A child’s football world before the digital era and commercialisation of the game
Branko Milanović is an economist specialised in development and inequality. His newest book is “Capitalism, Alone: The Future of the System That Rules the World”
Cross-posted from Branko’s Substack blog
When I was a young boy, I was obsessed with football (soccer). What are the sociological and political origins of this obsession and what political role football played in Titoist Yugoslavia, I’ll leave for another post. This is just a story of boys—or rather of a boy—and of the love of the game.
I would like to divide the post in four parts: playing, reading, watching, and impersonating.
I was a mediocre player. My biggest success in elementary school was playing a couple of games on the B team of my school, in downtown Belgrade. It was a rather unexpected success for me. Objectively it was not a big deal, but I was content and proud of this achievement.
I played football almost every day, as soon as the weather, in early Spring got nice. These were not organized games. We played in a street, on concrete, among the parked cars. We would either make two small goals (using bricks as the goal posts) that required no goalie, or would play a somewhat strange kind of a game called “Viktoria” where one kid would be a goalie and two teams would play against each other, both trying to score on that one (bigger) goal. The way we played football reflected both the scarcity of space (we played in the middle of the street) and difficulty of finding goalies. Nobody wanted to be a goalie.
We would play for hours. I vividly remember being woken up by the sound of the bouncing ball in the street just below my window (we lived on the second floor). It was a delightful way to be woken up because it presaged, so loudly and so clearly, a whole day of shooting the ball, dribbling, drinking water afterwards (water never tasted so well!), arguing with other kids.
As cars became more common and the traffic denser, we moved to play in two internal courtyards next to my building; rather small spaces, again on concrete. The game required lots of dribbling; there were no long passes, and there were always arguments about whether a goal was scored or not: it is difficult to tell if the ball passed over the brick, and thus presumably hit the post, or got in and the goal was scored.
Reading. I read all the football news I could find. In those days in Belgrade there were there sports newspapers. The general one which was daily (plus a Croatian sports daily which I also read), and two other, dedicated to football alone. They were published on Tuesdays and Fridays. On Tuesday morning, if that week my school was in the afternoon (due to the lack of school space, classes were held in two shifts: one shift in the morning, another in the afternoon, in alternate weeks), I would rush out even before breakfast to buy both newspapers. I particularly liked historical pieces about football before World War II and reports about Latin American players and clubs. I always thought, perhaps influenced by the remoteness and brilliance of Latin America, that Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay were very special. No European team, club or national, ever seemed to me to be as exciting.
I read of course a lot about the Yugoslav first division but also about the Italian Serie A. The reason why Serie A was so much written about was because the National Lottery was offering betting on domestic and Italian football scores. It was a copy of the Italian Toto Calcio. I played it from time to time, and one of close friends once did extremely well and earned (for us) a huge amount of money which, of course, he quickly wasted.
I also liked to read books about football; historical books but also books about kids of my age playing football. I remember a book I borrowed in our school library written by a Polish author, probably in the late 1950s. The title (in the Serbian translation) was “First half 0-1” I still remember the kids from the book, practicing headers and free kicks, losing 0-1 in the first half, and then winning. It was a book about football, music, vespas and girls.
Watching. Belgrade is well known for the rivalry of the two teams, Red Star and Partizan. They were both created by communists after the revolution. Their political histories are, as I said, a matter for another article. My father, perhaps because of his love of the underdog and because he did not want to take political sides, decided that he supported a third, much weaker team, OFK Beograd. So, he would often take me to their games. They played on a small stadium, about half-an-hour walk from our apartment. We would leave after a Sunday lunch, walk to the stadium, and I would happily eat peanuts and watch the game.
Going to the Red Star or Partizan game in those days was hard. The stadiums were far from my house. They were big and forbidding. We were too young to know where to buy the tickets, which bus to take to get to the stadium. So, these two big clubs, and their big stadiums, were almost mythical to me, even if we were all in the same city.
One of the best Red Star players, Dragoslav Šekularac, a star of the 1962 World Cup in Chile, transferred to OFK Beograd, after some of his turbulent fights with the Red Star management. My father took me to his first game for OFK Beograd and I remember an impossible crowd shouting, fighting, shoving, kicking to buy the tickets and get in. I do not think that I saw any of the game. Šekularac was immensely popular, and after the 1962 World Cup he had offers from big European clubs, in particular Juventus, to play for them. But in those days, Yugoslav footballers were not allowed to play abroad. When asked to make an exception for Šekularac, the then head of domestic security ruled it out by saying that Šekularac is a national treasure and that his duty is to entertain the working class.
Impersonating. In my love for the game, I organized my own international tournaments, including World Cups. I had a very elaborate system where, on a carpet (which with its rimmed ends does look like a soccer field with the athletic track around) playing cards would be players, and a small light coin would be a ball. I would direct them all, comment on the game imitating the radio reporters whom I admired, and then write in detail about these fantasy games. When I think about it now, I see it as a precursor to the electronic games that kids play today. The difference was that I had to create everything, from physically putting together the goal posts by using Lego blocks, to the teams, the spectators, and even do the reporting. I learned how to type then—in order to describe the fantasy football that I played in the evenings when my parents would go out and I could “commandeer” the entire living room.
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