub after the game – every single one of them brings an identity onto the pitch as individual as his own face. And that is a vital part of what makes our weekly game so endlessly enthralling.