On Saturday I played my final game for SFC Friedrichshain Internazionale, the football team I joined shortly after arriving in Berlin in late 2014. SFCF Inter, or “The Unicorns”, have been and will continue to be a huge part of my life. The team, as its name and nickname suggest, is a unique and diverse group of very special human beings. The squad is about twenty-strong, and features people with almost as many nationalities; in that sense, it is the essence of Berlin. It’s not the kind of gathering you readily leave, but my increasingly brittle left ankle and right knee have had other ideas.
It’s not as if I’m truly leaving them: I’ll still train with them whenever my work schedule allows each week. But this moment briefly felt a little poignant, as it’s the first time that I’ve had to admit that my days of regularly playing 11-a-side football are over. At such times, being a poet by disposition, I tend to get a bit misty-eyed and reminisce. I’ve been part of several clubs since the age of nine – first Golden Eagles U10 B, the reserve side so poor that when we lost only 4-0 we were delighted, and who were once defeated 35-0 in a match lasting only an hour and during which the ball entered their half just once. Then there was the all-conquering Sunningdale School 1st XI, which was my redemption for Golden Eagles having been so terrible; a few years playing for various school sides at Eton College, but sadly never once playing for their senior first team; the 105 Club; St. John’s College, Oxford; Mansfield Road; Ferry Hinksey; Brasenose Old Boys; Lovells; Stonewall; and finally, of course, the Unicorns.
Of course, it was never ultimately about the football; because I never played well for a team where I didn’t love those with whom I shared the dressing-room. Love is a strong word, and still not one that many men are comfortable using about one another: and that’s why I use it. I loved all those team-mates from my favourite teams, and I still do. It’s a delight to see them all on Facebook, on WhatsApp, or during the odd visit to any city where they might be living now – Barcelona, Dubai, Shanghai. Many of them are fathers now, and far stiffer of joint than they were when we all first met. But their passion for the game remains the same, as does their affection for each other. At various points, in a world so often brutally unfair and cruelly complex, the simple joy of chasing a ball around the field has been a rare form of solace.
Of course, it was about the football to some extent, which is why I’m not playing any longer. I only really play for teams where I feel that I can make a consistently strong contribution, and I don’t think that’s the case anymore. German football, at this level, is just as quick and physical as it is in the UK, and it is technically far superior too – there are people doing things in training and in matches that were almost unimaginable in the UK. (Alexis Lannoy, my God. You are not fully human.) Playing for the Unicorns has been very humbling, in that sense. When I was playing in the UK, I would often take the field confident in the knowledge that I was one of the quicker and more skilful players there. By the time I came to Germany, that was not remotely the case. I had lost pretty much any acceleration I had ever had (some will laugh, at this point, that I never really had much pace at all) and I found it almost impossible to dribble past players. As a result, I can now admit, I was sometimes very worried when matchday came around: doubtful that, in my greatly diminished state, I would be good enough to deliver what my peers needed.
That’s been the beautiful thing about playing for the Unicorns, though. For the overwhelming majority of my time with them, I relied not upon speed or skill but upon hustle and guts. I have never gladly chased so many seemingly lost causes, hunting down centre backs as they passed the ball gleefully between themselves. I now know what Harry Boyle, one of the first and best captains I ever had, meant when he ordered me to “play this game for as long as you can”. The ritual of matchday is a profound one: the arrival at a ground so alien and hostile that it may as well be the surface of Venus, the Deep Heat searing through your nostrils, the clatter of studs in the hall.
During that time – over those many hundreds of matches – I’ve played in conditions from sub-zero to tropical, and in all manner of different positions. I’ve worn several shirt numbers; 4, 5, 9, 10, 11, 14, 17. I started out as a striker, a traditional centre-forward; then I was a number ten, a left-wing and a right-wing, a defensive midfielder (no, seriously, ask Rory da Costa and Peter Nedd), a left-back, and latterly even a left wing-back. I was never deployed as a keeper, but that’s probably best for all concerned. At first, I was obsessed with scoring goals – there was nothing that gave me greater pleasure – but, after a while, I lost the hunger for that. As a striker, you’re oddly distant from your team-mates, often as proud but isolated as the prow of a ship. Playing in central midfield for Stonewall, in a team of gay and bisexual men competing against a league of heterosexual teams, I learned just how wonderful it could be to do all the small things that went unnoticed but which were utterly vital to your team’s success. If Golden Eagles was where I first found my love for playing football, then Stonewall was where I rediscovered it.
But this post is getting long – what was meant to be a short piece has now tumbled on into over a thousand words. I have started this with the Unicorns, so I will finish it with them. After my last game, a 4-2 defeat to Traktor Boxhagener, I ended up being the final person out of the dressing-room, which was as fitting and melodramatic as it sounds. It’s a good thing no-one else wandered in during the few minutes I sat there, because I might have welled up in tears if they had walked in. Somewhere, almost thirty years back, there was a much younger me scraping the mud off his boots. Now, with a grey-haired goatee, I was gazing at the chalkboard where Andrew Weber, the most inspirational of coaches, had scribbled that game’s starting line-up. I had to take a picture of it all: the firmly-worded tactical instructions, the deserted space, the sacred enclave. I took a selfie in which I tried to smile, but didn’t quite manage it; and maybe that was fitting too. You can’t quite be euphoric at a time like that. I packed my things, took one last look round, and turned off the light. I then headed out to the club’s bar and a post-match beer with my friends, before going off to play a seven-a-side football tournament on the other side of town, where I was one of the younger players taking part. This game has been one of the greatest journeys of my life, and it always will be.
Thank you for everything, Unicorns; and I’ll see you all down the pub, or in that WhatsApp group, where I hope you will lovingly and mercilessly mock this sentimental post as fully it deserves. I won’t mind, though. From start to finish, it has been the greatest pleasure.