Football on Holiday

Mexico play in sombreros. Wales in rugby shirts. As Holland, we wear orange bandanas…

Back from Wales, where I had the immense privilege of participating in the Porthgain five-a-side world cup, proceeds to the local cricket club. Porthgain is a small village on the Pembrokeshire coast. As well as some interesting disused brick hoppers, it boasts a good-sized patch of grass – only slightly sloping, only slightly bumpy – slap in the middle of the seething metropolis. Yes indeed, Wembley, Camp Nou, the San Siro… to the list of the world’s great footballing arenas, I believe the field in Porthgain can now be added.

The point about the tournament being called a world cup is you enter your team and are assigned a nationality. I start by turning out for France and then, when France are knocked out, in a shameless transfer that leaves the world of mediocre middle-aged five-a-side football in shock, I switch to Holland.

There’s a fancy-dress element. Mexico play in sombreros and ponchos. Wales are in rugby shirts, but as all Welshmen wear rugby shirts all the time anyway, it doesn’t count. As Holland, we fashion bandanas out of some orange cloth. Except I have an uncommonly large head: my bandana won’t fit, so my wife rigs it up as a topknot. “Very sumo,” says my pal, Floyd. “Samurai, mate,” I say. “I think you meant to say samurai. Both Japanese words beginning with S, but the one’s an ultra-cool warrior with a massive sword, the other’s a fat bloke in a nappy.”

Each team has to field at least one female, one person under 15 and one over 40. Fulfilling the last category is not a problem, while the first two requirements often have to be met by the same person. For Holland it’s my daughter, Rachel. She doesn’t see much of the ball, but runs around, diligently marking opposing children out of the game, rather in the manner of Nobby Stiles against the great Eusébio in the semi in ’66. It’s five minutes each way. Few of the players could manage longer. Instead of a sin bin there’s a Wheelbarrow of Shame for miscreants.

With one or two exceptions, the standard of football is low. The standard of commentary, however – amplified, from a flatbed truck on the touchline – is anything but. Indeed, the star of the day is the commentator, Andrew Halton, whom I assume from his mirror shades, shaggy perm and quality and speed of patter is in showbiz, but turns out to work for the Gas Board. One woeful miss destroys a brightly dressed spectator’s beer on the terrace of the Sloop. “And Pink Shirt’s pint goes down!” yells Halton. And Pink Shirt’s pint goes down! Touched by genius, that.

Halton’s banter is underpinned by the way he knows the names of all the locals there. Not just the names, but intimate details, too. One man leads a stray terrier off the field. “Not the first dog Dai Price has pulled this summer,” says Halton. It occurs to me he may just be perming combinations of Dai, Rhys and Gethin with Price, Jones and Bennett, ’cos that’s what everyone seems to be called.

Halton’s co-commentator, Fraser, is responsible for pitch-side interviews. I am the subject of one such as I recline in the Wheelbarrow of Shame, dispatched there for a brutal bodycheck on a much younger, lighter player. “Not being funny or anything, boy,” says Fraser, “but that was diabolical. Talk us through it.” I can’t remember what I said, probably something about the ball being there to be won and it being a man’s game. The usual clichéd excuses for footballing violence.

While I am off the pitch, Scotland, playing in kilts and tam-o’-shanters, their supporters still droning on about Bannockburn after, what is it now, almost 700 years, go 2-1 up. But that’s fine. Having won our opening match, provided this one stays at 2-1 we’ll be through to the quarter-finals on goal difference. Unfortunately, I batter the ball against the legs of one of their players, it deflects into our net; suddenly we’re into a penalty shoot-out. Which we lose. Thus I make my controversial switch to the orange of Holland.

As Holland, we advance to the semi-finals, but there encounter a Brazil side anchored by an unusually athletic and courageous goalkeeper, a goalkeeper who refuses to be beaten. We fight out a gritty 0-0. Another penalty shoot-out, another loss, and this time no team of mates left that I can jump ship to.

He looks a bit familiar, this keeper. “Who’s he?” I ask a friend who lives locally. “That’s Jerome Flynn,” says my friend. “He’s an actor. He was in Soldier, Soldier with Robson Green.” “What, the little Geordie with the green eyes?” “Yes, Jerome is the other one. They had a big hit with Unchained Melody as well.”

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