The mailman wasn't the kind of defender who cajoles and motivates his fellow players from the back, rather all he did was moan about his teammates' mistakes. These were admittedly frequent, but we were not playing to win at all costs, we were playing to get us out of the house on a Sunday. If this had been a Hollywood movie, he might have knocked us into shape and we'd have ended up as the Old Men's Champions of Montgomery County (no doubt breaking box office records at the same time). In the absence of a rags-to-glory script, I asked my teammate to continue enjoying his chats on the porch with the mailman, but he wasn't going to add anything to our side besides rancor and ill-feeling. Plus, we already had our share of hotheads and foghorns.
I thought of him this past weekend while refereeing a men's game in rural Germany. The home team was given a hiding by the visitors, yet both teams had their loudmouths, and it's clear what effect they had on morale. The losing side barely created a chance throughout the afternoon, with the defense under constant pressure. As goals started to fly in during the second half, their two center backs began a sustained campaign of yelling at their midfielders for failing to stop the superior opposition's runs. Did that help? Not one bit, the final score was 0-7. The midfielders either hung their heads, or yelled back until the team's coach intervened and appealed for everyone to calm down.
On the away team there was also tension, despite the easy win. One player lost possession in midfield, and then screamed at his teammate for not having been in the right position to pick up the loose ball. At the time, they were winning 6-0, so you wondered how they behaved when they were losing. The yelled-at player loudly asked back how he was supposed to know that the teammate was going to lose possession. He will not have forgotten the unwarranted tantrum, and his festering resentment will inevitably re-surface in some future game or practice session (or bar fight), to the probable detriment of the team.
When I used to play for a decent amateur team in London, we had a captain who kept his counsel until necessary. That is, if you weren't pulling your weight then he'd let you know, but in a way that was entirely motivational. You quickly realized you were letting the team down, and that if you didn't buck up then you'd soon be on the bench, at the latest by the following weekend. If we'd even thought about screaming back at him, we knew we'd be off the team for good.
Now, soccer's a frustrating game -- the fact that it's played with the feet means that there are many more errors than in games played with the hands. It therefore requires a far higher tolerance level of the players' fallibility. Even at pro level, each game contains countless errors that leave us fans exasperated for the vast majority of the 90 minutes. Not to mention the coaches. We howl with disappointment, as though perfection was the promise: one hundred percent possession, and a goal from every attack.
At the professional level, a team will tolerate a moaner or even a monster if they're good enough to make a difference to the results. Giorgio Chinaglia (Cosmos) and Karl-Heinz Granitza (Chicago Sting) made few friends on the field with their low threshold for suffering teammates who weren't up to scratch, but they were hugely successful players who raised their respective teams' levels. Joshua Kimmich of Bayern Munich is a modern example of a player who gets on his co-players' backs to positive effect, but who's maybe not on their invite list for a fun day out at the Oktoberfest.
The problem for recreational players just out for some fresh air is that such players always have their imitators, even on the bumpiest park field. At my Monday night, half-field kickabout with a bunch of ageing lags we also have one pain on the grass who takes it all too seriously. We generally ignore him, but I've heard one or two whispers over post-game beers in recent weeks. "What's his problem? Why does he have to react like that in a game where we're not even counting the score?" When he doesn't show up, no one complains.
On the other hand, there's something about these players you can almost admire. Their dunder-headed level of commitment. Their refusal to let any kind of rational perspective cloud a volatile, obstreperous determination to stick one over a bunch of fellow men playing in a different color jersey. Their rubicund, steaming outrage at a teammate's incapacity to play the ball exactly where their talents deserve and demand. I suppose they are part of the game, and almost universally part of any given XI. Still, all assholes stink, and thankfully a soccer team's not like the human body -- it doesn't really need one to function.
(Ian Plenderleith's books include "Rock n Roll Soccer: The Short Life and Fast Times of the North American Soccer League.")