The Match

BY DOMINIC WIGHTMAN

A while ago I watched a football match. A knockout cup match. Between children. They were either nine or ten years of age. One side wore red and the other side wore blue. The referee was in black, of course, and a dumpy old fellow, so he wore a hat to be easily distinguished from those lankier players and to protect his scarred, bald head from the rain.

The blues were the clear favourites. They had recently won a match, while the reds had never played together before. Both sides had their stars and personalities but were prone to basic mistakes and occasional over-exuberance. Both had better attacks than defences. Certainly, they played the game passionately. The match meant a great deal to both sides and to the watching crowd. They knew full well the game they were playing. Even though both sides desperately wanted to win, there were few fouls.

I noticed one boy playing for the blues whose hair was tied in bunches. He sported pink nail varnish and seemed to be wearing foundation. I asked a watching parent who this boy was. I was told he was well known – transgender – and had been helpful in raising the blue team’s profile in the past. He did not seem to play well at all during this match. Truth be told he seemed something of a Jonah.

The reds won 5-4 in the end. And that was when the real drama began.

Shockingly, some of the blues started verbally abusing the reds, who seemed genuinely surprised and happy they had won. For a while, the reds boisterously celebrated their victory but then resorted to just satisfied smiles. They did not seem bothered much by the torrent of expletives coming from the blues and some laughed at them and blew them kisses which just made the blues madder.

Some of the blue team even refused to shake the reds’ hands. Others followed the referee all the way back to his changing room and badgered him. “What about injury time?” they clamoured, “this result is so unjust.” But, of course, the referee was a decent man who respected the rules of the game. He was polite in listening to them and, after many years of experience, he was confident in his knowledge of the rules. He was certainly not prepared to change the result in spite of their repeated protests.

Then, surprisingly, the blues’ coach made a speech to angry supporters and announced that it was time to step down from his role as coach. They paid little attention as he skulked away to his car.

Next the focus switched to yet another commotion. This time the referee was confronted by a blue-supporting Caribbean woman. She emerged from the depths of the watching crowd and loudly demanded that the result be erased. Some of the reds’ supporters laughed at her. Others were shocked at her brazenness. But she was spurred on by the complaining blues nonetheless – they were ready to try anything by now. She talked of a legal challenge to the result.

“There has to be a rematch as this match was only a friendly…where did it state that this match knocked the blues out of the cup?”, she questioned, lifting aloft a copy of the Association Rulebook and an advertisement for the game. “We demand a rematch,” she yelled, and her supporters screamed at the ref – their faces turning red with ire and indignation.

I stood there pondering the miracle of mankind getting this far without forgetting how to occasionally lose.

Meanwhile the reds showered and changed back into their school clothes. They had work to get on with. They were positive about their futures. They really felt like a team despite their differences. They felt they could take on all-comers now. A watching team of underdogs in shirts with stars and stripes had taken inspiration from them and went on to win their next cup match later on.

Some blues showered too. Those blues who showered were the ones who had shown honour in defeat. They had shaken the hands of their vanquishers. With the mud and sweat of the fight washed away forever, they too returned to their classroom and focused on their futures. They seemed disappointed by the result but seemed almost inherently to know how to dismiss any black dog.

I hear that some less civilised and angry blues still to this day cannot accept the result of the cup match. The reds chuckle at them. They are known as the blue die-hards. Or by a moniker too coarse to repeat here before the eyes of this magazine’s illuminated readers.

I am glad I was there for that match. Lucky that I was supporting the underdog reds, I suppose. The match taught me a great deal, especially as a father. These days, if one of my children loses a match I insist that they clap their conquerors and offer them a handshake at the end of a match, however much it hurts their pride to do so.

For there is genuine civilisation in such handshakes. A certain Britishness which fortunately permeates through the generations and reminds us that all has not been lost to so-called new ideas and progressive change. Dust off and move on. An honour which trumps the match itself, perhaps – contrasted ever more brightly against the dark and besmirched backcloth of those last remaining, ever-complaining blues.

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