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Sunday, 22 June 2014

Secrets of the Keeper


Adrian Mutu rounds the keeper (Brad Friedel): Tom Clark, 2006

I Vladimir Nabokov: The Flapping of the Rooks
Of the games I played at Cambridge, soccer has remained a wind-swept clearing in the middle of a rather muddled period. I was crazy about goal keeping. In Russia and the Latin countries, that gallant art had been always surrounded with a halo of singular glamour. Aloof, solitary, impassive, the crack goalie is followed by entranced small boys. He vies with the matador and the flying ace as an object of thrilled adulation. His sweater, his peaked cap, his kneeguards, the gloves protruding from the hip pocket of his shorts, set him apart from the rest of the team. He is the lone eagle, the man of mystery, the last defender. Photographers, reverently bending one knee, snap him in the act of making a spectacular dive across the goal mouth to deflect with his fingertips a low, lightning-like shot, and the stadium roars in approval as he remains for a moment or two where he fell, his goal still intact.

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Rook (Corvus frugilegus), Siauliai, Lithuania: photo by Mindaugas Urbonas, 2007

But in England, at least in the England of my youth, the national dread of showing off and a too grim preoccupation with solid teamwork were not conducive to the development of the goalie's eccentric art. This at least was the explanation I dug up for not being oversuccessful on the playing fields of Cambridge. Oh, to be sure, I had my bright, bracing days -- the good smell of turf, that famous inter-Varsity forward, dribbling closer and closer to me with the new tawny ball at his twinkling toe, then the stinging shot, the lucky save, its protracted tingle... But there were other, more memorable, more esoteric days, under dismal skies, with the goal area a mass of black mud, the ball as greasy as a plum pudding, and my head racked with neuralgia after a sleepless night of verse-making. I would fumble badly -- and retrieve the ball from the net. Mercifully the game would swing to the opposite end of the sodden field. A weak, weary drizzle would start, hesitate, and go on again. With an almost cooing tenderness in their subdued croaking, dilapidated rooks would be flapping about a leafless elm. Now the game would be a vague bobbing of heads near the remote goal of St. John's or Christ, whatever college we were playing. The far, blurred sounds, a cry, a whistle, the thud of a kick, all that was perfectly unimportant and had no connection with me. I was less the keeper of a soccer goal than the keeper of a secret. As with folded arms I leant my back against the left goalpost, I enjoyed the luxury of closing my eyes, and thus I would listen to my heart knocking and feel the blind drizzle on my face and hear, in the distance, the broken sounds of the game, and think of myself as a fabulous exotic being in an English disguise, composing verse in a tongue nobody understood about a remote country nobody knew. Small wonder I was not very popular with my teammates.

Vladimir Nabokov: from Speak, Memory, 1950

Hilario/Andrade/Owen: Tom Clark, 2006

II Peter Handke: Looking at the Doorknob (The Angst of the Keeper)

"In the stadium I once saw a player break his leg," the salesman said. "You could hear the cracking sound all the way up in the top rows."

Bloch saw the other spectators around him talking to each other. He did not watch the one who happened to be speaking but always watched the one who was listening. He asked the salesman whether he had ever tried to look away from the forward at the beginning of a rush, and, instead, to look at the goalie the forwards were rushing toward.

"It's very difficult to take your eyes off the forwards and the ball and watch the goalie," Bloch said. "You have to tear yourself away from the ball. It's a completely unnatural thing to do." Instead of seeing the ball, you saw how the goalkeeper ran back and forth with his hands on his thighs, how he bent to the left and right and screamed at his defense. "Usually you don't notice him until the ball has been shot at the goal."

Denmark 0-Germany 1: photographer unknown, November 1940 (National Museum of Denmark)

They walked along the sideline together. Bloch heard panting as though a linesman were running past them. "It's a strange sight to watch the goalie running back and forth like that, without the ball but expecting it," he said.

He couldn't watch that way for very long, answered the salesman; you couldn't help but look back at the forwards. If you looked at the goalkeeper, it seemed as if you had to look cross-eyed. It was like seeing somebody walk toward the door and instead of looking at the man you looked at the doorknob. It made your head hurt, and you couldn't breathe properly any more.

"You get used to it," said Bloch. "But it's ridiculous."


Door handle with knob, Hotel Russia, Moscow: photo by Dsmack, 2005

A penalty kick was called. All the spectators rushed behind the goal.

"The goalkeeper is trying to figure out which corner the kicker will send the ball into," Bloch said. "If he knows the kicker, he knows which corner he usually goes for. But maybe the kicker is also counting on the goalie's figuring this out. So the goalie goes on figuring that just today the ball might go into the other corner. But what if the kicker follows the goalkeeper's thinking and plans to shoot into the usual corner after all? And so on, and so on."

Saboteurs with guns. Guarding at Lyshøjgårdsvej in Copenhagen, where the saboteurs' cars are placed: photographer unknown, March 1945 (National Museum of Denmark)

Bloch saw how all the players gradually cleared the penalty area. The penalty kicker adjusted the ball. Then he too backed out of the penalty area.

"When the kicker starts his run, the goalkeeper unconsciously shows with his body which way he'll throw himself even before the ball is kicked, and the kicker can simply kick in the other direction," Bloch said. "The goalie might just as well try to pry open a door with a piece of straw."

The kicker suddenly started his run. The goalkeeper, who was wearing a bright yellow jersey, stood absolutely still, and the penalty kicker shot the ball into his hands.

 Handke: from Die Angst des Tormanns beim Elfmeter (The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick), 1970: translated by Michael Roloff 

Mido/Ferdinand/Hislop: Tom Clark, 2005

III Albert Camus: Direct Access to the Cemetery
Yes, I played for several years at the University of Algiers. It seems to me like yesterday. But when, in 1940, I put on my boots again, I realized that it was not yesterday. Before the end of the first half, my tongue was hanging out like those kabyles dogs one comes across at two o'clock in the afternoon at Tizi-Ouzou. It was a long while ago then, from 1928 onwards, I believe. I made my début with Montpensier sport club. God knows why, since I lived at Belcourt, and the Belcourt-Mustapha team is Gallia-Sports. But I had a friend, a shaggy fellow, who swam in the port with me and played water polo for Montpensier. That's how one's life is determined. Montpensier often played at the Manoeuvre Grounds, for no apparent reason. The ground was bumpier than the shin of a visiting centre-forward at the Alenda Stadium, Oran. Quickly I learned that the ball never came to you where you expected it. This helped me in life, above all in the metropolis, where people are not always wholly straightforward. But after a year of bumps and Montpensier, they made me ashamed of myself at the lycée: a "university man" ought to play for Algiers University, R.U.A.

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Tizi-Ouzou, panoramic view from Amjudh: photo by Said026, 2009

Yes, R.U.A. I was very pleased, the important thing for me being to play. I fretted with impatience from Sunday to Thursday, for training day, and from Thursday to Sunday, match day. So I joined the university men. And there I was, goalkeeper of the junior team. Yes, it all seemed quite easy. But I didn't know that I had just established a bond that would endure for years, embracing every stadium in the Department, and which would never come to an end. I did not know then that twenty years after, in the streets of Paris or even Buenos Aires (yes, it happened to me) the words R.U.A. spoken by a friend I met would make my heart beat again as foolishly as could be.

At full-back I had the Big Fellow -- I mean Raymond Couard. He had a tough time of it, if I remember correctly. We used to play hard. Students, their fathers' sons, don't spare themselves. Poor us, in every sense, a good half of us mown down like corn! We had to face up to it. And we had to play "sportingly", because that was the Golden Rule of the R.U.A., and "strongly", because, when all is said and done, a man is a man. Difficult compromise! This cannot have changed, I am sure.

The hardest team was Olympic Hussein Dey. The stadium is beside the cemetery. They made us realize, without mercy, that there was direct access. As for me, poor goalkeeper, they went for my body.

Albert Camus: What I Owe to Football, in France-Football, 1957

Zidane and Cannavaro
: Tom Clark, 2006


Nin Andrews said...

I love soccer and field hockey--and I loved playing goalie most of all, though I was always quick so I was made to play running positions . . .
But it's funny to listen to all these tales of ones moment on the field--
I just finished Pat Conroy's My Losing Season--all about his basketball life--not a great book, but I did enjoy it. Sucker that I am for sports and easy reading in the summer . . .



As the World [Cup] turns, how timely this is -- Nabokov, Handke & Camus on soccer/football imagined ("illustrated") in your beautiful paintings (wow) and these photos (that rook in that green field) -- very nice.

TC said...

Nin and Steve,

Many thanks.

When Nabokov writes, "I was less the keeper of a soccer goal than the keeper of a secret", I think maybe there's a hint as to the reason why so many goalkeepers become writers.