The Game of Their Lives

As the players idled by the chain-link fence at the side of the field, taking great gulps of air and water and conducting an immediate autopsy of the game that had just finished, they focused their attention on three outstanding bones of contention. Instinctively, they separated into dedicated working groups to tackle each one.

The first considered whether a penalty that had not been awarded absolutely should have been, as an aggrieved plaintiff was claiming. The second investigated if a particularly egregious foul was premeditated (yes) and/or warranted (also yes). The third explored the knotty issue of how many deflections preceded the last of the game’s 12 goals — estimates ranged from two to “about a million” — and whether allowing the goal could, therefore, reasonably be considered the goalkeeper’s fault.

Before that matter could be settled, the debrief was cut short. Each player had to dig into wallets or pockets to find five pounds — just over $6 — to pay their share for the use of the field. As they strolled stiffly to the parking lot, the squabbling gave way to discussion of plans for the rest of the evening, and for next week.

This is all part of the ritual of the scrimmage, the scratch game, the kickabout. It is a conversation that happens thousands of times a week, across the world, after thousands of games like this one. The only difference here is the qualifications of those involved.

A typical chat before any pickup game, anywhere in the world. It’s just that Alex Bruce, center, played more than 300 professional games.

The 20 players who have just paid about $120 to play for an hour on an unremarkable synthetic field in south Manchester are used to rather different surroundings. Between them, they have made more than 1,000 appearances — and scored more than 100 goals — in England’s Premier League. They have played professionally in a dozen or so countries. Among their number are players who have won trophies, tasted the Champions League, represented their nations.

They wear their fame relatively lightly. There are no replica jerseys bearing their names. Only a couple go as far as to use shorts emblazoned with club crests. Watch them play for a few minutes, though, and it is clear this game is hardly ordinary.

The quality on display, as one player has put it, is “frightening.” As it should be: The victim of the contested penalty is Ravel Morrison, once of Manchester United and West Ham. The judge of the debate on the foul is Joleon Lescott, a Premier League and F.A. Cup champion with Manchester City.

It is universally agreed that the game’s most gifted regular participant — and most unapologetically competitive spirit — is Stephen Ireland, who played for a decade with Manchester City and Aston Villa. The two players stretching out their calves, tuning out the bickering, are Papiss Cissé and Oumar Niasse, once of Newcastle United and Everton.

They are part of a rotating cast of professionals — most of them retired recently enough that rust has not yet set in — who come here every week to take part in what may be the best game of pickup soccer in the world.

Papiss Cissé, formerly of Newcastle United, rising above Bruce for a header.

It was not designed to be anything of the sort. The weekly game started a couple of years ago, as coronavirus lockdowns began to ease, when a group of friends — most of whom had played semiprofessionally, on the lower rungs of England’s soccer pyramid — set up an amateur team, the Farmers, to play together on Sundays.

This part of Manchester, though, is a relatively small world. The city’s leafy southern suburbs, and the gilded villages of north Cheshire, are home to dozens of professional players, both current and former. It did not take long before a couple of them, friends of friends, had accepted invitations to join in.

From there, it spiraled quickly, said Kial Callacher, one of the team’s founders. Soon, the Farmers were winning some games by “30 goals or so,” he said. “After a while, it wasn’t really fun.” The team’s opponents, presumably, were of broadly the same view. Everyone involved decided it might be better if the ex-pros just played among themselves.

So their hourlong games, held on Tuesday or Wednesday nights, were born. The guest list only grew more stellar. Some weeks might feature Antonio Valencia, John O’Shea, Danny Simpson and Danny Drinkwater, all of them Premier League champions, or Nedum Onuoha, formerly of Manchester City and now an ESPN analyst. Dale Stephens, a Premier League player as recently as last year, is a mainstay.

The consensus is that Stephen Ireland, once of Manchester City, is the most talented regular participant.
Cissé and Oumar Niasse, who both also had Premier League careers, might disagree.

There are many more who spent years in England’s Football League. Few, if any, of the 66 members of the team’s WhatsApp group do not have at least semiprofessional experience. Games are, to put it mildly, competitive.

“I’ll get an early night the day before,” said Joe Thompson, a regular participant who spent 13 years as a pro, mostly for Rochdale. “I’ll stretch in the afternoon, eat right, hydrate: all of the things I did as a professional. You don’t want to do yourself a disservice, or take liberties with the standard. You feel like you are constantly on trial. You have to be on the mettle or the group will let you know.”

There is no shortage of candidates eager to see if they can handle it; so many are waiting to join that there is now a one-in, one-out policy on the WhatsApp group. Priority is given to prospective new entrants who have made the most appearances in the Champions League and the Premier League.

For some, the appeal is at least partly practical. “It keeps people ticking over,” Thompson said. “If you’re out of contract, looking for a club, you can keep as fit as you like in the gym, but nothing replaces match sharpness.” Simpson has said it helped him remain “football fit” as he waited for a new club. Many in the group expect Morrison, most recently with D.C. United in Major League Soccer, to be picked up soon as a free agent.

For a vast majority, though, the game meets a spiritual need. Thompson is not a typical case. Twice, during his career, he was found to have a form of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. He returned to play on both occasions but retired on medical advice in 2019, at age 30. As a result, he said, he found it relatively easy to “make peace” with leaving the game.

A single game last week produced 12 goals and at least three postgame inquests.

Many find the transition much harder. Alex Bruce, a defender who represented 14 clubs in a career that spanned almost two decades, compared retirement to “dropping off a cliff.” “There’s no buildup, and then one day you’re at home, wondering what to do with yourself,” he said. As much as pining for the sport itself, players said they tended to feel bereft outside the confines of a locker room. “You’re institutionalized,” Bruce said. “You miss the environment.”

The WhatsApp group — an ongoing stream of affectionate teasing, lighthearted criticism and off-the-cuff soccer punditry, according to members — offers a digital imitation of the daily rhythm of life inside a club. And the games themselves provide an outlet for the competitive urge. “It’s better than going to the gym and running on a treadmill on your own,” Bruce said.

It is that, more than anything, that brings them all to an unremarkable field deep in south Manchester, whatever the weather.

Being a soccer player is, of course, glorious, glamorous fun. But, Thompson said, “over the course of 20 years or so, it chips away at you.” The pressure is intense. The politics are toxic. There is little agency: A player’s fate can swing on an unfortunate injury, an unhelpful manager, a single bad decision.

At the end, there is no sentiment whatsoever. “Most people don’t retire from the game,” Thompson said. “It retires them.” Soccer moves on, unforgiving.

“You’re on a pitch, in the fresh air, with a ball,” one participant said as he watched his colleagues and friends slip into their cars. “It’s what it was like when we started playing.”

Once a week, though, these players can engage with the game on their terms. There is no crowd. There is no money, other than the fee to use the field. There is no pressure, other than that which they put on themselves. They all carry the scars of a life spent playing a professional sport. Those days are over, now, but they do not want to say goodbye. What they want to do, instead, is to play.

“You’re on a pitch, in the fresh air, with a ball,” Thompson said as he watched his colleagues and friends slip into their cars. “It’s what it was like when we started playing. I think for most of them, it’s an hour a week when they can feel free.”

That is, they know, a precious thing. This summer, the group played a couple of exhibition games against local teams, operating under the moniker Inter Retirement. They have since been approached by a production company with the idea of launching a YouTube channel, of turning their private game into public content.

They can see the merit in the suggestion, of course, but one drawback, above all others, gives them pause. The act of observation would change the nature of the event. It would turn soccer, once more, into work. They come to this field, once a week, because there are no cameras. There is no spotlight, no pressure.

Here, at last, that they can play.

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