Football: Beautiful game: free expression, no fear of losing, no inhibitions... no sense of direction

Mike Rowbottom on England's new answer to total football
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The Independent Online
It was when the trainer asked the blue team which goal they were attacking, and two out of the five players responded correctly, that I realised what I was watching.

The Dutch team of the mid-1970s used to describe their style of play as "total football". What took place on an infant school field in Hertfordshire this week might best be described as partial football - high on energy, low on tactics. Low, too, on co-ordination. And teamwork. And, naturally enough in the circumstances, direction.

When the English game enters one of its periodic passages of self-recrimination - watch out for another if the national team fails to qualify for next year's World Cup finals - much is made of the pressurised way in which our young players learn the game. Too many matches, not enough joy.

Elsewhere in the world, we are assured, kids - you see, getting freer already - simply express themselves in their formative footballing years, learning to play with tennis balls in the backstreets of Naples or perfecting their bicycle kicks on the sands of the Copacabana.

By that token, the sight of the milling five-year-olds into whom four coaches strove vainly to instil knowledge was a welcome one. Here was nature untrammelled, a tabula rasa on to which the most exquisite footballing patterns might be inscribed.

There was an alternative view, however, and the sotto voce comment of Scott, coach to the group of children nearest to where I sat, summed it up rather well. "Having a few problems, Scott?" someone volunteered as he fetched the ball for a corner. "Terrible, aren't they?" he said. "It's all I can do to keep them on the pitch."

No one could have been better equipped than Scott for this after-school assignment. He was young, fit and - most important of all - inhumanly cheerful.

The rumour circulating the school that he was having trials with West Ham assured him of respect from all those who appreciated what it meant. Which, on reflection, was probably not very many. Scott, however, knew the virtue of general discipline - "Anyone misbehaving, that's a yellow card. Do it again, that's a red card and you're off. No one's been off before, so make sure you're not the first one."

There was no misbehaviour. Far from it. Had there been an instrument on hand for measuring eager-to-pleaseness, it would have gone off the scale.

But with the best will in the world, the majority of Scott's young charges were sweetly unconcerned with the result of the match in which they were engaged, and in some cases more interested in other activities. Such as grinning at the modest crowd. Or dancing about and waving their arms. Or hopping.

This behaviour sat ill with the seriously expensive replica kits - Arsenal, England, Chelsea home and away - in which many of the diminutive protagonists were clad.

Before Scott's whistle had sounded, they looked the part. They looked better than the part. But all the gear, right down to the fringed sock- ties, became richly irrelevant once the players formed that timeless entity - children playing football. Always, they followed the ball, switching direction like a shoal of fish. Periodically, the action clogged up into the Eton Wall Game without the Wall.

Watching my son gambol on the fringes of the striving limbs, I remembered the breathless frustration of matches I had played while at primary school, when the goalposts were always distant and the ball seemed just a rumour.

My reverie was disturbed by a cultural variation which would have baffled us back in the Sixties. Having made fleeting contact with the white sphere which was engaging everyone's attention, one of the bit players turned to his little mate and offered his upstretched palms for ritual slapping, American style - the high five.

This done, both appeared quite satisfied with their contribution to the match, and drifted towards the notional touchline deep in conversation.

Evidence that the nuances of the Beautiful Game were eluding more than the youngest group of players arrived in the form of a Year Two boy who raced up to his mother with news of the game which had finished further up the field.

"Mum!" he shouted. "1-1! 1-1 to us!"

Meanwhile, the haphazard, sprawling, staggering struggle of Year One went on. And Scott was still gamely attempting to credit the proceedings with order. "OK, throw-in, throw-in. Who's taking the throw-in?" he cried. "Right. Nice and sharp, son. No, no. No. With both hands. Both hands. Like this..."

In his own hands, perhaps, rested England's footballing future. It was not an easy burden.

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