The Muhrens – like all the Dutch greats of their era – learned their football in the streets. Arnold: ‘My brother played with his friends, and when I was five or six I started joining in. I started off in goal but I could never stay there; I was always running all over the place and eventually they said I could play with them. We weren’t exceptional. Everybody could play football at a very high level. At the time there was little else to do but play football. If you couldn’t play football, bad luck: you had to go in goal. We played everyday. If it was raining, we played in the bedroom. At school we played football between lessons. When school finished, we played on the street again; there was no traffic. We played with anything as long as it was round – rolled-up papers tied with string, anything. Some people’s parents had money and could get hold of a proper ball, but mostly it was tennis balls. You develop great technique like that. The ground was so hard, so you didn’t want to fall because it hurt; so you have good balance. And the game was very quick because the hard ground makes the game quicker. No one ever told us how to play. It was all natural.
The street football environment Muhren describes, reminds me of the pick-up basketball games of my childhood.
We’d play all day long in the summers, adapting the standard game of full court 5 on 5, into various micro-games.
If there was three of us, we’d play 21. An every man/woman for themselves, winner takes all mini tournament. The goal being to score 21 points, without going over, through a combination of three pointers, two pointers and free throws.
It’s basketball blackjack.
If there was only two of us we’d play HORSE.
HORSE is a shot matching game. The first player calls his shot and the opponent has to match it exactly – off the backboard, nothing but net, left hand only, etc.
If your opponent misses the shot you call, they receive a letter. The first player to receive enough letters to spell out HORSE is the loser.
And if we got bored of all of that…we’d lower the hoop to 6 feet and have a dunk contest.
Not sure it made us better players, but it was fun as hell.
Like Baggio, Ribéry has the close dribbles. The unexpected changes in speed and direction.
Like Baggio, Ribéry chops the ball past hairy ankles and mud stained socks. And accelerates past hapless fullbacks.
They both play with 5-a-side joy.
They both leave memories for the fans.
But Ribéry has healthier knees.
We must close with Eduardo Galeano on Baggio:
In recent years no one has given Italians better soccer or more to talk about. Roberto Baggio’s game is mysterious: his legs have a mind of their own, his foot shoots by itself, his eyes see the goals before they happen.
Baggio is a big horsetail that flicks away opponents as he flows forward in an elegant wave. Opponents harass him, they bite, they punch him hard. Baggio has Buddhist sayings written under his captain’s armband. Buddha does not ward off the blows, but he does help suffer them. From his infinite serenity, he also helps Baggio discover the silence that lies beyond the din of cheers and whistles.
Eduardo Galeano, Soccer in Sun and Shadow , pg 226
James Rodriguez is a hypnotist. At this point in the match, he’s floating where ever he likes. He receives the ball a few yards from the touchline, just behind the midfield stripe. Argentina’s coach Lionel Scaloni, bends forward, shouting for someone to close him down.
James already snapped the picture. Now his head is down. His left foot sweeps through the ball. There’s a pop. A thump of kangaroo leather and synthetic plastic colliding. The ball blazes across the pitch, wind wrapped, minimum back spin. The Nike swoosh smiles up at the Salvador sky.
In the end the diagonal ball takes out 8 Argentinian players within two, three seconds. Yes, Roger Martinez still needed to produce a tight outside of the foot dribble, followed by a golazo to complete the move. But James’ diagonal ball was the instigator.
The diagonal ball is a basic, but lethal tactic. It hypnotizes defenses, turning defenders into ball watchers. But then the ball snaps it’s it fingers. The spell is broken, and your goalkeeper is picking the ball out of his own net.
He draws your attention, even at an inch tall on the TV screen.
His sky blue socks socks sag and rest at his shins, with a fat florescent yellow band sitting just below his kneecaps. Of course, the bands match his highlighter Nike Mercurial Superflys. The number 17 is stitched across his back. Tattoo sleeves wrap his forearms. A red Acqua Lete logo scrolls across his chest. Pirates goatee? Check.
Without the ball he and his mohawk (a mohawk that would strike fear in middle age 1980’s moms) take up positions a few feet in front of Napoli’s centerback pairing – Koulibaly and Albiol, forming a flexible, equilateral, defensive triangle.
In possession he stands between Mbappe and Neymar. He’ll turn with the ball when pressure evaporates, to play into Insigne checking in, to Callejon wide right, or to an overlapping Rui wide left.
To create attacking rhythm and draw out PSG a few more yards he’d again engage with his centerbacks, playing it back first time to Albiol or Koulibaly.
Hamšík trots, power-walks and gallops through the match. But never sprints. His knees stay bent. His feet stay light, ready to cushion incoming passes.
He turned down a Chinese ransom for nights like these. Napoli’s punk rock percussionist still has a role to play.