I think it’s all over
An Irishman’s Diary about retiring from the beautiful game
“Now it so happened that, by this point, the game had also ceased to be predominantly Anglophone. Increasingly we needed to raise volunteers from the venue’s gym. And as chance had it, many of these tended to be Portuguese speaking. They weren’t all from actual Portugal. Some were from Brazil and Angola, and other parts of the former empire. But they were the spiritual sons of Vasco de Gama and they shared a language.” Photograph: Brian Snyder/Reuters
I had to laugh – but a little bitterly – at the news that Fifa is investigating some World Cup supporters for the use of offensive words, including the Portuguese term “puto” (meaning “man-whore”).
Apart from the general absurdity of ever trying to police the insults of football fans, there’s the particular absurdity, now, of Fifa taking a moral stance on anything. But such posturing aside, the affair also reminded me of a personal trauma – the role that Portuguese bad language played in my own retirement from football a few years ago.
No, I didn’t quit because someone called me “puto”. To be honest, even “puta” would have been water off a duck’s back. Yet my retirement was undoubtedly the indirect result of an incident in which those words may have featured.
The setting was a weekly indoor football game – my last regular fixture in the sport, which friends and I had played for many years, every Thursday, at a Dublin venue. It was a very old game, its origins lost in the mists of 1980s antiquity. And even before the ultimate crisis, we had been struggling for numbers.
The beginning of the end, probably, came in 2006 when, following a reorganisation of the venue’s facilities, we were ousted from our traditional slot in the timetable – 6pm. This was a popular time on Thursdays, allowing late-night shopping afterwards.
It would have been bad enough if it had been reallocated to one of the other regular football games. Instead, in an outrage commensurate with the proposed Qatari World Cup, our ancient game was ousted by a “Samba dance class”. Henceforward, the only time available to us was 9-10pm. This was very late to be playing football. Worse, since it was the last slot of the night, it was to bring us into conflict with those who had to clean and lock up afterwards.
Now it so happened that, by this point, the game had also ceased to be predominantly Anglophone. Increasingly we needed to raise volunteers from the venue’s gym. And as chance had it, many of these tended to be Portuguese speaking. They weren’t all from actual Portugal. Some were from Brazil and Angola, and other parts of the former empire. But they were the spiritual sons of Vasco de Gama and they shared a language.
I’m tempted to say they shared a temperament – the famous Latin one – too, although that would by a generalisation. Their arguments probably just seemed more dramatic than ours, because we couldn’t understand them, except for an occasional phrase like “filho de puta”. You got used to hearing that amid the gesticulations.
The other development in the game’s twilight years, meanwhile, was the appointment by the venue of a new janitor. He took a rather more strict approach to timing than his predecessors, and had a somewhat dictatorial approach to imposing it. Possession of the keys to a hall will sometimes do that to a man.
Later – too late – we learned that our contract allowed us to be on the premises until 10.30pm. In the meantime, this man gave us to believe that every minute we spent there after 10pm was an act of oppression towards him. Soon he was presenting ultimatums – we could go home without showering, or we could stop playing at 9.50pm.
The night it came to a head, I wasn’t even there. The man had attempted to impose his curfew by turning the hall lights off while the football was in progress. In parts of the Portuguese empire, that’s considered an act of war. So a row ensued. And although it was entirely verbal, it was sufficiently Latin on the part of two contributors that they were given life bans from the premises.
During subsequent peace talks, the venue admitted fault for allowing the misunderstanding to arise, but insisted staff could not be verbally abused. We countered that since the abuse was in Portuguese, the staff member in question would have needed language lessons to be offended.
We also insisted that our comrades had been provoked. But in the end, the differences were irreconcilable. The venue wanted us back, minus the alleged offenders. We refused to return unless they were reinstated too. After more than 20 years it was jogo interrompido, as they say in Lisbon.
I never officially retired from football, by the way. It’s just that, shortly before the row, I had joined middle age on a short-term loan deal. The arrangement has been mutually beneficial, so far.
Barring the offer of a lucrative testimonial, it looks like becoming permanent.