A couple of men formed a WhatsApp group for us soccer fans to play a few games once in a while. We are talking about men in their mid to late 30s and very early 40s – chaps who exercise once in a while but drink alcohol often. It was a train waiting to derail.
I played football in high school. (I know. Even I can’t believe it now.) I was the school’s goalkeeper until I was subbed by a stout, strong First Former who came from the hamlets of Nyaribari Chache and could fly around the goalpost like a bat. I couldn’t hold a candle to him so I was benched. For good.
Humiliation followed; I would sit on the bench during matches as this younger, swifter, stronger, braver boy manned our goal. He was good, I will admit. Very good.
I also played a bit of basketball, before the taller, swifter, braver boys took over the court. So yes, I was hardly the sports alpha-male. What I had, though, was the heart of a leopard, never a lion. I still do.
Anyway, so we set up this WhatsApp group of 10 men because we have to play a five-a-side game for an hour at these new floodlit football pitches at Nairobi’s Valley Arcade shopping mall. After a lot of bickering and rearranging our calendars (we are important people with important diaries, after all, some which included date nights) we agreed on two Fridays ago. Five of us arrived early, paid for the slot and warmed up.
A bunch of boys, probably in their early teens, milled around the pitch, grasping and looking through the meshed perimeter. They consisted of lanky Sudanese boys with sharp collarbones and long arms, and one Somali boy with long limbs and the face of a baby. Since most of us were running late we decided to ‘warm up’ with these boys. Bad idea. They took us to the cleaners.
These boys had age on their side. They ran faster than we could, and they keep running when we couldn’t. They never tired. Even though we kicked the ball harder and more forcefully, they controlled the ball better, had cleaner passes and fell down less.
That’s another thing I discovered: I loved falling down. I realised on my first fall that I hadn’t fallen down in a long while. There is something about falling down in adulthood; it’s humiliating.
My first fall was when one of those boys clicked the ball with his foot as we both chased it and I slid and fell like a bag of rice. It was both surprising and chastising. I remember thinking reflexively, “I need to get up asap,” because isn’t that what life teaches us, to get up first and move on? But I liked it there on the grass for a moment, so I didn’t get up even amidst the laughter from the other baboons. It was about ceding control, letting go, lying there and looking up at the darkening sky and allowing yourself to be down, to feel powerless down there for a moment. It was like being a baby who has to wait for his nappies to be changed, so you lie there feeling your soggy nappies start irritating your soft baby bum and thinking, OK, any time now I will start screaming to be changed. I loved that feeling of staying down; there was a lesson in there but I didn’t have time to interrogate it.
Running around for the ball isn’t as easy as it was 20 years ago. The knees are stiffer and the lung isn’t as strong to do the whole hour of short furious spurts of running. Smokers went up in smoke. Pizza lovers wrestled and lost to their shadows. Fathers tumbled like old logs. It was a mess.