In 1975 I left the burning city of Beirut for the quiet insanity of England. To say that short, frail and wispy, 15-year-old me didn’t fit in would be such an understatement as to be a joke. I stuck out more in an English public school than I would have had I marched in a May Day parade with the Red Army in Moscow, or sashayed the Yves St Laurent catwalk with supermodels, or hunted seals with the Inuit, or—well, you get the idea.
I spent most of the time pretending that I wasn’t worried about my family back in a war zone, desperately feigning nonchalance. I practiced and perfected my teenage stances. Any outward sign of weakness and I would have been devoured.
Lonely, moi? Please.
I’m not sure whether my act worked or not, since at first the wolves were busy hunting weaker prey: the younger boys, particularly a 13-year-old gay Iranian who ended up hanging himself. I’m sure they would have come after me at some point. To speed up the process maybe, this naïve gay boy decided to join the school football team.
I could play!
I may have been athletically challenged, to put it mildly. I could jump as high a garden gnome, a three-toed sloth could probably beat me in a hundred meter dash, and look better doing it, but I could pass the ball. I understood the game. Or so I thought. No, really.
I won’t write here about the horror of the bus ride to the first game, the cruelties, the blatant racism, for I have mined that subject already for a few short stories. I’ll move on to the main event!
The game was on a soggy field somewhere in Somerset with lowing cows not too far away. I had visions of my winning not just the game, but the love and worship of my teammates, and yes, all of England. My pinpoint passing, my assists. Come celebrate with me, my lovelies. My dissecting the defense—just call me the visisector.
It’s Dr. Vivisector, to you.
The other team had a defender who had the countenance of a bulldog, the figure of a pachyderm, the temperament of Goebbels, and the intelligence of a sheet of plywood. I desperately wanted to check under his already-receding hairline to see the lobotomy scars. His nickname was Tank. I kid you not. Thirty-seven years later, I still remember the bastard. All I have to do is think about him and the ringing in my head would commence again. Ouch.
Pinpoint passing, my foot. Before I could even receive the ball, I’d be knocked flat on my ass. He punched, slapped, and shoved me whenever he pleased. He didn’t really have to do that because his stomach was a lethal weapon. He actually sat on me a few times, expelling, expunging every smidgen of air out of my lungs.
Not once did the referee call a foul. It was all part of the game.
Worse, my teammates cheered Tank on. Even then, they must have recognized me as a threat to their way of life!
Every time I lifted myself up off the ground I felt as if I were climbing out of a crater. When I was subbed for, I was more muddied than I had ever been in my life. I did not wish to play again, ever.
I spent the next three or four games on the bench. I made it back to the starting lineup before the end of the season but the game was no longer much fun.
What I noticed then was that my team and I were not playing the same game. For me, soccer was a dance. Those English boys could barely shimmy. No sense of beat. As a youngster, all I wanted to see was the finesse of the game, its delicacy. All the English boys my age wanted was proof of masculinity, or so it seemed to me.
Now, I wasn’t that good of a player, and neither were they, but I tend to see the same games being played by our betters. For the most part, England tends to prefer its players brawny, athletic, hard working, and not terribly smart. Always overrated and overhyped until they come crashing down. Always.
Balotelli should have been English.
Think about this, and you may disagree if you so wish, but the smartest English player in the last 15 years, and probably the best in my opinion, is/was Paul Scholes, and at his best, I’m not sure he would have cracked Spain’s or Germany’s current lineup.
When Manchester United were taken apart by Barca, Rooney said that Iniesta was the best midfielder in the game. When Milan took them apart, it was Kaka. Özil, Pirlo, Xavi, Silva, Xabi, Khedira—those are players that make a team run. For England it’s Rooney, Gerard, and Parker. Think about that for a minute without giggling.
I think they are all good players—but creative? Yet all I keep hearing is how amazing Rooney is.
So let me say this:
The English team sucks.
I can’t state it more clearly. What I find intriguing is the post-Italy (post-every exit) handwringing, the constant analysis, and ah, the despair. The team has always sucked. If you ask me which I would rather watch, the English team or mice running around in a maze, I’d pick the mice. They’re less predictable.
I used to have fun predicting when and how England would flame out, but even that little joy has been taken away from me. A team without hope fizzles, no flame out, no fire.
Do I get any joy out of writing this? Well, maybe a little.
OK, more than a little.
How is it Croatia can come up with a Modric but England never can?
Tank sat on him, of course.
Rabih Alameddine is a novelist. His most recent is An Unnecessary Woman.