West Ham United - Bob Mabon, London, UK
Isla de Canvey - Jon Vile, London, UK
Youth, Education, Sport - Grupo de Apoyo Ray Thomas
Los Cabos Little Soccer League.
Cangrejos School. Cabo San Lucas. Mexico
Exactly a decade since we had last shared digs and six years since we last hung out together, I came to Mexico again to see my old pal from school, Bob, and I ended up staying a bit longer than planned. It was great to get to know my friend again, reminisce about old times and create some new ones. We’ve both done a lot to be proud of in the years that have passed. Mostly though, we find it hard to speak proudly, for our friendship is one stuck in the playground, the park and the terrace, where everything is game, banter rules and credit is rarely given. At times we are bold enough to share our achievements in confidence, but a joke is never far away from smirking lips. It’s like we’ve gone off to build very different lives, overcome obstacles, educate ourselves and develop into gentlemen. But it all counts for nowt when you look at your mate in the eye and know that he sees you, and will always see you, as a little chubby ginger kid quoting young guns “you have to challenge yourselves every day gentlemen” before jumping off the roof of a garage. True friends are the ones that know you most and suffer bullshit the least, tethering you to your roots, keeping you real. When you’re a long way from it, friends are home.
Bob soon introduced me to Steve Mills, another globe-trotting Englishmen in Cabo San Lucas. Bob and another friend of ours Jon Vile, had sponsored a few teams through the Grupo de Apoyo program that Steve manages.
A $200 pledge will shirt-up a team of seven lads or lasses for a year, in a logo and team name of whatever you want, pay for their fifa accredited coaching clinic and a medal/trophy giving ceremony at the end of the season. In homage to our London team, Bob named his little squad after West Ham United, and Jon dedicated his patronage to the good name of Canvey Island, or Isla de Canvey as the young mexican lads call it.
Fast-forward 8 months, and i’m stood on a dusty football pitch with a whistle in my mouth. Steve is shouting at me from the touchline to gee up the game a little bit. I’m reffing an under-14’s girl’s match and they’re giving me the right run around. Bunched up around the ball like a scrum that swarms around the pitch in a cloud of dust, I’m essentially guessing when I give a call for throw-in. “demonstrate! encourage them you miserable sod!” shouts Steve. I’m looking over to the other pitch now. eagerly awaiting the main event that we’ve engineered. West Ham United FC versus Canvey Island.
As we gave out the shirts at the beginning of the day, I spotted my mates names on the fixture list and low and behold, there were two piles of shirts, one bright yellow with the Canvey Island seagull badge, and the blue shirts with that regal castle and crossed hammers shield that i know so well. How could i resist the re-enactment of a local london derby in the dust and desert of old Mexico? We immediately made a little alteration to the fixtures and matched up Bob and Jon’s tribute squads. Obviously I had to declare myself unfit to referee due to a conflict of interests, Jon would disregard the result if it was on my watch, so I took out the camera and enjoyed the first live west ham match i’ve attended for years. It was a humdinger.
The competitiveness was feisty, but the excitement and chaos of giving the shirts out had given way to an impressive display of focus and teamwork. The standard of the game is testament to steve’s work with the kids over the last few years, with thought given to the rules and structure of matches to get the best out of the them at varying ages, skill and physique. He talks about introducing the coaching model invented by the dutch, whereby kids only compete in teams of seven rather than eleven, on a smaller tighter pitch giving them less space and therefore reducing the influence of a few gifted players. A broader degree of improvement throughout the team is a direct result of more players getting more touches and chances to contribute. The score line of 0-0 at the final whistle reflected this evenly distributed involvement perfectly. Then came the penalties. And kids love penalties. Penalties even grab the imagination of non-football fans. And it showed as if a penalty bell was ringing to tell every kid in the school that it was time for sudden death. A concise and conclusive micro-competition of nerve and glory.
As the crowds poured from every nook and cranny of the playground. Peer group pressure was evident in an unlikely form. Penalty after penalty got cancelled out by a corresponding miss or save. The exhausted ref was rolling his eyes as yet another spot-kick pinged off the post. The tension was drawn out as every player in both teams had taken a kick without settling the game. The mob were reaching fever pitch. They were hanging off the goalposts and in the trees, crowding out the area and cheering every kick. It was drama and it was unadulterated fun. Fun before adulthood. It reminded me of school, alexander lane park, sundown penalty comps that run on into the dark until the ball owner has to be home for tea. It reminded me of Arsenal knocking West Ham out of the cup on penalties and shuffling out of Upton park with Bob, eyes to the ground as the tannoy sarcastically played ‘Everybody Hurts’ by REM. It was the emotion that the pinnacle of concise footballing pressure, the penalty decider brings. And as an adult watching on, it brought out the most luxurious of emotions, nostalgia.
It also reminded me of why we need to do this. To give these kids the luxury of nostalgia too. And the luxury of a pair of football boots and a ball. Maybe even the opportunity to become a pro player one day. You never know.
I admit this blog entry is a bit cheesy and indulgent. But its also a reminder for Bob and Jon that their subscription is nearly up. Without these football programs, these kids won’t have the chance to build friendships around sport. Like we did.