[Please note that I follow the Geoffrey Willans / St Custard's spelling 'foopball' throughout, as part of my campaign to supplant the more common, yet erroneous, spelling of the word.]
Between the ages of about seven and fourteen, I had two overwhelming passions, foopball and nisbet spotting. I have written about the latter earlier, though it is a topic of abiding interest so I shall probably return to it from time to time. Foopball, it turned out, did not abide, in my case. I went from fanatical interest to caring not a jot seemingly overnight, though I suppose it must have been a more gradual process. Ever since, there have been occasional faint stirrings of the old enthusiasm, for example during World Cup tournaments, but it never holds my attention for long. And in thinking about it, I realise that foopball itself – foopball as foopball – was never the real focus of my youthful absorption.
I played, but ineptly – myopia tends to limit one’s abilities on the pitch. I went to a few live matches, but not many. I watched a lot of foopball on television, but then as now, I had no real appreciation of what I was looking at. The finer points always eluded me. Superb displays of skill, when they occasionally occur, are obvious and breathtaking, but the general run of games, twenty-two chaps darting about (if near the ball) or strolling around (if far from it) is enormously tedious. I never quite manage to comprehend the tactical blather of commentators and pundits, in terms of what I am seeing. What I was fanatical about, when young, was reading about it.
More precisely, I read the history. I was less interested in contemporary doings, match reports, transfer speculations, and whatnot, than I was in the past. One of my favourite players was Steve Bloomer, “the Daisycutter”, and he retired before the First World War. I pored over books and encyclopaedias and part-works, hoovering up and retaining an incredible amount of information. I have forgotten it all now, but at the time I could have recited a list of every league champion and every FA Cup winner, told you the scores of every FA Cup Final and every World Cup Final and every European Cup Final, and on and on ad nauseam. That this had anything at all to do with the brute reality of chaps kicking a ball around on grass was, I now understand, incidental. Had I taken it into my head to pursue any other subject – cricket, or stamp collecting, or ornithology – and pursued it with the same single-minded devotion, I would merely have stuffed my head with a different body of knowledge.
And I further realise that never, since, have I concentrated my mind so determinedly on one particular subject. In adulthood, it has been my way to flit from one thing to another, magpie like, with the result that I know a little about a lot, but could never consider myself an expert on anything. What if, today, I decided to immerse myself in a topic as deeply as I immersed myself in foopball all those years ago? I was certainly an expert then. Perhaps, with age, my brain has shrivelled, and would no longer be capable of the feats of concentration and memory which once came so easily.
The few memories I do retain from my foopball fanaticism are fragmentary. If pushed, I could still name every player in England’s World Cup winning side of 1966. Equally, I could list those who died and those who survived the 1958 Munich Air Disaster. That, incidentally, being the then recent past, I considered the signal event of the twentieth century. I mourned Duncan Edwards with soppy sentimentality.
I remember Puskas and Di Stefano. I remember Nat Lofthouse and Tom Finney. I remember a player named Derek Dooley whose career ended when he was badly injured and had his leg amputated, and the goalkeeper Bert Trautmann, who was also badly injured – a broken neck – but carried on playing in a cup final. I remember the “Matthews final” of 1953. Well, for all of the above I should say rather that I “remember” them, for they were all before my time, they were already in the past. Foopball was something that happened in grainy black and white.
There was history, and there were words. Foopball provided many instances to feed my fascination with words. Why were Real Madrid called Real Madrid? Was there an Unreal Madrid, or a Pretend Madrid? Later on, towards the end of my foopball days, as other areas of human activity began to impinge upon my consciousness, I wondered if there was a Surreal Madrid. Very likely, I thought, given that as far as I understood surrealism equalled Salvador Dali, and he was Spanish.
There was (probably still is) a Scottish team called Partick Thistle. I misread this at first as Patrick Thistle, but after realising my mistake I concocted the idea that the manager ought to be scouting the country for a promising young player called Patrick Thistle, just so he could sign him and make him team captain.
I devised a “dream team” of players whose surnames were also the names of birds – Partridge, Finch, Pratincole – and another of players who shared their names with my schoolteachers. And I recall at one point creating an alternative foopball league, of ninety-two teams whose names were anagrams of the ninety-two teams in the real league.
All the while I was thus happily occupied, every Saturday chaps were kicking a ball around on grass. But what did that matter to me? Oh, I thought it did. But it didn’t.