I started playing soccer when I was six years old, when it seemed like a great adventure, and I played with the local club until I was fourteen, when being part of a team and showing up for regimented training and games seemed childish and frustrating.
Every year, at the end of the season, the club held an awards ceremony at the local town hall, where all the players would receive a pennant to commemorate their participation. Members of winning teams would receive a little tin trophy, and there were shields and cups that were held up by proud captains and coaches, and which were passed on, from year to year, gathering inscriptions not dissimilar, in my young understanding, to the ANZAC plaques so commonly found on the walls of public buildings and monuments.
I never won a tin cup. The team I played with — and it was pretty much the same team, with only trivial changes of personnel from year to year — never won the comp. We were ‘runners-up’ every second year, and there was a logical rhythm to this, based on how teams were graded. In my first year, we were utter beginners, not just ‘under-8s’ but actually, for the most part, two years under eight, and we came nowhere in the comp. Next year we did much better and came second. So we were moved to a higher division for the following year and came nowhere. So we were moved to a lower division for the next year and came second. This pattern was then repeated year after year, and was only broken in the last year before I left, when our team was so weakened by defections and retirements that we could not make it to runners-up status even when the grading tide was in our favour.
Soccer was one of my first experiences of the torment of continual endeavour attended by promising glimpses of success leading repeatedly and ultimately to failure. This was the reality for my team. Personally, the experience was especially sharp. I scored the most goals of my soccer career in my first year; thereafter came a slow but implacable decline. As the years passed I moved from centre forward to centre half, to the wing, to right half and then (because unlike most children I could kick with both feet) to left half and finally to left back. To me, this was a descent into ignominy, as it was understood by parents and players alike that the best players were at the front and at the back were the daydreamers, the conscripts, and the mentally or physically defective.
Actually, this perception was not entirely fair. I was probably moved into defence at least in part because I could be relied on to stop some of the attackers who more and more often came storming into our goal. I distinctly remember that in later years we camped our more inept players out on the wing on the understanding that if they couldn’t attack or defend, they could at least be out of the way. One of them would sometimes sit down and chew grass at the half-way line, content to be left in peace.
Anyway, half a century later, my juvenile soccer career seems somewhat emblematic of life’s course: energetic, enthusiastic, ultimately pointless. Despite that, when my own sons reached the right age, I was keen as a dog to get them out on the field, where they played, won and lost with an earnest enthusiasm that I remembered in my guts. It was so much fun to watch that I was driven to seek out an adult team that I could join and so repeat the foolishness that filled the winter Saturdays of my boyhood.
Life is composed of events that lead to other things and other events that are rich in themselves. Daniel Kahnemann has written about this, and about our not entirely rational bias towards valuing end points over experiences. What does it matter that my soccer games did not conquer the world? I was happy then. I am happy now, writing this.
Six-year-olds playing soccer, 1966
The little boys swarmed around the ball like bees around a honeypot. That is the way my dad saw it, to tell it later, but it was not the way it was for me when I was one of the little boys.
A six-year-old plays soccer with the same intensity as an adult, and who is to say who is more ridiculous for that? For me at the time, those earliest games were furious combats against redoubtable foes, and the only reason for my victories was my superior skills.
Funny to think now that at that age, ‘skill’ meant being able to kick the ball and knowing in which direction to run. I was an unusually focused child. I would kick and kick and kick, driving the ball a few feet forward each time, almost as if I was dribbling the ball upfield. I would kick and kick and kick, carrying the ball forward until I kicked it across the line into the goal. Most of my goals were scored from two feet out.
Nowadays, six-year-olds get to play on a baby-sized field, with a little ball and little goals, and the coach is allowed to run around with them shouting instructions. In 1966, there were no concessions to the infantilism of the players. We played with eleven on the pitch, on a full-size field. Our shirts would have fallen to our knees, were it not for the fact that coaches and referees absolutely insisted on these things being tucked into our shorts.
Shirts were ironed by mothers. Shin pads were made of splints of bamboo sewn into padded cotton, covered on the front with vinyl. Boots, like balls, were made of leather, and laced with elaborate systems that sometimes included a loop around the heel and two or three passes beneath the arch of the foot.
Once the game began, the coach and the other parents would all start yelling from the sideline, but nobody on the field would hear a word of it. Therefore, the coach would go to some trouble before the game to drill everyone on their starting positions. In the naivete of the times, this went like this:
|Left wing||Inside left||
I believe nobody had ever heard of lining players up any other way. Certainly our coach, like most of the grown-ups who brought us to play and cheered us on from the sidelines, had never actually played the game, and therefore knew nothing more about the rules and strategy than they had read in the booklet distributed by the club.
It seems strange now, but soccer was an exotic sport in Sydney in 1966. In our whitebread neighbourhood, most fathers had been brought up on rugby league or rugby union and were a little unsure about the manliness of soccer. No doubt it was different in the suburbs where the Greeks and Italians were moving in. Round our way, it was often the mothers who wanted their sons to play soccer because it was ‘less rough’. My parents were slightly unusual in that they both used to play hockey — they saw soccer as hockey without sticks.
As I was saying, our coach would spend some earnest minutes with each player before the game, drilling him on his position and duties and stressing how important it was to stay in position. An extra special effort would go into drilling the goalie, particularly the bit about being allowed to use hands, but only inside the penalty area.
When the referee blew his whistle, we would line up and run out onto the field in a line to be inspected. Tucking in of shirts. Shin pads on, socks up. There was always a diligent inspection of the soles of boots, which had to have soccer studs, not rugby studs or spikes. Then the coach would run to the sideline and we would run to our positions, where we would stand trembling with excitement until the referee blew his whistle again. Then we would all run to the ball. The goalie might be disciplined enough to stay in his goal, at least until the ball came towards him. But essentially, throughout that first year, everyone would rush towards the ball, and if they reached the ball, they would kick it wherever they could. The injury rate might have been terrific if anyone had known how to kick properly — certainly the shin pads did sterling service.
The advantage of being centre forward was that one was already close to the ball at the start of the game. If one was determined, one might make a break on the pack, and get away, and charge down the field and carry the ball into the goal while others snapped at one’s heels. Friend and foe were equally likely to interfere. Most often, the ball would bounce unpredictably around the forest of healthy thrashing legs and the game would move with a slow Brownian motion erratically about the pitch. In the swarm, it might take ten minutes for the ball to travel ten yards. The final score might be one-nil, or six-nil, or just as likely, six-all.
At half time, we would be ordered not to drink water because it would give us a stitch, and instead we were fed slices of orange. At the end of the game, both teams were enjoined to give the opposition three cheers. The prohibition on water would be lifted, and players would line up to use the bubbler, because nobody brought water bottles.
 ANZAC: Australian and New Zealand Army Corps. To anyone born in Australia or New Zealand, the meaning of the word Anzac is both rich and commonplace, so much so that any explaining of the term is redundant. Yet this meaning is also mysterious, because no-one can really explain the chemistry of ‘the legend of Anzac’. Why did the pointless death of thousands of naïve soldiers at Gallipoli in 1915 become the chosen symbol of Australasian nationhood? Why is this symbol potent for two nations, both so young and insignificant at the time that their forces were combined into one corps and commanded by English generals? Most of all, why is this symbolic origin growing in importance as the populations of these two nations become more and more multicultural, so that now, one hundred years on, most citizens cannot claim to have anything to do with the Anzacs, as their ancestors only came to these antipodes many decades later from nations unrelated to those people and that battle? These questions have been asked by others: they are questions of importance to Aussies and Kiwis; yet they have no weight or meaning for any other sentient being in the universe, excepting perhaps the Turks, who have a kind of interest based on their inverse experience. Gallipoli was a great victory for Kemal Ataturk, who went on to be the founding President of the Republic of Turkey, and in some ways the victory became a symbol of new nationhood for Turkey. Even if the Turks didn’t commemorate the Gallipoli campaign for themselves, they might still be curious to make some sense of the annual pilgrimage of thousands of Australian and New Zealand tourists to certain barren headlands on the Dardanelles coast. This brief footnote was intended to elucidate an acronym for those sentient beings outside this little loop of history, and I fear it has gone beyond any useful purpose. Every nation has these military markers of nationhood, which are always personal and private to the citizens of the nation, and either inconsequential or embarrassing to everyone else. So should they be: war shits on civilization. ⇐Return
 One of the players in my team was the youngest son of the club president. When our team failed to win the comp year after year, this boy was moved by his parents to another club with a stronger record. He was not the only defector, but what made it particularly shocking in my mind was that his father did not resign his presidency. ⇐Return
 To be precise, I have three sons, and only two embraced soccer like myself. T— turned out to be a bit of a gun, tormented by the rivalries that plague the would-be stars of any team. P— was a player after my own heart: plucky, energetic, generous, good but not very good. But D—, my middle boy, was the mooncalf of the family, an outsider, unable to listen to coaches or care whether the ball was up or down, in or out. I coaxed him onto the field for the first part of two seasons, and then took pity on us both, and let him go back to his books and dreams. ⇐Return
 Kahnemann D. Thinking Fast and Slow. Kahnemann, a psychologist who won a Nobel Prize in Economics, is a fascinating person to read if you want to test your own understanding of how clever you are, how rational you are, how in control of your destiny you are. One concept he explores is the notion of pleasure (or pain) at any moment of time. Because of the way time always travels forwards, we tend to discount past experience relative to the present — but both past and present are equally real, and both will pass into the future. We also value past experiences, not at the sum of values experienced during the experience, but according to the end state of the experience. This means, for example, that a person who has an excellent holiday marred by a bad last day will often rate it as a worse experience than a person who had a mediocre holiday with a good last day. On a slightly different tack: a common assessment of intelligence is to test a person’s ability to abstain from an immediate pleasure in order to reap a greater reward later: this is seen as rational as it maximises the pleasure that the person will receive. This is unarguable, but what if the future pleasure that is anticipated is not in fact any greater than the pleasure that is forgone, or if the habit of forgoing pleasure becomes ingrained and is pursued even when the chances of gaining a greater future pleasure are slim? How many games should one forgo in order to study? How much sex should one forgo in order to become wealthy? How many luxuries should one avoid in order to accumulate more wealth? How many of our todays should we burn on the altar as offerings to our tomorrows? It is not easy to know what is the intelligent answer to these questions. How are you doing right now? ⇐Return