On a Friday in late April I left Stade Charléty in Paris, where I’d watched a daunting bottom-of-Ligue 2 game between Paris FC and US Créteil. There stood Marianne, fine-boned, petite, very much a French lady who was some years my senior. Upon hearing what had been going on at the stadium – and that I had been in the thick of things – she exclaimed, “A woman your age! And football!!!”
It took the better part of an hour to convince Marianne that I may be a crazy sort, but was at least pleasant to talk to. Before we parted, she promised to pray for me.
I went back to my hotel, lay flat on my back and started thinking. How did it come to pass, football and I?
Flashback 40 years.
In 1976 I was probably the loneliest kid in Düsseldorf-on-Rhine. My parents were separated and I was living with my father. I spent my days after school with my dog and my bike on the banks of the river. Whole days went by in which I didn’t speak to anyone (save the dog and the bike).
At school I hardly volunteered information to the teachers. I spent recess reading and evading the bullies from 10th grade. I knew every detail you’d ever want to know about Arabian horses, wrote stories and songs, never washed my hair and didn’t talk to people.
Today I’d probably be diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome within a week. In the 1970’s I was simply labelled “unsocial”.
Then a friend of my father’s offered me a free ticket for Fortuna Düsseldorf, who were playing Borussia Mönchengladbach. I’d had a crush on Jupp Heynckes for months. So I went.
I wasn’t entirely new to football. A picture of Jupp hung on my wall and my school notes were adorned with sketches of his Borussia Mönchengladbach’s black-and-white diamond, but I had never been inside a stadium before.
If this were a movie, I would describe how through football I found friends and a normal teenage life, but it’s dumb old reality and I didn’t. I was kept at the margins of all things social. I still didn’t speak to anyone. But I found a home in football.
I did the things most fans did those days – collected Panini pictures (one of the few merchandise items around then), went to home games and watched Aktuelles Sportstudio late at night – and a few odder ones – named my toy horses after players, read players’ biographies (which weren’t the bestsellers then they are now) and books about every Bundesliga season since 1963 (we’re exactly the same age, Germany’s first tier and I). I even wrote songs about players.
For years I didn’t know what it was that fascinated me about football. When I tried to share my thoughts and feelings about last Saturday’s game with school-mates, they shook their heads and went away. When they talked about theirs, I was bored. What did I care about winning the league?! My heart went out to Arminia Bielefeld, who lost promotion in a playoff final against TSV 1860 München, after reducing a 4-0 loss in the first leg to 4-4 on aggregate in the second.
I despised Bayern München. I still liked Borussia Mönchengladbach, but after a nasty incident with some aggressive Düsseldorf fans (in which I came nearer to martyrdom than I ever did when studying theology at university), I stopped going to games in Mönchengladbach, 30 km away. I cheered for Fortuna Düsseldorf in the Rheinstadion, but I never joined the exhilaration following victories nor the depression after defeats that brought other fans together.
I couldn’t remember last weekend’s results but I remembered a long passball crossing the pitch and landing ex-ac-tly on another player’s instep. I didn’t know where my team was on the table, but I knew there had been a heavy rain-cloud in the west when they scored their second goal. I had a synesthetic approach to football that nobody understood, not even I.
For two years I even played football myself in one of the very, VERY few women’s teams around in those days, but like many high functioning autistics I was unable to transfer my intensive interest and above- average knowledge about football to social contacts. I could talk about football for hours on end if I had an audience (which was rarely the case), but as soon as human interaction was required, I totally went to pieces. Needless to say the other girls and women had no idea why I was acting so weird, spending matchdays on the bench hoping the coach would overlook me. I think they were as glad as I was when I stayed on the bench each and every game.
Decades later, married with four children, a member and season-ticket holder at Bundesliga midtabler Mainz 05, I faced multiple, dire accusations: You’re not a real fan! You support more than one team, you aren’t devastated over a defeat and don’t seem to enjoy a win. Why do you bother to say “we” at all?
I knew it was true. I was – I am – not a “real” fan. I don’t care about cups and trophies. I still don’t find my way into the close-knit groups of fans around me; going to games alone and returning home alone. I struggle to turn my love for one club into hatred of another. I don’t even enjoy playing football myself (although I did coach a team of 4-6 year-olds for some time). What then, if it is neither winning nor companionship, is it that glues me to football?
Touch was the first thing I noticed about football. Touch is everything in football. The foot touching the ball and sending into a spiralling curve, crossing several metres to another player’s foot, who in turn touches it, thus completing a sequence and opening a plethora of possibilities for the next touch.
Players’ feet touching the grass in a faster run than I, cause of many a PE teacher’s visible frustration, could ever have managed.
A sudden break, a fall and the player’s body touches the ground in a huddle of legs and boots and mud splashing, a physical sensation that should have been painful but instead seemed to be rather pleasant, judging by the rapid recovery that usually took place in those days. While standing in the stadium, catcalling a foul, the intimate meeting of human body and Mother Earth used to feel like a welcome embrace.
I also noticed that the players touched one another.
This touch was something totally alien to me. As far as I can remember, my parents never touched me. Family lore has it that, from age two, I resented physical touch. If a peck on the cheek was required from a distant aunt or uncle, I suffered it silently, but in all things social distance was key. The only people who demanded touch were authorities who insisted on a handshake. On such occasions I retreated into myself, eluding eye-contact.
I remember I was unable to speak another person’s name. Even this thin thread of contact seemed impossible. I was completely out of touch with the world around me.
I have a much more advanced knowledge about child psychology now, and realise the total lack of support I received, how emotionally deprived my childhood must have been. I also realise the frequent and relaxed way football players displayed physical contact – mostly in celebrating goals or wins – became an emotional refuge for me.
Football was where people hugged and cuddled one another. Football allowed for emotions and closeness. Football allowed me to touch other people’s lives and let myself be touched by theirs. When my team’s players flew into each others’ arms after a decisive goal I felt safe, safe in a way I’d never felt in an actual embrace offered to me.
Ten years later, with the help of a university degree (in theology) and tons of books, I had reached a stage of adaptation to social life that allowed me to fly under the radar of psychiatrists. In other words, I could pass as “neurotypical”, aka normal, most of the time.
But I still needed football to be “normal”… And I still didn’t remember results, but could recall interviews with my favorite players, and the facial expressions they made throughout.
The advent of the internet added another dimension. Now football enabled me to touch people as far away as Brazil and Australia, connecting over the shared experience of a game, a player in action, a misguided referee, a joke, a simple emotion. Here was the possibility for someone as high-functionally autistic as I had been before I learned to speak “neurotypicalese” without much of an accent to “get in touch” with others.
Football opened a virtual field for me to become part of an entity, almost a team of my own. We could share emotions and develop close contact, but then distance ourselves again without struggle and strife and eye-contact (shudder!). Like in a game with players changing positions, coming closer and drifting apart again without losing one another. The touch is always there. To the ball, to the ground, to the others.
Today I can even enjoy a fully packed stand, a complete stranger’s elbow in my ribs, and I’m happy if I’m granted a high-five from an equally complete stranger after a goal. Moments of being actually, physically in touch with others. At age 12 that would have been unbearable.
And I can also enjoy watching the perfection of a player “footing” a ball, nutmegging an opponent, caressing the ball into flight over a goalkeeper’s head. Moments of the sheer beauty of touch.
I watch supporters of teams, any club or country, interacting with one another, with their players, with their colours and I perceive the magic of touch I unconsciously noticed at age 13: how they come close together, briefly unite and then part again without pain or destruction of trust, only to meet again in another instant, another corner of the field, another moment into the game. Wherever this magic is I am at home, and if I see it in an opposing team I thrill to it just as a much.
It’s more important than winning or supporting just one club.
It’s a bridge to the well of normalcy.
I like to go to football games on my own or with just one other (usually one of my daughters). And sometimes, in the middle of a game, I feel inclined to close my eyes and let my synesthetic senses take over. There’s the thudding of feet on the pitch. The grass I can barely see from high up in the stands becomes blade and smell and texture in my mind. I hear the collective breathing and chanting of the crowd. The concrete of the terrace becomes my spine and my soul is born aloft by the floodlight. I know the players by name and position, although I wouldn’t recognize their faces if I met them in the streets. I am one with the moment and in touch with the world.
But, of course, I couldn’t tell all this to Marianne on that chilly Friday night in Paris. So I just smiled and said: “Football is my source of strength. I love it.” And she replied: “Yes, I can see that in your eyes.”