Call me Ashley. Some weeks ago – never mind how long exactly – I came to Poland to play football. I’d say I didn’t have any money in my pocket or anything to interest me in England, but both of these are untrue. Whenever I find myself growing grim around the mouth, I account it high time to be playing football.
This particular summer I joined a crew of the finest footballers ever to set out to the fields of the Euros. The first I met was a strange savage with a bizarre haircut and limited ability to communicate in English.
“Me Jaytee,” he said. And we fell in quite thick, and would not be parted for the duration of the tournament, except when he was forced to plunge headlong into the goalmouth to clear looping, deflected shots by opponents.
I met the others after we joined the trip – another centreback, like Jaytee, called Joleon commanded the heart of our defence.
Driving the midfield, Gerrard and Parker, always ready to fling themselves bodily into a tackle or ping an aimless pass 60 yards away were tireless heroes.
And always behind us, always ready to hoof long to the forwards (of whom more in due course) spiky haired blond Hart, clothed in distinctive red.
Quite the most brave-hearted and noble group to ever play football.
Football is the greatest of all games, of that there can be no doubt. Where else does the athletic ability to sprint, jump acrobatically, tug shirts, slide studs-up into shins and writhe around on the floor like you’ve been shot come together in one place? Cricket? Pah! Squash? A game for middle-aged bank managers.
The greatest of all sportsmen have always been footballers. Alan Hansen. Duncan Ferguson. Joey Barton. Ian Botham, all footballers.
For a week or more at the tournament we didn’t see our enigmatic forward. He was there all right, but not on the pitch. Rooney. We’d heard tell of him. He’d lost his hair some time earlier, and had prosthetics instead. He slept two hours a night. He paced his room. Obsessed, some said. And in time, his obsession would become ours. The crew managed to sail through our group without him until we met Ukraine, when he emerged, and energised us all with a magnificent finish from a yard.
That evening, he gathered us around the hotel room and told us of the myth of the White Ball. It was this that had caused him to lose his hair, and he would not rest until he had hunted it down and killed it. It drove him. And he promised us all that he would reward us greatly if we were to help him. He handed out the lucozades and we drank and danced and cheered his name.
The day came when we met Italy. They had a wizened and wise man in their midfield, Pirlo, in front of the snapping, running duo of Gerrard and Parker. Rooney stood alone (well, Welbeck was around) to the other side of him. We knew the White Ball was close. Whatever we did, the White Ball eluded us. Pirlo strolled around, the White Ball never far away from him. Sometimes Jaytee or Parker threw themselves in front of a shot, sometimes they weren’t close enough and it pinged off Hart’s post.
For a while, we thought we were close. The White Ball seemed to be running our way. Johnson, all covered in tattoos, came closest to doing something with it, but got tangled up with his feet and flicked off his boot to Buffon in Italy’s goal.
The modern football boot is a much lighter construction than those of forty or even twenty years ago. In the past, more protection was required, the boots would be of thick, unbending leather, softened only by repeated applications of dubbin. The studs on the soles were lumps of metal, screwed deeply in, each the size of a man’s thumb. Modern uppers are manufactured of synthetic materials, coated with a surface designed to grip the ball and apply the most delicate touch, the soles more flexible, the studs replaced on many boots by blades, designed to grip the turf whatever changes of direction might be imparted onto it.
By the end of the first half, the strain of the hunt was starting to show. Rooney still had us thrusting onwards, but the White Ball seemed more elusive than ever. As we entered the second half, we saw it less and less. Any time it came near, we thrashed and flailed at it. Pressed further back by Pirlo and his Italian teammates, we at times stood on our own six yard line, panting and all but panicked. Down our flanks they came, over the middle of our defence, any which way. And Pirlo was there all the time. And the White Ball, rolling out of our reach, always our of reach. We struggled into extra time, legs exhausted. An attack came down by my side of the pitch, Diamanti tricked his way past me, crossed into the centre, where Nocerino headed in, but he was offside!
Some will tell you about offside in Rugby, or any other sport. There is nothing to compare to catching a man offside as he heads a cross in from two yards out. The celebrations! All cut short. The finest defenders in the world, step forward in unison, more or less, arms raised to the linesman, who waves his flag and rules out a goal – such an exquisite sight, fluttering on the touchline.
We limped on to penalties. The White Ball in one spot. Perhaps we could somehow do it after all, despite less than 40% possession? It all looked so good to begin with. Two perfect penalties from Gerrard and Rooney himself put us ahead. But then Pirlo! The White Ball loooooping up from the spot, spinning gently backwards, teasing the prostrate Hart as it fell into the net. We were shot. The next penalty hammered off the bar. I stepped forward, had to score, failed. I return to England, but I will never forget the time I hunted the White Ball against Italy.