You’ve either got them, or you haven’t. What’s that?
Balls. A saying, that in the Cambridge English Dictionary, is a meaning for courage and confidence. In the heat of the battle, you are either a sheep or a shepherd.
It was my girlfriend’s balls that attracted her to me. Thankfully today, the balls I’m talking about are neither hers nor mine. They are not the swing low, sweet char-ey-ot ones, but the balls we played with when we were young.
Most of our football careers have the origins of kicking a ball about the family home. Our mums guard the ornaments like Peter Shilton in his heyday, while our dads try to teach us to kick with both feet.
No matter what level you achieved in the Beautiful Game, your first kickabout was probably with a cheap as chips, lightweight plastic ball that had a mind of its own. The standard red, green or blue, with the black pentagons, come to mind,or the bright orange ball with WEMBLEY printed across it. Let’s face it, most of us are too young to have encountered the heavy leather laced-up balls of the Old Age Testament.
I heard a story once, of a guy getting scalped because his timing was out, and the laces took off the top of his head. Ouch! My experience with something as lethal was getting smashed on the bare legs with a Mitre Mouldmaster in freezing cold temperatures. Once the Tories have us out of the European Court of Human Rights, I can see these getting re-introduced in schools.
Growing up, we didn’t have the luxury of playing on grass in our housing scheme. A 1970s council estate, it had 2 slabbed squared areas, 28 x 28 yards, to service a couple of hundred houses. These squares, as we called them, doubled as our football parks and tennis courts when Wimbledon was in vogue.
Probably like you, I’ve been around balls all my life. The 1982 World Cup introduced me to Brazil. Zico and Eder. To Paolo Rossi and the Adidas Tango. As the Falklands War came to an end, World Champions Argentina kicked off their campaign with a defeat to Belgium. Hungary would skelp El Salvador 10-1, and Italy would become the first team to go through the group stages without winning a game. In fact, they pipped Cameroon by one goal scored to sneak through.
Adidas originally created the Tango Durlast for the 1978 World Cup in Argentina. It was the third World Cup which they had designed and provided the official match ball for the tournament.
In fact, Adidas has produced the official match ball for every World Cup since 1970. Slazenger supplied the bright orange ball for the previous 1966 World Cup.
From the ‘78 World Cup, this Tango design would be used for the following five World Cups, with the official match ball changing its name to suit the country where the tournament was being held. Tango Espana (Spain), Azteca (Mexico), Etrusco Unico (Italy), Questra (USA) and Tricolore (France).
The importance of having a ball to kick about growing up cannot be underestimated. It brought kids together and even broke down religious divides for a few hours. In 82, we had the Tango, 84 we were playing Platini passes with the old retro 1970 Telstar ball, by 86we were on the Mexican Azteca, and Catholics and Protestants in Scotland were joyfully re-enacting the Hand of God together!
Where we grew up, football and fighting were a currency, if you were any good you moved up the social ladder. When picking a side, the higher up that ladder the quicker you got selected. Fat kids and gingers were always the last picked, no room for feelings on this street.
These squares I mentioned were our Camp Nou’s, our Bernabeu, our Mestalla.
Forty five a side, your first touch, and timing had to be immaculate, any error and you were bouncing off the cracked slabs. Foul!! No chance. There was no referee and no empathy in this game.
One of the concrete play areas was a death trap by today’s standards. It had a stone kerb running around the edge of the four sides, inside the kerb, a three-foot concrete pillar popped up every five yards. To complete the arena, a metal rail ran through the concrete posts creating a strict in-out boundary.
The older kids were fucking planning geniuses. Bored with the old jumpers for goalposts routine, they quickly vandalised the square, making it.. eh.. safer and, in doing so, created our Theatre of Dreams, or, in the words of David Attenborough, these mammals adjusted their habitat to suit their everyday needs.
At the same time, a ball wasn’t easy to come by, someone had to have a birthday or something. A Tango Espana was a prized possession, though there was none of the my ball, my rules shite. Fitba was a team game and we lived in peacetime, so long as a ball was in play.
Experience taught us that these replica balls had a shelf life. they would scuff, crack, and then peel until all the black and white paint was gone. The exposed leather patches would only last so long until the dreaded orange bladder threatened to prolapse itself.
When the ball bursts, kids turned to crime. Boredom sets in. Fallouts turn into gang fights. Cars get torched, and Mickey Two Eyes sets up a numbers racket to keep everyone amused. There’s tension in the air. There’s nothing worse in life when the scheme ball gets burst.
Well, there is. But you learn this later, when you grow up, and your wife cheats on you, or your Da runs away with your best pal’s mum. Fuck sake, Da. But as a 10-year-old, your life centres around that ball.
Step forward, somebody’s mum. New balls, please. Order has been restored. Friendships rekindled. Crime levels reduced.
One particular neighbour was always delighted when he saw our new ball. Archie lived directly behind one of the makeshift goals, he wasn’t a good neighbour, in fact, he was a cunt.
A broad man, he had a hell-bent Ian Paisley scowl that put fear into most kids and a 12-inch shiny kitchen knife that put the fear into the rest of us. Every Sunday afternoon Archie would sit patiently on his back step, taking in our four-hour game. He kicked every ball, wishing every pass, hoping, every shot would hit that kerb with the right amount of power, with the perfect trajectory, to take our ball up and over the fence and into his fucking garden. The next WHOOSH wasn’t Archie MacPherson, it was Archie the Bastard, stabbing the ball and taking the air and the life clean out of its leather body. Thank fuck the old cunt died before any of us were up, or someone was doing time for the miserable bastard.
Today every council estate is quiet. There’s not a ball bounced or kicked. No shouts of ‘man on’, or ‘Fuck You Archie’. No Ball Game signs to disobey. No goals painted with chalk and no jumpers for goalposts.
When the Think Tanks in tank tops analyse our game, and wonder where it went wrong, we can point to the scheme ball.
Words: Damon Grant