On a wet and gray day in Oxford, I rode my bike through the bad weather to join up with my college’s team for a league game. I recall how large the field seemed when I first got there. (The pitches in England always seemed supersized to me, some trick of the eye no doubt due to the stretch and strain of the style of play.) I went into the locker room and said hello to my new teammates. Everything and everyone was soaked. Outside, the field flashed green one moment, brown another, and silver the next. The unruly, trampled grass sighed and heaved under the weight of the rain and wind. Fattening on the storm, the grass seemed to grow between the time we arrived and the moments just before kickoff. The pitch shined like a blister.
This being my first game with the team, the captain told me that I’d start on the bench and then come on at the start of the second half. Fine, sure, of course; I’m a team player. Oh, and only the referee showed up so a player from each team was going to have to fill in as a linesman for a half. What? Suddenly, it was clear why this was being told to me, the new guy, in particular. Oh, ok. So someone handed me a navy blue windbreaker, and just before kickoff I stopped warming up with my teammates and walked down the sideline to become judge and jury of the offside rule. As the game went along I found myself interested in everything but being judge and jury of the offside rule.
Why was I standing in the rain doing this? Who would want to be doing this? I grew furious. Combine that with the fact that telling a writer to stand outside in the rain and stare out at nothing is an excellent way to lose all human contact with that writer, and suddenly I was standing in the middle of the field, under a perfect blue sky and sun, threading another pass down a channel of a lime green field. Rick, shite man, for the love of God, raise your flag! Raise your flag! I raised my flag. I am fairly certain that I didn’t blow any calls. But this is only because of the conviction with which my teammates, particularly the frantic and exasperated defenders on the field, would plead with me to make the offside call. If they were that adamant then it had to be offside, right?
I proceeded to start the second half in midfield and play worse than I thought I could possibly play. The rage never left my body. And worse, it was a completely unfounded rage. I had no vision, no rhythm; it was as though I had been in a two-dimensional world and had suddenly stepped into a three-dimensional one. I was like a cracked cup trying to hold on to the last drops of something it carried, not knowing how it got cracked. Nothing worked for me that day. I even barked at the linesman. Twice. You can’t ask someone to be who they aren’t, I thought. I’m a player, not a referee. But the simple truth was that being a linesman is harder than I thought, or at least wanted it to be. And being angry about, well, everything was easier.
When you watch a game, the ball is a free agent; there are no strings attached. The player who can seem to own it is worthy of admiration. Waiting for that moment when the ball refuses to go in the goal, refuses not to go in, refuses to stay in bounds, refuses to go out of bounds, refuses to find the feet of the best player, refuses to let a desperate leg of a desperate defender deflect it away, that moment when the ball seems tethered to nothing but talent, or maybe fate, is why we stare obsessively at the ball and little else. But for a linesman, the ball is always related to the offside line, that imaginary line formed by the back foot of the farthest-back defender. When you see linesmen on television there’s that permanent far-off stare, as though there’s someone in the stands across the field that they may have once known and loved but are never allowed to talk to again. Linesmen get plenty wrong. But since my experience trying it, a definitive one-off, I’ve always had a soft spot for them. Or, better said, an understanding. It’s not easy to stare out at nothing just in case it turns into something. After all, if things go well, you’re meaningless, unobserved, a decoration. This, in retrospect, is what likely set me off. But who knows? We pretend to own a wisdom when we’re older that we never really own––we merely borrow it on occasion. After all of the controversies involving linesmen missing calls, and the general abysmal quality of refereeing in Spain, I’d have thought that this memory would have revisited me earlier. But it had been buried for years. I’d all but forgot about my inglorious half of refereeing. Then I found myself remembering, thanks to––of all things––a shoe.
* * * * *
It was the start of the second half of second leg of the Copa del Rey quarterfinal match between Atlético Madrid and Barcelona. Atlético playmaker Arda Turan found himself, like his team, struggling to find joy on the field. His team had scored within the first minute of the game to tie the aggregate score at a goal apiece and then went up 2-1, leaving his club hopeful of knocking Barcelona out of the cup. Two more first-half goals for Barcelona later and Atlético found itself with an almost impossible task ahead. It needed to play for three goals without letting in another. As if that weren’t enough, it was a man down after captain Gabi was ejected at halftime for complaining to the referee about a penalty Atlético didn’t receive (although it had already received one that was neither a penalty nor a foul).
Barcelona played a first half more practical than is its custom, starving its own midfield of service by playing long balls out from the back at the start of play and taking its chances on the counter. Trying for the futile, heroic comeback with only 10 players, and Messi, Neymar and Suárez scissoring through the suddenly paper-thin Atlético defense could have led to a historic home loss. So instead, as he admitted after the game, manager Diego Simone told his players that the game was over and to simply play it out. Of course, Atlético plays out games the way the scorpion plays out a swim across a pond on the back of a turtle. There was violence. It is Atlético’s nature. A 45-minute kick-around cum fouling session was on tap for the second half. Everyone knew this. No big deal. But barely two minutes into the second half — as it now became apparent to the Atlético supporters that their team was not going to bust their lungs chasing a highly unlikely victory, that they were suddenly playing with one man fewer (Gabi wasn’t ejected on the field but in the tunnel under the stadium), that the only thing they’d be left to cheer for was their players’ continued pursuit of their brutal perfection of the absence of contrition — Arda Turan, the sweet twist in Atlético’s cocktail of brick and steel, the feather in its hardhat, found himself still trying to play. It is his nature. He feinted away from Ivan Rakitić near the sideline only to find Dani Alves closing on him from behind. The ball was nudged away. As was Turan’s left shoe. That Turan then picked up the shoe and fired it over the head of the nearby linesman is well known by now. I was surprised for a moment, but then I was over it. How surprised can we be at rage?
The first word of The Iliad is μῆνιν, which is “rage” or “wrath,” “öfke” in Turkish. If beauty is the ancient joyous song of our capabilities, then rage is the ancient sad song of our limits. Rage is Simeone’s fuel. He feeds it to his players and they run faster for him, harder for him, smarter for him. The rage brims each player’s lid, they’re filled up. But rage, like any other matter, takes up volume. There’s only so much of it that you can fill a person with. Arda’s cup ran over and his shoe went flying toward the linesman’s head.
Not very long ago, a Nike television ad ran featuring Turan in their magistas, the shoe he sponsors. In the ad, he’s the Turkish magician dancing over the ball about to perform some magic with his feet while hemmed in beside the opponents’ corner flag with two defenders in his face inching ever closer toward him. He’s the Turkish magician in a straight-jacket, tied up in chains and hanging upside-down over a stage escaping in a matter of seconds. He is the suited illusionist, a beautiful woman at his side; he’s smiling and calm, blowing a kiss to the magista resting in the palm of his hand to make it disappear. Now that lime green shoe he made vanish into thin air is caught in the internet’s viral loop, being launched ad infinitum from his hand. It won’t become Mourinho’s gouging of the eye or Zidane’s headbutt or Cantona’s karate kick. There was no victim in Turan’s moment of madness but himself. He throws his shoe and at that moment, if you look again at the image, Arda is, for that second, alone in his rage. He’s like a broken pixel on a screen. The shoe tears through the cold air just above the linesman’s head as he far-off stares across the wintery pitch. But everything else is going on just as it should. The linesman just stands there, in his customary crouch, oblivious to the shoe and to the rage that launched it. He looks ahead at an imaginary space, the back line of the defense, ready to jump into action if called on. After all, he’s a professional; that’s why he’s there.