Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Planet Football

We follow England's fortunes in the World Cup. And, when England inevitably get knocked out, chances are that those of us who are football-daft pick some other team to cheer on: perhaps we know someone from that country, perhaps they're the plucky underdogs, their style of play appeals, or their fans are particularly entertaining. Any excuse. And of course now we can carry on watching and cheering.

I got into playing football quite by accident. Like any sport, it's far more interesting to watch once you can bring in your own experience. It gives an extra dimension to the match: "What's he thinking?" "what would I do?" "wow, that particular move is very difficult!" People's skill can be seen for what it is.

Now I am going to stick my neck out and say, that skill comes from love, and from space.

The love comes from within the person: they start playing whatever sport it is, and if they like the sensation, they carry on, so that practice comes naturally. But the space, in the form of spare land and intervals of spare time, has to be found. And that is why, unlike some of the people in our street, I never tell off the kids who play football there. Not even when, in one day, their ball knocked nearly all the newly-set apples off our tree (my excuse? It's a young tree, and should be concentrating on growing stronger, not on producing fruit).

I'd never thought about the sheer expanse of area in that small street, until I saw someone do something with it other than drive down it. Last year, during Wimbledon, a different bunch of kids were out there playing tennis.

But back to the footie crowd: doubtless as time goes by the keenest of them will be looking for a playing-field rather than a street on which to practice. And indeed, someone has crunched the numbers and found that people who live within walking distance of parks or playing-fields are, in the average, fitter and healthier than those who don't. Some Scottish researchers have even claimed that men are "less likely to die".

Which brings me back to my own footballing experience. One of the untold stories was the sheer difficulty of getting our feet on a pitch. We'd ring and book, or even turn up having booked, only to find the slot had been bagged by one of the local schools, who must have had to load up an entire class and drive them across the city for the privilege. Presumably this was only done because the school lacked playing fields of their own, the land having long since been sold off and "developed". Nearby potential England team material, having nowhere to practice of an evening, would have stayed at home and let their skills lapse. Perhaps the supermarkets that now occupy these spaces hand out those little vouchers that schools can collect and redeem for sports equipment.

Some people blame the lack of space for sport on England's high population density. Meanwhile, ever since they beat Slovakia last month, I've been cheering on our equally dense neighbours the Netherlands.

Thanks to a mystery Football Forum for the image I nicked for this post.

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