Notes on Street Football
What kickabouts reveal about the tortured artists of neoromantic myth
1. If I should have to venture a guess, pick-up football is the primary way of practising the sport in the world. All you need for a pick-up game is a reasonably flat surface, a sufficiently round object and someone to show up. The rules are thus flexible enough to accommodate the reality of the players’ lives and surroundings.
Pick-up football is not exactly the best name for that particular mode of playing. I prefer to think of it as street football, a variation — or, arguably, a foundation — of the sport as exercised by the majority of humans, who have no means or will to join leagues, be coached, or leave their neighbourhood. Obviously, it doesn’t necessarily have to be played on the actual street: any game with no particular gain in sight other than pleasure, consensually arranged by unprofessional players, would come under street football. It is to professional football what dance is to ballet.
2. I’ve played street football pretty much exclusively all of my life — no leagues, no coaches, no training sessions, no fans, no appreciation or rewards other than an occasional experience of bliss. As a kid, I played on the gravel in the playground between the two apartment buildings where my friends and I all lived in Sarajevo. What can only generously be called a pitch included, in addition to the flesh-shredding gravel, a sandbox, seesaws, slide, merry-go-round and a metal frame on which rugs would be hung to beat dirt out of them. After the game, which, for all intents and purposes, we played inside a cloud of black dust, my mother would not let me in the apartment until I fully undressed, as all of my clothes and shoes, as well as my skin and the inside of my mouth, would be black.
Sometimes, if our numbers were low and/or odd, the rug-beating frame would serve as the only goal, and we’d play what we called viktorija. The single goalie would throw the ball up with his back turned to both teams (two or three players each) and the team that got the ball would attack, while the other one would defend until the situation reversed. The sand box was right in front of the frame, so the only way to score was by way of long-distance shots or from tight angles.
Most of the time, the goals were the benches at the far ends of the playground. The slide was right in front of one of the benches — effectively playing the role of the centre-back — and if you were running (imagining yourself to be, say, Ian Rush) in anticipation of a wing pass, you had to duck under to get into a scoring position. (A late duck would’ve surely led to a cracked skull, but that, miraculously, never happened.) You also had to slalom among the seesaws, the merry-go-round and the swings, while making sure that your rare pass made it past the sandbox. The playground conditioned our skills and tactical decisions — our ball control developed within this physical context, as did positioning and spatial awareness, all far less useful for winning than for mere survival in the jungle of injurious objects. Even if the games mattered enough for us to risk our limbs, few somehow ever got seriously injured. The only corporal damage I can recall was sustained by one of the clumsiest players — nicknamed Bear, behind his back — who once turned into the metal frame and crashed into it with his forehead, which then bled profusely.
Now, when I see my daughter in her football class, moving the ball between orange cones on artificial turf, part of me wishes that she had to slalom among playground equipment in a cloud of black dust, as if those harsh conditions would make her a better player. It is the aging, grumpy, immigrant part of me that tends to believe that the young ones today have it too easy, which makes them less tough, less skilful and less motivated. But I’m fully aware, of course, that’s bullshit: no kid from my playground has become a great, let alone professional, player. And it’s fair to say that we would’ve happily settled for an obstacle-free grassy pitch, even if artificial.
3. We sometimes played on the neighbourhood parking lot as well, conveniently located across the street from an emergency room. Usually, the parking lot was devoid of obstacles, except that, when it was full, the rows of cars would be side lines. Getting the ball from under a car required rolling in a puddle of machine oil; when the ball bounced off to the busy street we ran between zooming cars to fetch it. The goals would be marked by two bricks, which allowed us to dispute and argue over any goal that was not self-evident.
Thinking about the game in tactical terms meant nothing more than that we bothered to defend at all. Passing was not something that was valued, the skills were really dribbling or ball-hogging. Stuck in my room doing homework and unable to play, I knew the game was on because I could hear the shouts: “Dodaj!” (“Pass!”), followed, with boyish regularity, by a stream of curses.
The hardest thing to learn in football is passing. It is perfectly unnatural. Children do not pass, because they’re fascinated by the ball at their feet, by their nascent ability, however limited, to control the ball. So many times in my daughter’s football class (she’s six now), I’ve watched a cluster of kids in Brownian motion at the centre of which was one kid who couldn’t give up the ball if his or her life depended on it. During the time the ball moves through the space between two players, it belongs to nobody — it is nowhere. To pass is to relinquish control, to give up the certainty of the ball at your feet for the uncertain outcome of a pass. To pass is to anticipate and imagine a future, while to keep the ball and dribble is to stay in the moment for as long as possible.
A forest of playground equipment or even a parking lot were certainly not conducive to creative ball sharing. Even if the ball was relinquished and kicked over to another player, he would always have to spend some time alone with it. I have no way of proving it, but my guess is that, even now, no kids involved in street games the world over play like the Barcelona the grown-up writers and tacticians admire. The Barcelona the kids like would be embodied in Messi, the runt who runs solo past the defence, with the ball seemingly strung to his feet, which is how he’s been doing it since he was a kid, as evidenced by the YouTube footage that purports to be of him at the age of six.
4. Obviously, there are no managers or coaches in street football, which is to say that everyone is equally qualified to be coach or manager. The street democracy necessarily results in frequent mouthing off, as everyone believes that they know best. The neighbourhood game I play in every week requires lengthy and not always friendly negotiation during the divvying of the pool players, while nearly everyone coaches in the game, constantly talking at and even insulting other players. Professional football always has an audience — the paying, judging fans — while street players essentially perform for one another, always mutually subject to harsh momentary judgment.
A street team is always unbalanced, because not everyone is at the same skill level. The general approach to addressing the imbalance (apart from yelling) is a ruthless division of labour: the best players are in the attack and midfield (which in a small compressed field is the same thing), the less skilful and/or more aged ones defend, while the weakest one is in the goal. The problem is often that there are too many self-declared good players up front — there is no coach or any authority to establish a hierarchy or positioning within the team. Moreover, street football often features small, six-foot-wide goals. There is no box, no offside, no penalties; defensive formations are fluid to say the least — more often than not, no one sticks to their position. This commonly leads to more unpleasant imbalance and, eventually, to fractious chaos and apocalyptic yelling. Also, a lot of goals.
5. A view of the game — indeed an aesthetic and an ideology — arises from the culture of street football, even after the kids grow up. It all boils down to this: 1) those who can do it alone are the best; 2) the best ones grow up on the street, where they acquire their skills by avoiding various obstacles, be they social (poverty) or physical (the roughness of the concrete pitch). Which is why the Brazilians are considered to be the best — their sumptuous skills always imply a street, a favela or, at least, a beach. Not only are, say, defensive midfielders unappreciated by the street kids imagining themselves as Messi or Ronaldo, they’re also invisible and incomprehensible. Childish adults are not enamoured with the unspectacular diligence either: recall Florentino Pérez getting rid of Makélélé, from whose departure Real Madrid have never fully recovered.
A useful, hardworking player possessing no glamour or spectacular skills was referred to in the Yugoslavia of my childhood as “water carrier” (vodonoša), someone, I used to imagine, who ran around faithfully providing water for the street-bred artist who could turn the game with one fancy move. Such an artist, however, was not necessarily thirsty, as part of the artistic aura was the proudly exhibited absence of interest in running and defending. Tactical and any other indiscipline was seen as a mark of untamable genius, an expression of his artistic nature and recalcitrance, which would’ve been nurtured — the neo-romantic stereotype required — in some poor, obstacle-riddled neighbourhood. The artist-player, presumably merely expressing his unpredictable, exuberant nature, is essential for what might be called a neo-romantic football aesthetics. Such artistic nature deplores pseudo-rationalist tactical schemes, while being entirely dependent on inspiration and perceivable only in moments of greatness. The street-artist is by definition an underdog and is particularly valued if playing for an underdog club. This underdogness is necessarily nostalgic, a way of longing for inspired innocence, and therefore crucial. The artists who learned their ball magic on the street and scoffed at tactics and discipline could always easily be absorbed into the urban mythology customarily featuring all kinds of rebels. Hence part of that street aesthetics is always hating the rational, realist football, which was exemplified when I was growing up by all teams German, who relied on tactical discipline and hard work, and, very unromantically, always won.
A study of neo-romantic football would feature such players as Garrincha, Best, Hagi, Stoichkov, Gascoigne, Le Tissier, Riquelme, Adriano, who have left a trail of greatness and related (public) drama. Some of them earned far fewer trophies than clips with fancy footwork presently available on YouTube. Some ended up on the heart-breaking path of self-destruction, while others carried their soloist unpredictability off the pitch. In their indelible love of pleasure (for that is what is really behind all their exuberance, the neo-romantic thinking goes), many of them acquired, along with drinking and/or drug problems, more weight than property. Few of the great football artists become successful managers: inspiration is not teachable, or even expressible, outside the moment in which it exists. Their talent is an entrancing, eternal mystery, creating an image — even in their addled retirement — of a suffering, romantic loner.
6. I’ve played with so many self-perceived artists that I can now identify them from their first touch, at which they always give off an air of self-importance. Having long grown out of my romantic phase, however, I cannot stand the players who do not defend, who do not retain positional discipline, who exude belief that the rest of their team ought to be grateful for their presence, who always choose a fancy move over a simple Makélélian pass in order to bamboozle the opponent just for the fuck of it, who take it upon themselves to elect — all this while hogging the ball insufferably — the teammate worthy of the masterpiece pass.
I hate watching such players just as I hate being on the team with them. Much too often, the romantics can think of themselves only within the contest of some hierarchy of greatness (even if the game is played on the street — particularly on the street) rather than within the game itself. They don’t care about winning in collaboration with their team, ever invested in finding ways to express their tortured genius, their drama always more gripping than the game they’re playing. And yet — and yet — as a writer and a professional story teller, I’m still attracted to and fascinated by the romantics precisely for that heroic drama, which is, needless to say, never limited to the stadium. Such players induce stories, their lives always spilling over.
7. One of the greatest Yugoslav/Bosnian players of all time was Safet Sušić, who in the seventies and eighties played for FC Sarajevo and the Yugoslav national team and then went to PSG. Until Ibrahimović and his class arrived, Sušić had been widely considered the best player who ever wore the shirt of the Parisian club. He was fancy-footed all right. He scored hat-tricks in friendlies against Argentina and Italy which involved quite a bit of dribbling past the opponent’s defence. But in addition to all the memorable moves, he indeed had a distinguished, responsible career, largely devoid of self-destruction. Presently, he’s the manager of the Bosnia national team, very much on the verge of taking them to Brazil next year. In short, a remarkable player — last year France Football voted him the best foreign player in Ligue 1 of all time — far more than an artist and therefore of limited narrative interest.
His older brother Sead, however, is an entirely different story. As fancy-footed as Safet, if not more so, he was believed to have been the greatest talent of his generation. He started at the FK Sarajevo youth team but was signed as a teenager, in 1970, by Belgrade’s Crvena Zvezda, the biggest and the most powerful Yugoslav club, managed at the time by Miljan Miljanić. (One of the great characters of eastern European football, he also managed Real Madrid and the Yugoslavia national team and is still fondly remembered as having an uncanny ability to avoid giving a straight answer.) Sead had a middling career at Zvezda, went on to Belgium by way of the USA, until his career fizzled out on his way to Saudi Arabia or some such place. He played for the Yugoslavia national team exactly once and retired at the age of 28. While I can without effort recall Safet’s goals and the way he tiptoed past the Argentinian defence like a ballerina, my mind contains no visual memory of Sead’s play, even if I remember admiring whatever it was he was doing on the pitch.
But my head is full of the stories of Sead! We in Sarajevo believed that he was (possibly to this day) the only player of Muslim background whose name was chanted by the Crvena Zvezda fans, long invested in Serbian nationalism and notoriously prone to casual racism. In Belgium, the story went, he once dribbled past an entire defence and, with unnecessary fakes, toyed with the goalie who threw himself desperately from one side to another, only for the ball to be poked in the goal when Sead got bored with his helpless victim. Infuriated by the humiliation, the goalie charged at Sead, who offered him his middle finger for consideration, whereupon he bit into it. Another time, Sead received a yellow card, which he ripped out of the ref’s hand and tore to shreds. The ref then pulled out the red card, which Sead ripped out of his hand and tore to shreds. And then there was the story — my favourite — in which Sead was in Sarajevo, on his way to Saudi Arabia where he had signed his latest contract. The night before he was to report to his new club, he was drinking with his buddies at the Sarajevo cafe called Stari Sat (The Old Clock — somehow, even the name of the cafe pertains) when he noticed that he had missed his plane. He had another drink, then stepped out on the street and hailed a cab. “Saudi Arabia,” he told the cabbie and on he went to the Kingdom, only 3000 miles away, to finish off his career.
Let me make it clear that none of those stories were reported in the press. The stories were produced by the perpetual myth-mill of Sarajevo’s streets, which somehow made them more believable. The myth-mill also inducted him in the gambling-and-drinking hall of local fame, also featuring the singer known for the song entitled “Sarajevo, My Love” along with the greatest Bosnian basketball player of all time. Sead was thus part of Sarajevo’s neo-romantic pantheon, important for the maintenance of our urban mythological system. I would’ve hated playing with him, but I could never have enough stories about him.
I met Sead only once. I worked at a Sarajevo radio station in the late eighties, and there I managed to accompany a colleague to an interview with him. Already comfortable in his retirement, he was a quiet, pudgy guy, not so much exuberant as projecting a melancholic kindness and modesty. My colleague and I were eager to check the veracity of the stories his legend rested upon, so we outright asked him. Yes, he confirmed, a goalie did bite his middle finger. (I recall him now as showing me the little scar on his middle finger, but that could well be an embellishment perpetuated by the narrative machinery in my head). No, he did not tear the red and yellow cards to shreds: he grabbed the yellow one from the ref’s hand and threw it to the ground, for which he received a red one and then simply left the pitch without further drama. No, he did not take a cab to Saudi Arabia. He was indeed at the Stari Sat, drinking, and decided that he missed Safet, who was playing for PSG at the time. Sead was burning to see him, so he hailed a cab and told the cabbie to take him to Paris, but then came to his senses before the cab left the city and went home instead.
It was one of the most enjoyable interviews I’ve ever conducted, because I liked Sead a lot. In the radio studio, he did not see himself as a genius or a suffering artist. Even if he did meet some requirements for being a neo-romantic player, the work of romanticising was done by the street fans — we needed him for the stories, we projected and completed his legendary profile. That was, now I understand, a crucial moment in my comprehension of football. It was around then that I shed the last residues of my boyish neo-romantic aesthetics.
8. Romantic street artists were far more possible and present before the game of football became globalised and commercialised, before the money poured in, before unthinkable amounts came to be at stake, before the great players were able to sign astronomical endorsement contracts — all of which professionalised the game to the point of very rationalist discipline. Today’s players pursue and project strength and health, taken to be necessary for any act of on-pitch brilliance and available in all sizes and flavours from the corporations they endorse. Even Ibrahimović, who grew up playing in a rough area of Malmö and is as close to a street romantic as any contemporary footballer, is a consummate, ambitious professional. Messi could be perceived as a solo artist only if you somehow disregard the perfectly attuned Barça orchestra and have no memory of the romantic soloists of the past.
And yet — and yet! — the street dimension is still indelibly present in all of football. After all, Neymar has just landed in Barcelona.