The nights are drawing in and those ankle ligaments strained months ago are still not right. But it’s just a twinge now and as the evenings stretch out long — unlike my strung-out hamstrings — my Wednesday night indoor soccer game is calling me back.
How dignified is it to be still drawn to that draughty old sports hall to run … trundle … around red-faced and panting and kicking ball for an hour with similarly deluded/evergreen old boys? Sure even my 12-year-old son has told me I have no pace. Saying it like it is.
When is it over?
Why am I thinking of Father Ted’s All-Priests Over-75s five-a-side showdown against Rugged Island?
And our weekly game. The echoing hall and floorboards sagging under our extra poundage. The air reeking of Deep Freeze and ridiculous aloe vera muscle rubs, as men in bulging Premier League gear with strapped up ankles go for ponderous drag-backs and drawn out Cruyff turns. Extravagant but well-fitting trainers with extra arch support provoke us into tackling and shooting with reckless slow-motion abandon.
That’s after we’ve chatted and wheezed through all sorts of shakes, stretches and half-hearted shimmies, otherwise known as the warm-up, bending over to touch a toe and giving up roundabout the middle of a shin. Well, it’s either that or topple over.
Just time for a frenzied 20-second sprint on the spot before the Reds and Blues shuffle into position and away we go.
In truth, while I am itching to get back I am also contemplating the very real danger of collapsing in a purple-faced heap from a cardiac arrest — and serve me right at my age.
This, the man who can hear himself breathing. At rest.
When is it over?
How can a twinge in my stomach or anywhere near my heart in the middle of the night have me thinking the end is nigh, and a moment later I am dreaming of that cracking volleyed goal that night — my second! — and giddily thinking of ways to beat that burly but surprisingly nifty guy who usually cleans up everything in defence?
Next time out it could be a hat-trick or it could be a heart attack.
It hardly helps when you Google the affects of sporadic intense exercise on men of my late-autumn years (if I’m lucky).
“Exercise training initiated in late middle age attenuates cardiac fibrosis and advanced glycation end-product accumulation in senescent rats”, the headline reads on a review of a report by Kathryn J Wright, a gerontology expert, apparently, at the Department of Experimental Medicine in McGill University Health Centre in Montreal, Canada.
I don’t go past that headline but the message still nags: I hadn’t played for years before resuming last year, so could I end up like those clapped-out rodents? Like Bob Geldof said, it’s a rat trap, baby …
I can’t help thinking of the Black Knight character in Monty Python and The Holy Grail, limbs severed one by one and still he will not yield to King Arthur and let him cross the “bridge”.
No limbs and the knight is still going. No pace like me. And the knight is no longer young.
When is it over?
Further Google research, in other words looking for something positive, throws up the more hopeful words of Cathy Ross, a cardiac nurse at the British Heart Foundation: “Being active at any age helps control your weight, reduce blood pressure and cholesterol and will provide long term benefits for your heart health and general health”.
I really have to laugh at myself, coming on like some kind of footballing J Alfred Prufrock, scuttling across the floors of a less than silent sports hall — it’s positely groaning.
“At times, indeed, almost ridiculous —
Almost, at times, the Fool”.
This, the man whose latest senior moment came only this morning as he keyed in his bank card number instead of the house alarm code and barely staved off the shrill siren’s call that would have disturbed the universe of my housing estate.
And yet …
I see myself viciously massaging my legs for one more friendly battle, the happy fool off to tilt at windmills or go for that nutmeg … dying to give my all, or the best of all that’s left, for one hour of wonderfully carefree shambling play.
A thousand aches, niggles and responsibilities put aside for that golden hour of nothing but the next run, shot or tackle. Screaming for that pass inside the full back … that lung-bursting track back that no-one else will notice. Except myself.
Like the boxer, I’ve still got my punch … or rather my kick … maintained by endless hours of kicking around with my son.
Everything will seem possible again, for a while, as I try to make up for that stunning lack of pace with something approaching cunning.
Maybe I’m still yearning for the prime I never had. But so what?
When is it over?
I have this move I’ve been perfecting in my head for a while now that I want to pull off …
So what am I even thinking of, still drawn to kicking football and why it is it so important to me, which off course I wouldn’t readily admit to anyone.
I have read quite a bit of Freud and despite disagreeing with so many of his ideas, and the circular conclusions he draws from his own propositions, I still feel he was on to something. Especially the notion of our motivations and desires being governed by unconscious forces. How exactly is open to, um, interpretation.
So I do believe we must look for motives deeper than mere amusement and escapism to explain the quavering “yes-s-s!” of satisfaction that escapes one’s lips as that cleanly struck ball beats the diving … collapsing … goalkeeper, to nestle in the net, or beyond mere regret to interpret the existential distress of diverting a wickedly skidding crossed ball into one’s own net.
The child is very much father to the man, according to Herr Freud, and I do see sport somehow linking my childhood self with my adult incarnation.
I may be creaking at the hinges, but kicking football with the other elder lemons, I feel myself to be in immediate communion with the little boy who kicked football for hours with his brother and two pals that frosty Christmas Eve afternoon long ago, and only went home because we could no longer see the ball in the gathering dusk.
A thousand memories from a thousand games and kick-arounds down the days of my life regularly pop into my head without any bidding.
Also being the father of a football-mad 12-year-old boy, I treasure the sporting bond that further unites us.
I am particularly interested in the role that sport can play in the formative years, and how, through it, one can learn not just about oneself, but how to deal with major life issues.
Growing up, boys have many models of adult male behaviour: father, teachers, peers, characters from TV, films and books, and a major part of the maturation process lies in sifting through role models to arrive at the ones that work for us.
Some role models fade quickly, like the cowboy or the super hero, but others cast longer shadows.
I have known for a long time now I will never save the world in my coffee break like Superman, but in my secret heart that glorious pass with the outside of my right foot to my inrushing team-mate sweep it to the net, makes me believe I can still cut it on the football pitch.
Psychoanalyst and paediatrician Donald Winnicott introduced the concept of the transitional space, a mental space on the borders of reality and imagination, vital to mature mental functioning. He described it as “an intermediate area of experiencing, to which inner reality and external life both contribute”.
The child’s initiation into the world of others is too painful, too raw, Winnicott reckoned, if he is not allowed to work his way into it gradually. I believe this is something we never lose, this sense of others impinging on us, on our space, and the need for a private place in our minds to process our experiences, to digest them, before resuming so-called “normal’ life.
Winnicott also considered playing to be the key to emotional and psychological well-being. By “playing,” he meant not only the ways that children of all ages play, but also the way adults “play” through making art, or engaging in sports, hobbies, humour, or engaging in meaningful conversation.
He saw play, at any age, as crucial to the development of authentic selfhood, because when people play they feel real, spontaneous and alive, and keenly interested in what they’re doing.
Winnicott believed that it was only in playing that people are entirely their true selves.
One of man’s great contradictions, possibly even his greatest one, is he needs people, while also striving to be independent of them, leading to the eternal existential conundrum identified by psychologist Dorothy Rowe, writing in the Observer newspaper: “We want to be individuals but at the same time we want to be part of a group. Similarly, we all want to feel free as well as secure, but the more freedom we have the less secure we feel and the more secure we feel the less freedom we have”.
Moreover, according to Freud biographer Peter Gay, Freud’s theory of civilisation “views life in society as an imposed compromise and hence as an essentially insoluble predicament”. Freud thus believed, Gay says, that “we can neither live without civilisation nor live happily within it, but at best we can achieve a truce between desire and control”.
To help us cope with this conundrum, we need our transitional space available to us at all times, and I believe the sporting arena offers the transitional space par excellence, with its here-and-now immediacy and physicality.
To take up this place in the world, the child must come to accept what Freud called the reality principle. In other words, he must renounce his omnipotent claim on people and things, and join the world of others.
Growing up, thus, is a frustrating and complex business, and this is where the transitional space comes into its own, by allowing us both a breathing space from life’s travails, while also allowing us to digest our experiences, to play with possibilities.
Regression, the return to simpler and more elemental stages of behaviour, where anger and discontent are more easily expressed, is more than acceptable within the matrix of sport. The sporting arena offers a wonderful means of putting this energy to uses that are socially acceptable, even desirable.
While sport can serve as a wonderful medium of exchange and interaction with others, it can also, if we abide by the rules – and the referee – allow us to “let off steam’, loudly, blithely, and above all, safely.
But as we well know, it can take a while to reach a mature level of self-expression, to learn to play the game.
The ambiguity in the phrase “play the game’ is deliberate; there is the literal sense of actually learning how to play the game, with all its customs, rituals and rules, but there is also something subversive in the notion of “playing the game” in order to get what we want out of it.
“Ambivalence”, in psychoanalytic terms, refers to the belief that we both love and hate people, objects and activities that are important to us, precisely because we hate the fact we need them. On the field of play, both feelings can find safe expression.
I am well aware that what I am describing here is based on an ideal notion of sport: what it can be as against what it is. We all know people can play the game in many ways, fairly and unfairly. Sledging, pulling, needling, and many forms of skulduggery can be engaged in, if the perpetrator learns to do so in a way that does bring him to the referee’s attention, or if he operates in a culture that implicitly condones the hard-man mentality.
But I hope what I have been saying here might go towards explaining how and why sport continues to enthral so many of us, and the allure it still has for those of us still playing, regardless of aptitude or age.
For literally as long as I can remember I have been absorbed by sport, as a participant first and soon after also as a spectator.
As a small boy kicking football in a field with my friends, the game from the first entertained me and aroused my curiosity, and later more organised sporting games have enriched my life and stimulated my imagination.
Football met some basic needs for me as a child and sport in general has stayed relevant to me because it has been flexible and adaptable enough to meet differing needs as they have evolved.
Ultimately, I believe this is connected to the notion of man as maker and interpreter of meaning, more meaning than he knows what to do with, as Professor Jonathan Lear put it, since this meaning is not confined to the mind’s conscious, rational side, but also has an unconscious part.
We are driven to explain the world we live in, to oneself, to the world, and to oneself about the world. But this unconscious, never fully knowable side of one’s mental functioning means that while there is much we can learn, life is also full of dilemmas that can never be resolved, only hopefully better understood, or at least accepted as irresolvable.
And the sports field is just one place where these dilemmas must be faced.
Freud held that sanctions and guilt were essential to prevent people from acting from urgent selfish motives and that as a consequence, neurosis was the price we pay for the degree of civilisation we do manage to establish and maintain. It’s also why we do need referees. And to abuse them!
Freud believed that at bottom our creative and destructive instincts are always and everywhere in conflict and that we live our lives in a perpetually fraught space between the two great instinctual polarities of Eros (love) and Thanatos (hate).
So, at the very least, sport is more than just a game.
But when I am thinking of getting back on the indoor football court, I won’t be pondering the unconscious whys or why nots: it will be all about the now of that Wednesday night game. The hour-long forever of that glorious now.
The desire is still there for the physicality and competition that can’t be met on a sideline or watching in a pub.
So what if I will be stiff and sore for days afterwards, starting almost from the minute we leave the field of play?
When is it over?
All too soon.