Thursday, 17 June 2010


Midway through the first half of the game between Switzerland and Spain, this happened.

When I was five or six years old sometimes with my mates we used to mark a goal - with sweaters or what have you - grab a ball and somebody would yell tutti contro tutti, 'everyone against everyone'. I remember this call to arms very well, but quite frankly I don’t recall what happened after that. A melee of some kind, presumably. How do you even play football without someone to pass the ball to? Were instant alliances formed and broken on the field, so that a subset of the mob could get closer to scoring a goal? Did we even have a goal to aim at, or is that part of the memory spurious? Perhaps we just dribbled aimlessly, enjoying the inevitable collisions. I couldn’t say. I doubt that as a practice it lasted very long, we must have quickly switched to selecting the two fellows who would take turns picking players so we could get started with a proper game in short order. This I remember very well. It was done quickly because, especially during the morning break at primary school, each moment was precious, and every second that wasn’t spent playing football, wasted. And we kept score, unfailingly, I’m sure of that, although, since the make-up of the teams changed from day to day, it was only the personal stats that carried over.

I remember the first time we played against a team wearing a proper football kit. We must have been eight or nine years old, and they were kids from the area (but not from our school, I think) sponsored by the local pizzeria. They beat us nine to one. I’ll always maintain that they beat us because they had proper shirts. We were just intimidated by that. Some time later they agreed to play us again and this time we won by a goal. We had had a talk in advance about tactics and what we should do, and we remarked that their superior equipment wasn’t a reflection on their skills, or ours.

What is it that is so powerful about shirts, about the team’s colours? I used to think that it was a primal affair, hardwired into us boys especially - my memories of kindergarten all revolve around belonging to a gang, and each gang had its own colour, matching the colours of the rooms at the school. (We didn’t actually wear those colours or anything like that, it was more of a symbolic thing.) But what about tutti contro tutti, then? Where does that fit in, where did it come from?

Gangs of adults form around professional football teams at all levels, each swearing to defend those blessed colours. Footballers become simulacra, heroic figures for as long as they wear the correctly coloured shirt. When national teams are involved, they even make you swear allegiance before each game, when you line up for the anthems. And us supporters at home or at the stadium quietly do the same - each siding with the team from our own country because it is the obvious, the natural, the non-dickish thing to do.

What intrigues me about the image at the top of this post is that it that it makes it look as if Philippe Senderos had somehow forgotten in a moment of folly that most fundamental rule of the game - it is us versus them, the white shirts versus the red shirts - and had tackled his team-mate on purpose, like in one of those Hobbesian childhood games of ours, where all that mattered was to gain temporary possession of the ball. Of course, it’s not really what happened, the full replay shows that the two defenders were both going for the same ball, and Senderos was quite oblivious of Lichststeiner’s run. Nothing to do with Senderos being half-Spanish, either, which was one of the insipid storylines on the eve of the game. It was just an accident.

You couldn’t even imagine what everyone against everyone would look like, with adult footballers, in a visual cacophony of differently coloured shirts, could you? Except I suspect it would make a good commercial.


  1. We used to play three-and-in which produced similar melees: one goal, one keeper, they throw the ball out, everyone tries to score: first to three goes in goal. It produced a completely unique tactical position thinking about it, in which you had to tackle the ball-carrier, but also be aware of the fact that the instant you did so, you were the attacker and needed to face goal, while they had become the defender.

    In Argentina they have this obsession with the gambetta - the little trick/turns you do to stay on the ball, fend off a tackle - and relate it to en masse street games in which kids a) want to hog the ball when they get it and b) are faced with numerous tacklers.

    re shirts, Liverpool only began to play in all-red under Shankly, and it's sometimes cited as one of the factors in their rise... debatable but there you go

  2. ZST: 'cuppies' we called that. 'Double cuppies' was when you had a partner.

    The laws of playground football would make a fantastic study. I moved from Wolverhampton to Southport at age 8 and the differences were astonishing (much as pool rules can vary from pub to pub).

    There is definitely something quite Hobbesian about playground football, though. Those who are near the top of the hierarchy (the hardest/the coolest) determine the rules/what's a foul/whether it was over and often what the score is (I remember games where all 20 or so players had a different final score). Allies will often gang up on someone who's claiming to be fouled/has committed a foul- even if they're on different teams, and anyone who's unpopular is fair game for foul play.

    As you get more mature it becomes a little more Hume-esque, with people agreeing not to foul- recognising that that will help them not be fouled. And I guess a sort of anarchist football develops, without the need for a referee or constitutionally defined rules.

    When you go to Power League, you can choose to pay the extra to enter a social contract and have a referee, to whom you leave these responsibilities (supposedly) creating a safer, fairer environment for all. But of course referees are prone to error and, at a higher level, open to corruption...

  3. Some notes towards a 'Playground Football Glossary'

    Cherries: You can only score via volleys and headers.
    Rush goal: Keeper can come out his net
    Rush all around: Everyone can be a keeper

    (Kimberley Comprehensive, Notts c.1990 - 2000)

  4. I really did lol at tutti contro tutti ....