Thursday, November 02, 2006

The Perils of Playing Away From Home

The plane lands. You gather your iPod, your copy of FHM and pull your baseball cap onto your head. You leave the plane and wink farewell to the stewardess. Familiar, globalised processes, you are still insulated. Then, outside the pressurised container of the aircraft, the air hits you. More humid, denser, the vague whiff of you-don't-know-what hangs in the air. The cleaning staff in the airport are swarthy little people with sagging cheeks who glance at you dolefully. A baggage handler realises who you and your travelling companions are and, grinning gleefully, offers you a grisly throat-slitting gesture. You smile and nod ironically, dismissively.

You are playing away from home in Europe.

The club's travel co-ordinator ushers you to the waiting bus. Air-conditioned and hermetically sealed, the attention is to cut you off from the pervading strangeness of the foreign city. But the bus has windows. The well-practised role-play of dressing room banter cranks up, the age-old parade of jesters and stooges, the quicker minds making play of the less cerebral characters. But the voices sound differently pitched, out of place in this strange city; they do not belong.

There are no chip-shops and curry houses; no dingy corner bars like the one where you used to go when you first signed pro, where you might have a few quiet pints and not be bothered before hitting the town. No Asdas or Tescos. Nobody spotting who you are as you pass and giving a big thumbs up, or if they're from the other mob, giving you a "gerrit-right-up-ye" gesture.

Old men stand talking on street corners. They exacerbate the strangeness, for not only does their foreignness detach them from you, but their age does further. At least with people your own age, they might listen to some of the same music, maybe on an iPod like the one in your lap. They'd probably eat a McDonalds now and again, smoke a joint at a party. But the old guys, they could as well be from Pluto. They have old wars and revolutions and the names of long dead leaders, singers, movie stars in their eyes, staring distractedly at you. Old brains full of stuff you will never know.

The hotel, and again the seal. The layer of cultural polystyrene that the club puts between you and the foreign city is most robustly manifest in the hotel; the five-star force-field of plinking piano music; the vastness of the lobby making it difficult to even see out into the street and newspaper stands full of stories unconnected to you.

The sports pages of course, you'll be there. But you'll see your name referred to in a sentence which may be marking you out as a man to watch for the home team, or suggesting you as a potential weakness to be exploited. You can't begin to know, but there is a picture of your centre-forward punching the air that you focus on, or more accurately, grab onto.

The barely perceptible, stomach-knotting feeling of displacement continues throughout the evening and during the next day's workout at the stadium. The huge stands and lush surface are little different from your own ground, the colours and specifics of architecture notwithstanding. But there's that air again.

You boot a ball against an advertising hoarding and a member of the groundstaff chastises you with guttural curses and transparent hand gestures. The bravado returns, you grant him the dismissive smile and an accompanying sneer.

The dressing room. Players' changing superstitions are designed to override the mental stresses of changing environments and playing circumstances - to create a reliable, unchanging psychological landscape in even the most irregular settings. So the socks-first men put their socks on; the everything-but-the-boots men are all ready save for the final addition of footwear; the meditators have their eyes closed; the fist-pumpers are pacing the tiles with their knuckles whitened.

The manager is reiterating core values, reminders of the work done on the opposition, attempting to construct the mental fortress his players must man this evening. The captain is inflating egos, slapping backs, braggadocio personified.

Above it all, chanting deep and loud, the home crowd are gathered. They shake the concrete above your head. Their chants are impenetrable, yet their message is clear: we aim to destroy you. You are to be crushed. Your puniness is blatant. You are small and flimsy. You are Christians in the arena.

The conflict which began in your head as you left the plane yesterday - between the normalising forces of your professional sportsman's mentality and the hostile otherness in which you must now undertake your job of work - now rages to its conclusion. You take the field. Hands are shaken and you steady yourself.

You try to ignore the crowd, but it is impossible. It's not the noise. No, noise is manageable. It is, once again, the strangeness: the unrecognisable chants, the unfamilar call-and-response numbers, the musical jokes of which you are the unknowing butt.

The game starts and you attempt to suppress the warring factions in your head by being bold and blasé. You clear the ball decisively but the home team flow towards you, as you were told they would. Your step feels clumsy, though, and your positioning is wrong. The pitch feels wrong too, its dimensions unmanageable, its surface treacly.

Then, their winger crosses deep towards your back post. It all happens slowly. Your head explodes in rebellion. Clear it. Left foot. Right foot. Leave it. You are going to f--k this up. You are going to f--k this up because you are small and you don't belong here and you are here to be destroyed so you are going to f--k this up. And the ball flies into your own goal off your boot. That roar again, and this time the noise does get you.

Just some of the perils of playing away from home.


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