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16 February 2022

At last I have discovered what many knew all along: the joys of football

After saying yes to a beginner’s game I was pleased to discover that, while bad, I was by no means left behind as a hopeless cause.

By Pippa Bailey

I did something recently that will shock those who know me well – and anyone who has read of my previous sporting exploits in these pages. I – willingly, without the threat of punishment or promise of reward – played football. (Those who witnessed this once-in-a-millennium event may question whether what I did can really be described as “playing football”, and I could not convincingly challenge them.)

Towards the end of last year, a good friend and erstwhile flatmate of mine posted on Instagram that she was organising a women- and non-binary-only, complete beginner’s football session. In a moment of madness, I wrote back, “Me, please! (Though I will be 110% awful).” “That’s what it’s for!!” she responded. And so, one recent Friday night, I donned my sports gear (shorts over leggings – for some reason it just felt like a football-y thing to wear) and walked to my local AstroTurf, trying to squash down the self-doubt and PE flashbacks.

[See also: Up at 5.30am to file my tax return, I find a sort of diary in my spending]

Our coaches led us through warm-up exercises – lots of that daft side-to-side run footballers do – drills and a short game of six-a-side (not conventional, I know, but we worked with what we had). For many of us this was the first time we had even touched a football in decades, and it was alien and uncontrollable as it rolled away from us. In one drill, we were instructed to call the name of the person we were passing to, which was helpful for learning names – but also made it woefully clear when the person the ball had landed with was not the intended recipient. I used muscles I would not have previously believed existed were it not for anatomy diagrams, and afterwards it hurt to straighten my legs for a week. While some distinguished themselves as more natural sportswomen than others over the course of the evening, I was pleased to discover that, while bad, I was by no means left behind as a hopeless cause – a low bar, perhaps, but a realistic one.

Women often berate each other for apologising too often, too easily, and, predictably, cries of “sorry!” went up almost every time foot made contact with ball – and when, despite best efforts, it didn’t. But though I am a little exasperated that we so neatly fit the cliché, there was something gentle and kind and lovely about it: apologising to other women is very different from excusing ourselves for men. And, after two years of jumping into bushes to put as much space as possible between myself and passers-by, it was wonderful to run around and crash into strangers with abandon; to put my arms around the shoulders – and accidentally kick the shins of – a woman I had not known hours before.

[See also: I have just turned 30 and am rather surprised to find I am still so young]

When I first attended my weightlifting class, the coach often told me off for nervous giggling – too much tension defused, not enough assertiveness in the approach. But I spent much of that football session laughing at myself and making decidedly un-clever jokes in a slightly painful, compensating-for-something way, and no one commented upon this coping mechanism. We didn’t even care when some teenage boys, skulking in the dark of the park around the cage, shouted, “You’re shit!” at us. We knew it full well, and were enjoying ourselves regardless – which felt to me, a chronic overachiever, nothing short of transformative.

I say it was a moment of madness that led me to that evening, but it was more than that. I find I am motivated by doing things my ex would not expect of me; I do not want him to know me any more. The same instinct led me to say yes to my first ever skiing trip next month, though I am sure that the only thing standing between me and certain death is that I will not be moving at more than five miles per hour.

There are those who would, I’m sure, say that you should not let the ex-in-your-head shape your actions, that it allows them to retain power over you. But what, in the end, does the motivation matter if I am bettered by the action? On that floodlit pitch, my ball skills grew a little better, and I did, too.

[See also: I have compiled a new playlist for 2022 – “Songs you can’t feel sad to”]

Nicholas Lezard returns next week

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This article appears in the 16 Feb 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Edge of War