Chickening Out of a Game of Soccer

“Hell’s Bollocks! How can you watch that stuff first thing in the morning, Roger?” I asked, gazing in horror at the TV screen in the corner of the kitchen. “Watch this bit!” said Roger biting cheerfully into a chocolate croissant. “This is my favourite bit; really disgusting! Watch!” “Good grief!” I turned back to the kettle, wondering how anyone could possibly watch filth like that for pleasure. “Any tea on the go?” asked Nick, coming into the kitchen in his dressing gown and then, as he saw what Roger was watching, “Bloody hell, Roger! Not again!” Roger grinned. Pretty little Nikki came in next, in a baby doll nightie. She had been a “guest” in Bimbo’s room for the night. “What you watching?” she asked Roger sleepily. “‘Raiders of the Lost Arse’,” replied Roger, staring salaciously at her. “Oh, I’ve never seen that. Is it any good?” asked Nikki innocently. She took a seat next to Roger. Seconds later, she gave a cry of disgust, leapt up from her chair and fled back to the sanctuary of Bimbo’s bedroom. Roger guffawed boorishly, and even Nick and I had to chuckle. Bimbo came in wearing a pair of boxer shorts. “What’s going on?” he asked. Then he saw the TV. “Oh, I see.” “Never mind that,” said Nick. “Now that you’re all here, I’ve got something to tell you. We’re playing football tonight.”

“We’re doing what?” I nearly dropped my teacup. “Playing football. Five-a-side. I’ve booked the pitch. We’re playing against these Italian blokes I know.” “Fuck that for a game of soldiers!” said Roger. “Nick,” I pleaded. “I can’t play football to save my life! Remember that kid at school who, every time he kicked the ball, it flew off at 90° to the right? That’s me, that is!” It was true. Even now I break into a cold sweat whenever a bunch of Italian kids playing soccer in the street ask me to kick their ball back to them. “It’s only a bit of a laugh!” said Nick. I wasn’t convinced. In my experience, Italians took sport extremely seriously. I couldn’t imagine that any of our prospective opponents viewed the encounter as “a bit of a laugh”.

“I’ll just show you up, Nick. No, sorry. No way.” “OK, so you’re a big girl’s blouse. What’s your excuse, you Welsh pillock? Busy wanking?” “No. Just not into ball games. Not that sort, anyway.” “What about you Bimbo?” “Yeah, I’m on for it.” “Good man. At least there’s one other real man living in this house. We’re meeting them outside at 8 o’clock. Don’t be late.” And out he stomped, slamming the door behind him. At five to eight that evening, Nick came jogging into the kitchen in full football kit. He ran up and down on the spot, did a star jump or two and punched the air for good measure. Then he grabbed a tracksuit from the back of a chair and began to pull it on. “Anyone seen Bimbo?” he enquired. “Nope,” said Roger. “He’s in his room, I think,” I said. Nick jogged out and we heard a smart rapping sound on Bimbo’s door. “Come on, Bimbo. We gotta get out of here.” Muffled noises from within. “What’s that? Come on! Hurry up!” He came back into the kitchen. Moments later, Bimbo poked his head round the door. “Er, I’m not going to be able to make it,” he said, sheepishly. “What? Why not?” “Well, I’m sort of … busy.” Female giggling could be heard emanating from Bimbo’s room. “Fucking pathetic!” Nick screamed. “Sorry,” said Bimbo. “Fucking pathetic!” Nick was beetroot. He thrashed around, trying to think of something else to say. “Fucking pathetic!” For the second time that day, he stomped out, slamming the door. “Oops!” said Bimbo, and retired to his bedroom. Roger and I glanced at each other and promptly collapsed in hysterics. Nick was calmer, if not exactly friendly, at breakfast the next morning. He was already sitting at the table clasping a mug of tea when I walked in. “Did you have to cancel last night?” “No. I went round to Bill’s flat. They all came out and played instead.” “Oh, good. Did you win?” “Yeah. No thanks to you lot.” “Listen, I’m sorry, Nick. But you’d have lost if I’d been on your side.” “Yeah, well.” “And as for the others …” “Fucking pathetic!” I gave up. Roger came in, videocassette in hand. He made to put it in the machine. “Don’t even fucking think about it,” barked Nick, and Roger wisely desisted. “Is there any tea?” Bimbo flounced in dressed like Noel Coward. “It’s there if you want it,” said Nick frostily. “Sorry about last night.” “Fucking pathetic!”

“Listen,” said Nick to me later that morning. “You might be a big girl’s blouse who can’t play football, but you’ve got nothing against watching it, have you?” “No, why?” “Fancy coming down to the San Paolo with me later? It’s no fun on your own. Roger’s not interested in watching anything that doesn’t have tits and an arse, and as for Bimbo …” Words failed him. “Fucking pathetic!” “Yeah, OK. Where do we get tickets?” “We get them down by the stadium, from the touts.” “Oh.”

The match was Napoli-Parma, and was the first of many matches that Nick and I watched together. Napoli Football Club post-Maradona. A sorry tale when viewed from the perspective of the early 21st century. Neapolitans have long loved their football with an intense passion and have often had good reason to be grateful for the distractions that the game has provided in times of crisis and disaster, particularly in 1973 when a cholera epidemic was terrorizing the city, and again in 1980 when the city was struck by a terrible earthquake. The club has certainly had its moments of glory, although by the time Nick and I came on the scene, these were long gone and the team was pretty mediocre by Serie A standards.

It was actually the English who brought football to Naples. Teams in Genoa and Turin had already sprung up around English ex-pats but, in the south, the game was still unknown in the earlier part of the 20th century. In 1903, however, the shipping line Cunard transferred a certain William Poths to Naples. Poths was one of its young managers who was also a talented amateur footballer. He would meet with his colleagues and employees in a bar, where they would drink to the success of his old team in England, news of which was conveyed by telegraph and newspaper cuttings. In a little under two years, the first team had been organised in the Naples area, consisting of Neapolitans, Egyptians, Swiss, Germans and Brits who would play against English sailors, and it wasn’t long before other clubs emerged along the coast. On 1st August 1926, a group of managers and players got together to breathe life into the team which, today, bears the name of the city.

Willy Garbutt

The first season was a disaster, with 61 goals conceded and only seven scored. Napoli football club ambled along until Willy Garbut, an ex-Arsenal player, who had had great success at Genoa and Roma, took over and things began to take off. Then, during the season of 1936/7, after a victory against Genoa, Achile Lauro, the shipping magnate, donated 1000 lire to the club, a princely sum of money in those days. He had been most pleased by a victory against another sea town and became anxious to secure a place in the club’s history. He became a capable president and remained so until he resigned two weeks after the declaration of the war. Napoli yo-yoed between Serie A and Serie B and became well-known for shocking scenes of crowd violence. When it became clear that the whole financial structure of the club would have to be changed in the mid-sixties, the first footballing joint stock company was formed and Napoli soared high.

Achille Lauro

The club reached third position in 1964/5 and second in 1967/8, and continued to do well under Corrado Ferlaino in the 1970s, winning the Coppa Italia in 1975/6. But it was with the arrival of Diego Armando Maradona that the team’s golden period began. Loathed and despised by every patriotic Englishman as a ridiculous show-off and contemptible cheat, as happy to score goals with his hands as with his feet, Maradona was, undoubtedly, a footballing genius and, to a Neapolitan, he was, and is, despite his recent death, a god.

Maradona’s links with Naples began when it became clear that things were not going well between him and Barcelona. His poor performance there, along with his sordid behaviour and unpleasant character, had made him few friends and a separation was imminent. After the signing of the contract with Napoli, 70 000 people turned up at the San Paolo stadium on 6th July 1984 to welcome Maradona to the city. His behaviour in Naples was bad from the outset. He kept bad company, got involved in punch-ups, frequented squalid clubs and fathered illicit children. Eventually, his parents had to fly in from Argentina to keep an eye on him. But he provided great entertainment and the terraces were packed. And when, in 1986/7, Napoli won their first scudetto, the whole city celebrated as only Neapolitans can. The year was particularly successful for them and they won the Coppa Italia for the third time.

The UEFA cup was won the following year when Napoli beat Stuttgart in the final, but this was a bitter period for Napoli during which there were rumours of games being “bought” and Camorra interference. Maradona did not help matters by making disparaging remarks about the club and its coach. Relations remained strained with Maradona threatening to leave the city for Marseilles and spending more and more time in Argentina. To pacify the fans, who were extremely disappointed if Maradona was not playing, Napoli acquired the hugely successful 23 year-old Gianfranco Zola.

The second scudetto came in 1989/90 when Maradona decided to postpone his temper tantrums and get himself in shape for the 1990 World Cup. But after the World Cup, they started again with Maradona refusing to play important matches, not even answering the door to fellow players, when they desperately tried to persuade him. Maradona’s time was through when the newspapers revealed his predilection for cocaine and prostitutes and the police became involved. On 17th March 1991, Maradona failed a drugs test after a game in which Napoli beat Bari. While he was waiting for the final analysis to come through, he was allowed to play two more matches for Napoli against Sampdoria and Genova, but they were to be his last for, four days after the match against Genova, the results came back positive for cocaine and, at Easter, Maradona, who had already sent his family back to Argentina, fled there himself, well on the way to becoming a drug-wasted wreck. These were the last great days for Napoli Football Club for a while and, although they later returned to the upper echelons of Serie A, never again have they reached the heights that they did with Maradona. The club is now owned by film producer Aurelio De Laurentis who seems to have brought world class soccer back to the south. Time alone will tell whether they will ever win another scudetto but in 1994/5, Nick and I saw all of Italy’s great teams play at the San Paolo – Juventus, Milan, Inter, Rome, Lazio, Fiorentina, Parma. And what happy days they were!

4 pensieri riguardo “Chickening Out of a Game of Soccer

  1. Maradona manifested God-like worship (almost) everywhere he played, but of course mostly in Napoli and back home in Buenos Aires. Even in England these days there is grudging admiration entwined with the painful memory of 86. Whilst chuckling at your story, I was mulling over which is worse: letting him down because you’re shit or letting him down because you’re shagging. Other than empathising with Nick, I can’t decide!

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