12 July 2018


There is a growing fashion in football for attacking players at corner kicks to huddle close together in groups of three to five in the middle of the penalty area, waiting to split off in different directions as the kick comes in. (Ninety percent of England’s attacking strategy at the World Cup has consisted of this.)

It's striking, because football is one of those games where colleagues tend not to make physical contact with one another during play (or even in a moment preparatory to the ball being put back into play). Instead, the ball is a stand-in, conveying contact from player to player.

There used to be a fashion for mocking footballers for 'over-the-top' goal celebrations involving any physical contact beyond a simple handshake and maybe some hair-tousling if the would-be tousler was feeling particularly exuberant. Maybe, on some level, players want to turn the touch-at-a-distance that playing football entails into something more direct for a moment.

Rugby players do it all the time: the pack bind intimately in the scrum; they form phalanx-like mauls; they pile into rucks; they lift each other at line-outs. Footballers can't do that.

In fact, when players from the same football team do make contact with each other during play, it's usually bad news. I was at a game recently where two teammates collided with one another in a manner traditionally described as 'hefty'. Both ended up on the ground. One, lying on his back, lifted his leg; the foot, instead of pointing to 12, was, let's say, unnaturally directed towards the setting sun. There were many minutes of injury time.


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