Unpredictable

Over the weekend our U10 boys team played a futsal match.  The extra outdoor practice on Saturday must have helped.  The Strikers won 14-1.  We were up 7-nil at the half and I told the boys they were playing well and that they didn’t need to be in such a rush to score.  “Pass the ball a bit.  See how long you can possess the ball.  Get the center-half involved in the play.”  They all nodded their head, smiling from ear to ear, ready to get back out on the court.

Before league play started, I didn’t know if I’d like competitive futsal.  We ended up in a winter futsal league when the indoor soccer league (on a larger turf field) fell through for varying reasons depending on who you talk to.  Most likely reasons rooted in money or lack thereof.  Running a youth soccer club is all about paying out money, always asking the parents to chip in $20 here, $25 there, and all the time I’m wondering why we don’t have more play between the teams in our own club.  And then there’s the adults.  We’d like to kick the ball around too.

After the Strikers 14-1 victory over the Elite, we had an hour long practice in the gym.  We played small sided games and I joined in to make up a 3v3.  I’m rusty too.  My legs felt heavy and stiff.  All flabby from sitting around during the holidays.

Despite my fatigue I dressed up after practice and drove to Williamsburg.  Spuyten Duyvil put six of my brewery‘s beers on tap and one on cask.  Rasan was there.  Lev and his friend Paul.  I’d hoped Franz would show up, but he might have been too put out after the Arsenal, Man City match (which I wouldn’t see until the next day).

It was midnight just as I was getting home Sunday night.  The drive home in the fog seemed timeless.  I was listening to the Anfield Wrap (podcast) and the Liverpool supporters were admitting just how much respect they had for Sir Alex and his boys.  I was in a trance.  Whole stretches of road passed as if I were in a dream, my consciousness far away.  At one point, I became aware that I was so caught up in what I was listening to that I had no recollection of the road over which I’d been driving for how many minutes?  I’d read something about this effect, autopilot (?) in a book by Oliver Sacks.  Was it Oliver Sacks?

There’s a new book out by Daniel Tammet called Thinking in Numbers.  I haven’t read the book, don’t even own a copy, but I did hear a podcast interview with the mathematician / author recently.  His discussion of the many possible arrangements of Nabokov’s Lolita captured my attention, but it was what he said about the predictability of the language of school girls that got me thinking.  Tammet referenced a “famous study” where “scientists” came up with an algorithm to predict the speech patterns of English school girls.  To a high degree of accuracy, he said, the scientists could predict precisely what an English school girl would say next based on exhaustive and accurate knowledge of what she had already said.  He didn’t explain that this was a result of the language of English school girls being so repetitive and conventional.  That school girls talk for the same reason that birds sing, because they lack a natural capacity for silence, or simply to be heard.

Tammet compared the predictable language of the English school girl with the greatest novelists and poets.  A novelist, or a poet, uses language in a more sophisticated way.  What a poet will write (or say) next is not predictable at all, he said.  And it is precisely this unpredictability that makes good novelists so exciting and interesting to read.

Football players, great ones, are also unpredictable.  What makes great soccer players and great teams so fun to watch is that they do the unexpected, and the unexpected often leads to glimpses of beauty, or moments of joy, or inspiration.

When I watch a football match, I look for patterns, the positions of players, open lanes for passing, and often I see a small channel open up and I say, “Pass it there!  To him!”  But then the ball flies in some other direction, reaching another player in a more congested part of the field, and he finds a crack in the defense, one that I hadn’t even seen was there.  That moment of realization is a surprise, and a pleasure.

A team or a player that always does the same things over and over again, they are less interesting to watch.  Even the highly skilled sides, who can pass the ball accurately, expertly, and with clockwork precision can be boring if the passing is too predictable and leads to little in the way of breakthrough moments.

Beyond just watching the game, I started reading books about soccer.  Authors like Simon Kuper and David Winner showed me that football was a worthy subject — possibly even a subject that I could write about.

For years I’ve kept up with literary journals and the smart book reviews.  Most of such publications are filled with political and social commentary.  As much as I’ve tried, I’ve never developed a lasting interest in the political world, or the characters that inhabit it.  The political players are a dull sort, and for the most part shallow, and incapable of independent or unpredictable action.  When I ran across a reference to the Dutch “literary” football journal Hard Gras in Winner’s book, Brilliant Orange, I was intrigued and so started looking for English language equivalents.  I found a host of intelligent writing about football and cultural criticism written from a soccer perspective.  Now in the US we have journals like Howler and XI Quarterly.  This is a wonderful time to be a literate football fan.

I’ve been working my way through A Football Report‘s list of the best football writing of 2012 and I’ve found a writer that I enjoy reading, Brian Phillips who writes for Grantland and his own site, Run of Play.  And it was Phillips that I thought about when I was musing about good writing and unpredictability.  I had just read Phillips’s piece in Grantland “Celebrity Entropy” and was amused by this line: “By the time I started getting into soccer, he seemed more like a discredited childhood memory, one of those stray communal wisps that once felt genuine but turned out to be propaganda, like hair metal or the first Thanksgiving.”  When I started reading the sentence I didn’t see “hair metal or the first Thanksgiving” coming.  In football terms, it was like Phillips had found an open passing lane, slipped the ball through, and scored just past a diving keeper.  It wasn’t that the sentence was beautiful, it was that Phillips had introduced the unexpected, words that were unpredictable.  The surprise of discovering the unexpected is at the root of both comedy and the joy of something approaching beauty.

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