4. A ball enters the upper 90 between the goalpost of modern philosophy and the crossbar of modern religion, but is unexpectedly disallowed by the referee

The ball that bounced on sports grounds was round, with one or two exceptions, and this state of things was confirmed by tongues assuring day and night: The ball is round. Indeed, this insight included experiences from other playgrounds as well, you could even say that it circumscribed a supportive existential insight of age-classes, sexes, even whole strata of society. In olden times it would have gone: The L. gives and the L. takes, etcetera, or for the more secular, although departing from the same fundamental experience: What will be, will be. At the present time the words were: The ball is round. That way and only that way metaphysics and religion were voiced in the contemporary world: condensing at the heels of athletic efforts, in the end slowly washed out by reporters, and finally missionized to an underfed, eagerly waiting audience. At this hour, this very moment, the same kind of gospel was preached to thousands of communities, all over the world.
'I can't offer the jargon of the changing room and even less the stench afterwards,' the councillor said. 'We won't get closer to reality than this, as ordinary spectators with seat tickets.'
His sister wrinkled her nose: 'Well, let's renounce your ultra-reality for a change.'
'Everything gets mixed up where the media come in: sports, politics. That's why I say: this is the real thing, but the real thing also ends here. Some sort of distortion comes in at the next step.'
'You make a big point of serving reality.'
'Who would like to be served forged wine by anyone?'

The arena was everything the ball was not; elliptical, hyperbolic, parabolic, and surrounded by generous free space, giving an unobstructed view of the lines, the elevation of the shallow curves from the outer oval towards the tracks and the green rectangle. The expanse, the overall harmony suggested some cult site, where men and women exerted themselves to gain the favour of gods: to the eye a sacred place, but in reality completely out of phase with actual goings on. When containing football, classicism was unpleasant, ill-suited for its purpose: wide open to the winds of the world and shaped like a bath-tub when Heaven shed tears over the trajectories of the ball. Quite another kind of arena than the one presenting itself in the old coal area of Britain: stands towering over the green carpet in a dangerous way, a crowd standing so close, that you had to hold out your elbows in order not to be swallowed. In this place you risked agoraphobia during an ordinary league match, if you were disposed in that direction.
Crowds reacted promptly to play, environment, table position; attendance went up and down like stock exchange rates. In other lines of business receding support led to instant, merciless amputation - like when the pantyhose factory had been abandoned by its supporters, or when the shipyard, one of the world's foremost, could no longer attract spectators to its launches, or when the car factory, replacing the shipyard, failed to run in top gear. But the football team of the county capital, that had gradually lost the distinctive character of its play, was not comprised of the same logics. It became an old-fashioned company in crisis, demanding to live on by dint of its former name and reputation. As a consequence there was a constant flow of free tickets to levels where decisions were made, and the councillor couldn't recall when he last paid to watch football. It happened, particularly in election times, that he took the opportunity offered to get around and be noticed. Here was one of those days: the local pride of his own municipality met the languishing star of the county capital in the national cup.
'Who do you think will win?'
'We will, of course,' he answered. 'Two to one.'

Harry had played football and knew what dodges the foot was expected to do with the ball. It was about correct touch, about kicking the ball correctly when it lay in front of your feet and you glimpsed the goal-frame in front of you. Instep, laces, outside, like three blades of a clasp knife, and then there was the backheel, when you turned your back on events. As far as he was concerned his condition had been far from optimal; he seldom qualified for the team, but he had known where and how to hit the ball. This afternoon he had seen ample evidence of the opposite: players starting to quiver when it came to it, toe-hitting the leather ball and sending powerless arcs far outside the goal-frame. The first half had been one unrelieved bout of suffering, now it was about to end goalless.
Jenny had never played, but she found a perverse pleasure in muttering short, quick chip passes in the language that was an appendix to the game, and he was her target player.
'They are not giving it 110 per cent.'
'That man is hoping for an early shower.'
'Couldn't hit the side of a barn.'
'One-touch, one-touch!'
'Keep it on the carpet, play to the feet!'
'What if we collected, so they could sign up a goal-poacher?'
He confined himself to checking that her syntax was correct, didn't add to the current. The surrounding crowd frowned at her, but Jenny was untouchable, she couldn't be corrected with disapproval. He smiled at the thought, feeling a sort of pride at the same time.
And if the ball was passed to politics? Did the increasing amount of don't knows indicate that popular attendance was failing there as well? Was there some lack of touch, did the arena in itself scare attendance away? Not to speak of the game, the stereotypical high balls, the sly digs and the roughing, the lack of communication between right and left wings, the draws.
Cup matches invited reflection over the nature of the game. Here teams from different divisions were paired together, teams from cities, teams from small towns, teams from the countryside and all having different notions of how the game should be played. It is true that television was involved as a leveller everywhere, distributing the present numeral combinations of the fashionable European teams, but the province still harboured hibernating coaching ideals, prophets and philosophers brooding on some idea not entirely conforming with time, some notion of the nature of the game, and striving to put it into practice. The old hamlets cherished a tradition of play on the wings, flankers running for life to the corners, turning on a sixpence and firing cross centres, while city teams had learnt how to disarm the assault of the countryside by means of studied offside traps. The green field had patterns, traditions, beaten paths, sometimes you were offered the delight of reunion, meeting old truths that still held true, never had been beaten. Motivation still beat class, as long as the ball was round and rolled to where motivation aimed.
There were new doctrines, undeniably, questioning the classical exchange between the wings and imagining some sort of overall politics, but how had their game turned out in reality? He had no difficulty recognizing the old sheep in the new outfit. No touch, the whole motivating force behind the game conspicuous by its absence, and none were as easily played offside as these jugglers. No, the idea of the game still wasn't ripe for revision. If the worst came to the worst you might have to import players from abroad, natural left-wingers no longer grew on trees, young talent wasn't naturally provided for.
Yes, it was important to watch sports and learn selectively from them. Sports set the tone for the broad mass of the people, stamped its mark on language, routines, dress, ways of being. Its style was omnipresent: 'Cut down the angles!', or: 'Now it's time to put on the overalls.' You fought for the club or in isolation against the clock, sports had its stevedore teams and its accords, or inversely: working life its reserve teams, benches and handicaps. The agreement didn't halt there, it went on to the areas of rule violations and open crime. The idea of fair play soared over all grounds, but at the same time there was a formula allowing the player to pull the emergency brake when overtaken by an opponent, this possibility was no doubt understood, some sort of second pillar of the system. In all likelihood a revolutionary potential lay hidden beneath the surface as well: a Paris Commune might begin with terrace riots, one side pressing its opponents to death by the sheer weight of its bodies. Or, at the other side of the political scale: the particular urinal stench, that surrounded the cropped gallery crowd, might mature into overt, brutal fascism. You had better count in all possibilities and were well-advised to keep à jour with mob trends. Days might come when overalls were called for, when you had to entice the moral from the team, cut down the angles, maybe even pull the emergency brake.

Jenny had stopped her chipping, the referee was looking some other way, now was the time for a furtive slide tackle.
'You are pondering on something,' said the municipal councillor.
'No more than usual,' his sister answered, pensively biting her programme.
'I didn't expect you to show up at this time of the year.'
'Was it ill-timed?'
'It is never ill-timed, you know that. But last time I heard from you you were on the opposite side of the globe. So I thought there was some particular reason. Some pressing matter.'
'You travel fast from one side of the earth to the other. I simply wanted to see you. If I don't see the children at intervals they'll outgrow me. And that applies to you and Ruth as well: I must see how you grow. Or shrink.'
'Were you finished? With whatever you were doing.'
'I wouldn't say that.'
'Were the grants used up?'
She glowered at him but didn't answer.
'There is some other reason, I can feel it.'
'Maybe there is, but you won't know. Look at yourself: you always take for granted that problems are of an economical nature! How orthodox.'
'Are'nt they?'
She frowned, but still she answered: 'No.'
'OK, no more questions.
'And no private investigation either, please. I know how effective you are when you make an effort.'
So there was something, and she wouldn't tell him.
'I'll keep myself in check, promise. This game doesn't satisfy anybody's stomach, how about a sausage?'
Jenny laughed elatedly and clapped her hands. 'Do you remember when we gorged ourselves with sausage after the matches? I came for the sausage, you had no girl-friends to spend lavishly on, so you treated me instead. I don't remember the game, not one bit. But I can still get the taste of the smoked meat, and the mustard, mmm! If I were to think of something like Paradise on earth it would be to eat sausages with my brother on a bleak autumn evening after the home side had won. You could talk twice fortyfive minutes about the match, as if it was in deadly earnest and not just play.'
They were both happy to change the subject, and they both noted it. He shook his fist at her, she ducked with a smile that made clear: this is play, not deadly earnest. 'You can't get sausage of that kind any longer, it was home-made.'
'The strange thing is, that I don't remember eating any sausages. But I can remember the play, and I remember the particular style. Sometimes I long for that time, they were players of flesh and blood, not some kind of virtual cover pictures, and there was more real gain for the public, far more than today.'
'To think that you remember the play and I remember the sausage! Well, there was my real gain!' Jenny grimaced and turned her face away. 'I even sold it once or twice, we opened a shutter from the locker room and hoisted sausage from a large trough on a hot plate.'
'Isn't that typical of our time: to choose sausage before the game? The game is scraped to the bone, and from the bone-scrapings you make sausage. That is our society in a nut-shell: we drain our resources in order to keep the illusion that we still watch the same game that we used to watch.'

In the second half the left flanker of the away team was reached by a goalkick. He followed the side-line while midfielders took positions, at exactly the right moment, before offside traps were released, he delivered a perfect cross centre. Three players advanced simultaneously, from volley position the ball went dead straight into the upper 90. It had followed a string from one goal-line to the other, no doubt it was the goal of the year in this arena.
One linesman waved his flag for offside, the home crowd held its breath. Harry rose with his face distorted in disbelief and roared: 'On side!' From the crowd a figure on staggering legs entered the pitch, Bengal tigers were ignited, the home side still held its breath.
'Calm down,' Jenny whispered, pulling Harry's arm. 'It's only play, Harry. Remember: the ball is round.'
The referee, after consulting the linesman, disallowed the goal. Instead, directly following the free kick, the home team scored - assisted by a back, who was nutmegged. All this happened behind Harry's back, he had risen to his feet and was heading for the gates. Jenny followed in his wake like a small boat in tow, excusing herself to the left and to the right: he is like that, my twin brother. He takes it bloody seriously, demanding absolute, divine justice, for everyone and everybody, here and now, on this earth. It's something political, I think.
'Nothing revolts me more than when a thing is not judged on its merits! Everyone was on side when the pass went, except the linesman - and now that blockhead has ruined the whole game! May he roast in Hell for a thousand years, together with all hometeam referees.'
'Try this: it was a regular goal, or it was not, you will never know for sure.'
'It was a perfectly regular goal!'
'But Harry, word must become flesh, there is no other way to administer justice. And every two matches are away matches, aren't they?'
'It makes me want to send video cameras and extra referees onto the ground when something like that happens! To the players it's a matter of fairness.'
'Amen,' said Jenny. 'So be it then: video cameras.'
Harry Jönsson sat on the board of the local football association, no doubt there would be a motion about video cameras and extra referees at the next meeting; with recourse to refined optics, soccer would finally get to grips with true events on the green carpet.

17 kB, published 21.4.04, last corrected 19.1.07, 27.11.08.

  • Black Hole, chapter 3
  • Black Hole, chapter 5
  • Back to contents