Up in the air

July 22, 2011 § 10 Comments

Fox playing kemari

Even Wikipedia isn’t completely sure what they’re called.

Their article is called “Keepie uppie”, but makes an instant nod toward “kick ups”. For the muesli-wearing sandal-eaters out there, the Guardian style guide prefers “keepy-uppies”. East Kent hedges with “keepy ups”, while Ireland knows the game as “solos”. Ghana calls them “totass”, in a nod toward their accumulative nature, while the USA, in a rare moment of shy diplomacy, shirks the whole issue in favour of “juggling”. Japan, meanwhile, goes for “lifting”.*

And it’s from Japan that the noble art of keeping the ball off the floor with your feet originates, with the courtly sport of kemari. Itself derivative of cuju, the Chinese sport of kicking a ball into goals**, kemari players, or mariashi, work together to keep a deerskin ball in the air***. In The Ball is Round, David Goldblatt describes the game also known as “standing among the trees”:

The playing space was a six-or-seven-metre dirt square demarcated by four trees placed at its corners. These could be cherry, willow or maple, but pine trees were considered to have the highest status. Eight players would take the field, standing in pairs on either side of the trees. […] The courtiers with the highest social status would kick-off and the players would simply try to keep the ball in the air as long as possible and used the trees to bounce it off, their branches pruned and trained to provide a path back on to the court for the ball. […] Individuals were admired for their ball skills, but also their attention to the etiquette and traditions of the game. A day’s kemari was best ended by a single high kick from the most senior player gracefully caught in the folds of his kimono.

The idea that the ability to juggle the ball correlates with actual footballing ability is a persistent one — just ask poor Gus Hurdle, whose disastrous score of “two” on Fantasy Football confirmed Brentford fans in their disdain — but not, ultimately, persuasive. In Brilliant Orange, David Winner meets the supremely gifted Abdellah Bellabas, a ball-juggler of astounding skill and accomplishment, but whose gifts have never made him into a footballer. Winner traces this to a Dutch craving for functionality in beauty, but there may be a simpler answer: while it demonstrates a certain amount of ball control and helpful dexterity, it’s rare that the specific skill comes up in a competitive game.

When it does, it can be a controversial thing. By stepping outside the normal constraints of the game — to focus, just for a few seconds, not on efficiency or efficacy but on personal and pointless joy — well, it’s insulting. It’s showboating. It’s taking the piss. Or, if you’re supporting the right side, it’s bloody magnificent.

So when, in 1967, Scotland’s Jim Baxter took possession from Dennis Law just inside the English half, his choice to perform one, two, three, four kick-ups before dinking a neat return pass over the English defence became symbolic of the 3-2 victory over England’s freshly-minted World Cup winners. Football historian Bob Crampsey, talking to the BBC, described it as “a defining moment for almost every football fan in Scotland … England had no idea what to do about it.” Baxter’s juggle was an assertion of primacy above and beyond the scoreline; not just a win, but a triumph.

This peculiar valency of the juggle was even more evident in 1973, when Ajax took a 2-1 first-leg lead to the Bernabéu. Gerrie Muhren scored for the Dutch side in the first half and then, a few minutes into the second, took a long cross-field pass on his left instep, knocking it over to his right, then back to his left, then right, then left again, where he cradled it on the top of his left boot. For one perfectly still heartbeat, the ball waited obediently on his foot while he gazed into the middle distance, before he let it dismount and rolled it on to the overlapping Ruud Krol. David Winner recounts that the 110,000-strong Bernabéu reacted not with boos or catcalls but with applause, and quotes Muhren:

You don’t think about that. You just do it. Yes, it was an expression of superiority. But it was the moment when Ajax and Real Madrid changed positions … It was the moment Ajax took over.

In the context of a game, ball-juggling is exactly that: an expression of superiority. We are so good, it says, that we have the time to play games. It it confrontational in its playfulness — insulting in its inanity — to the extent that Muhren’s own team-mates remonstrated with him, fearful that he would provoke Real into a response. Barry Hulshoff told Winner that the Spanish side began to kick the Dutch, adding that were an opponent to do that to him, he’d kill him. Metaphorically.

It is a shame, in some ways, that ball-juggling and other extreme pieces of skill draw disapproval and occasionally violence, but it is a natural consequence of the confrontational nature of football as opposed to the cooperation that kemari requires. There is a faintly ludicrous undercurrent of disrespect that footballers, who are cringingly neurotic at the best of times, find impossible to cope with. When Nani — everyone’s favourite Manchester United winger  — decided, four goals to the good against a risible shower of an Arsenal side, to break out the seal-dribble, his opponents were enraged. “Professionals don’t like that”, mused John Motson, enemy of joy. “Good job it went out of play when it did”, chimed Mark Lawrenson, destroyer of fun. William Gallas, as if to prove their point, kicked the Portuguese in the thigh.

As for kemari, it clings to existence in Shinto shrines on festival days and in other ceremonial contexts. In 2005, George W. Bush, exemplifying the delicacy and respect for international relations that characterised his time in office, encountered a game while on a Presidential visit to Kyoto. Bush — whose sporting history stretches from avid baseball fan to former chief cheerleader at Yale — threw himself into the fray and charged around for a few moments, before withdrawing in triumph. “We won.”

Whether he was making a gentle-yet-incisive observation that political triumph can only emerge from international cooperation, or whether he hadn’t quite grasped the point of the game, I will leave the reader to decide.


* These were all suggested over Twitter by natives or residents of the various locales. If you’re from somewhere else and have another word for it, please stick it in the comments. If you’re just going to be pedantic or difficult — I’m from East Kent and we call it hoopledough — please stick it.

** Not football, obviously. Football, like everything, was invented by English people.

*** See? Work together! What nonsensical notions of joy these foreigners have. How can you truly enjoy something unless you’ve made somebody else miserable?



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