I like to think I quit playing 11-a-side football in Hong Kong’s broiling heat with a shred of dignity in tact. My clattering challenge to give away a penalty, yellow card for scything someone down moments later and violent argument with a posh n’ dim expat teammate as we left the field at halftime suggest otherwise. We were losing heavily – would lose heavily – and in unrelenting midday sunshine I was close to losing the plot.
The brutal truth is I can no longer keep up with the pacey strikers that dominate our middling league, some of whom are half my age. Even in my underwhelming pomp I relied on good positioning to intercept and head the ball away, yet could give chase and slide-tackle if required. These days once they are past me, the pesky prima donnas are as remote as the cattle I recall a Canadian relative telling me were chewing the cud in British Columbia as we stood squinting at them in Alberta.
I’ve seen this sudden or steady decline happen to countless other amateur players over the years. I never thought it would happen to me. On witnessing the struggles of an older teammate I’ve always tried to cover for them, allowing such players – many of whom were sublime at their peak – some dignity. To be singled out for criticism by this alleged teammate on Sunday either does me credit (maybe in bearing and physique I still look capable of chasing lost causes) or confirms he really is the type of selfish yet slovenly striker that give forwards a bad name. A pilot for Hong Kong’s monopolizing airline, I hear much of the job these days is hanging round up front looking unphased. I can confirm he is quite good at that. Anyway, back to me…
Football has been a regular companion from when I first moved to Hong Kong five years ago – a sort of less violent version of the Hong Kong Writers Circle, to which I also signed up on arrival. Boots at the ready, I advertised my services through an online forum and met Gary, a diminutive cancer survivor with a twinkle in his eye, and manager of Good Fit FC, a team largely made up of factory workers from across the border with a smattering of foreigners of various shapes, sizes and nationalities (I would play with dislocated Albanians, Guinness-loving Croats and chain-smoking Chinese fullbacks with a hint of dangerous glamour about their aged features).
Yes, Good Fit was a good fit for me. When my marriage was disintegrating, I had the ritual of the Sunday game to help me through the week. When I was drinking too much, the thought of the Sunday morning alarm clock was often enough to get me to bed. Gary’s management technique is deceptive. He visits cancer wards and shouts at the patients, telling them not to give up when he sees the fire leaving their eyes. Tough love. Not so with the team. ‘Go out and enjoy the game,’ is his pre-kickoff mantra, and has been for as long as I’ve known him. Most of us know what he’s really saying is ‘Life is short, seize the day’; English-speaking players who don’t understand this can get frustrated with the lack of tactical bite, a few head off to new teams – briefly, I was one of them.
Hong Kong Falcon signed up to a legal eagle league and took me along for the ride. The standard was high, but so were spirits. Our first team meeting was a rooftop barbecue at player-manager Franco’s home in Tuen Mun. The great thing about playing for an Italian team was the fact that so many of my colleagues were in the restaurant business; several from the same small town in Southern Italy that was seeing many of its young men leaving to seek their fortune in Hong Kong. Here, the rivalry was off the pitch as beaming chefs competed to provide the most succulent dish. On the private mini-bus that took us to matches, the competition was all about who could spot the prettiest girl en route. The only other non-Italian player was a former Hong Kong youth international whose career had been hijacked by injury. We shook our heads, smiled. Meanwhile the driver turned and pleaded with the boys to stop banging on the windows.
My marriage disintegrated further. Falcon deployed the sweeper system. So did my wife. I missed training and lost my place in the team. I went back to Gary. ‘No problem’. Last Sunday was my first game in six months. Travel from my outlying island home to fixtures in the New Territories made it impossible for me to play regularly for Good Fit. Instead I would help out occasionally when the game was at Happy Valley, or somewhere else manageable. I enjoyed playing my last game there, beneath the skyscrapers and circling kites (vultures?) When I created a fictional player – ageing expat Reg Garter – to muse on Hong Kong football a couple of years ago, I also had him play his final match at the Valley, suffering a non-fatal heart attack at the bottom of an international pile-on after inadvertently scoring the winner. I should count my lucky stars I’m not Reg, though in truth I’m much closer to being him than when I wrote his story…
There was a personal highlight from Sunday’s rout, and it wasn’t just hearing from Gary that the young bucks we were playing hadn’t conceded a goal all season before they faced us. From a corner I stole in front of our pilot – busy thinking up his next insult perhaps – and smashed the ball home. A clenched fist and nods to my defence. I like to think that the gawping mile-high tosser received a glimpse, however minute, of his own footballing mortality at that moment. I won’t hold my breath, preferring to use it to thank Gary and Good Fit and Hong Kong Falcon for a fantastic ride. Two days on from the match and my bones are still aching, my toes as remote as those cattle. The games will be different going forward but I will keep Gary’s advice close to heart and intend to enjoy every one.
Read more about Reg in ‘Happy and Glorious’ by clicking here.