'You can do a lot with hype. You can make superstars of tuneless bimbos. You can sell Teletubby dolls and Mr. Blobby records. You can stand reality so far on its head that the difference between shambling mediocrity and genius is as fine as (a) page of newspaper.' - James Lawton, British Sportswriter
First off, let me inform you that you are very lucky to be hearing this story. I was originally saving it for my autobiography, provisionally titled “Coffee and Newspapers: A Sort of Life”.
This section of my memoirs concerns soccer. We actually call it “football” where I come from but I don't want it to be confused with “American Football”, a completely different game played by men with odd-shaped balls.
Soccer, we're told, is the world's most popular sport. Admittedly, it isn't so hot in North America where sports such as baseball are the real crowd-pullers. I remember watching a vox populi segment on CNN (Continuous Negative News?) some years ago where random Americans were being asked if they knew who Maradona was. The majority hadn't heard of him but the most interesting response came from a talking head who said: “Yes - I like her music.” He was apparently confusing the soccer legend with pop singer Madonna.
Away from North America, however, soccer is almost a religion, if not one. Even a decidedly regional encounter like Europe's UEFA Cup tournament still finds an echo around the globe. Soccer superstars like Kaka, Ronaldinho, Fernando Torres, David Beckham and Ronaldo rake in millions of dollars in dues and endorsement fees each year while team brands are emblazoned on everything from T-shirts to key-holders.
In Africa, soccer reigns as the undisputed King of Sports and many are the tournaments that are organised. Unfortunately for my particular country, the gods of soccer have not been kind to us. Our story is that of great expectations unfulfilled and exceptional talent left undeveloped. Not only has our performance in international matches and tournaments been lacking, but in 2004 we were altogether banned by FIFA, soccer's governing body. To this day, when our national team (Harambee Stars) plays against another country, I cheer for the other side. It's not that I'm not patriotic, it's just that I'm pretty certain the Harambee Stars will lose, and I prefer to be on the winning side! Despite the setbacks, football fever runs high here and we boys are introduced to the craze at a very early age. I can recall kicking soft rubber balls around the house when I was knee-high to a kitten.
In primary school, every break was a soccer break. And since we didn't always have access to the school's supplies, we made our own balls by wrapping nylon paper over a compression of soft paper and then weaving a spider's web of nylon string connections over the mass. Makeshift goal posts were designated using pullovers or shoes and referees were as rare as European royalty at a reggae concert. The name of the game was to have a good time and the rules were flagrantly flouted. Off-sides and other minor contraventions often went uncalled. Teamwork also took a blow because everyone was over-eager to score. And since our female counterparts often watched from the sidelines, “score” was a word that loomed large in our pubescent minds.
Those who were quick on their feet would generally avoid the main body of players and instead dart along the edge of the field, kicking the ball ahead of them as they went, while the slower ones mastered the art of dribbling and faking moves, only passing the ball when they were cornered by the opposition. Because I wasn't good at dribbling, I was one of the fellas speeding along the rim and trying to get to my opponent's goal area before they caught up with me. Another role I cherished was that of "defender". The defender's job was to hang in front of the goalkeeper at all times, meeting the opposition head-on so that the keeper wouldn't have to deal with too much heat. Because you weren't supposed to leave the goal area, you had the luxury of sitting down in the grass when the ball was far afield, and rarely were you blamed if the opponent's ball managed to find the back of your net. (Of course if the goal was makeshift then there was no actual net but I'm sure you get my point.) And if the ball was one of those paper ones, then unique problems presented themselves: as all golfers and surfers know, the wind is a fickle mistress and cannot be relied upon.
Finding the back of the opponents' net was important to me and I watched countless hours of “Football Made In Germany” and other televised soccer presentations in order to learn more about scoring tactics. From how far away from the goal should you go for the money shot? If you're close to the goal, should you attempt to flip the ball past the goalkeeper or strike so hard that the goalkeeper has little time to react? These were the kind of questions that ran through my mind. Of particular interest to me was a technique that is still commonly used by strikers while taking penalty shots. They come in, calm and collected, and kick the ball such that it lands in the opposite side from the one the goalkeeper dives in. Many a penalty kick is scored in this fashion. I loved that move so much I just had to try it back at school.
I got my opportunity when I was 14 and we were using a hockey pitch rather than the usual soccer field. The relative smaller size of the goal the made the chances of scoring anorexic at best. Well, someone from the other side touched the ball with his hand in the course of the match and that being a capital crime in soccer, his team had to be punished through a penalty kick in their goal area. The striker was yours truly and I smiled with savage glee as I assumed my position a few metres in front of the confident goalkeeper.
Understand first that a professional goalkeeper handling a penalty kick keeps his eye on the kicker, not the ball. That's because a ball kicked at close range often moves too fast for a human being to intercept it. The goalkeeper stands more of a chance of making a “save” if he can somehow anticipate your move and start jumping before the ball becomes a blur. As the kicker, your trick, then, is not to give away your intention. Your eyes and feet should be facing away from your target. You then graze the ball with the side of your boot (or whatever you have in the name of footwear) as you kick in the false direction. Kick hard. If your execution is true to plan, the ball goes off at a tangent and finds the corner of the goal opposite to the direction of your kick.
So there we were. A hockey pitch doing duty for a soccer arena. Golden bars of sunlight falling from cloudy African sky. Everyone crowding around the goal area to witness the penalty shot. And me trying very hard not to let the goalkeeper see that I wanted to put the ball in the right-hand corner. I stepped back a couple of paces. I lurched forward in a curve. I made a connection.
It was beautiful.
I have never forgotten it and I'm going to make sure my grandchildren don't, either. The goalkeeper and the ball flew in opposite directions and my teammates went wild! It worked even better than I had anticipated. You should have seen the look on the disgraced goalkeeper's face as he sat in the wrong corner wondering how the ball could have ended up so far from him.
I never made another crack penalty shot because soccer lost its fascination for me when I went to secondary school and life's larger issues - like careers and relationships - came to the fore. Indeed I cannot understand the current obsession with championship soccer. Sure, a good football match has way of holding your attention, but do you have to assault the opposing team's fans, the way soccer hooligans often do? Do you have to worship a player just because he put a couple of balls past the goalkeeper? Soccer stars are nowadays piped as “heroes”. Young boys in Japan may buy Beckham-approved sunglasses and youngsters in Africa shave their heads like Ronaldo but will that make them better players? I think not.
If you look closely at the hype surrounding soccer and soccer greats, you will notice that the clubs that own the players and the organisations that control the tournaments are the cheerleaders in this mania. In other words, the game is being gobbled up by the monster that is commercialisation. “Money is our madness, our vast collective madness.” D.H.Lawrence said that (or maybe it was Mark Twain I'm not going to let inaccuracies get in the way of a good story) and even in Kenya, money-madness is largely responsible for our soccer woes.
Maybe I am biased. Maybe footballers deserve more credit than I'm giving them. But it will take a lot to help my unbelief. When I was a kid, my favourite player was Diego Maradona (I was born as the end credits were rolling up on the 70s and therefore never got to see legends like Pele in action) but I can't for the life of me see him as my hero. A hero, in my definition, is someone who saves someone else from a calamity of some sort. What has Maradona ever done for me? Once, when I was younger and more careless, I took out a bank overdraft that I was later unable to repay. My mother came to my rescue by emptying her bank account so my life wouldn't be auctioned away. Now that's what I call a hero.