Conference league loser

Kevin Fong's clash with the beautiful game leaves him sick as a parrot

August 14, 2008

Earlier this summer I found myself sitting in a packed auditorium, somewhere near Amsterdam, at the European Space Agency's science and technology headquarters talking about sending people to Mars, how to keep them alive and what they'll do when they get there.

There was a tangible air of excitement and anticipation, generated not by the prospect of interplanetary adventures but instead by the promise of a football tournament planned for the end of the day.

The tournament, on the face of it, had seemed like a fantastic idea; an opportunity for the assembled delegates, drawn from the space-faring nations of the world, to join together and share in the international joy of the beautiful game. I found myself asking why people didn't do this more often to liven up conferences.

It seemed to me an obvious way to dissolve the hierarchical structure of a meeting, providing a chance for all to bond in the friendly pursuit of something simple and pure. All in all, a perfect way to vent pent-up frustrations accumulated during a hard day's hard conferencing.

In the days before the event, I began to look forward to the competition. It had been years since I had pulled on a pair of boots, and I had somehow managed to entirely blot out the memory of just how bad I was at football. Instead I daydreamed of exquisitely curling in Beckham-esque shots from impossible angles in front of a crowd going wild on the sidelines.

The vision played continuously in my head, on a repeating loop, mainly in slow motion and with Pavarotti belting out Nessun Dorma in the background. Unfortunately the mismatch between expectation and reality turned out to be rather huge.

On the day there were four teams, one from the European Space Agency, one from Nasa, some aerospace engineers and a team of scientists. The games were to be played on a full-sized pitch, which seemed to me kind of enormous for five-a-side but which I figured would only give me more room to express my latent soccer genius.

There were official referees and a plan to play two halves of 15 minutes each, with a change of ends in between. All in all it was looking less like a sociable kick-around and more like a proper championship - something that should have set the alarm bells ringing.

I was to play for the science team. As the whistle blew to herald the start of our first match, against the engineers, I remained on confident form. It was, however, a transient state of mind that persisted only until the first goal was scored against us, roughly 20 seconds into the match.

Only partially deterred by this unexpectedly early setback, we rallied and redoubled our efforts. Our opponents' second goal came about a minute and half later.

In footballing terms it was a game of two halves, both of them dominated entirely by the opposition. By the time it was over, 30 long minutes later, we had narrowly avoided victory by a margin of eight goals.

At times during the match, it had felt like we were close to dying of heat exhaustion. The prospect of a second game to be played immediately after the first filled all of us with dread.

This time round we decided to change tactics, prioritising personal survival over all other considerations. There was much less pointless running around and shouting and much more activity of the "generally trying to stay alive" variety.

Our opponents seemed to feel the same way and it got to the point at which, if a ball rolled past someone at more than brisk walking pace, it was considered not worth chasing. It was a perfect display of anti-athleticism.

Somehow our equally exhausted opponents managed to get the upper hand and once again we found ourselves in for a drubbing. Six goals down and it was again looking pretty grim.

When, late into the second half, the referee himself started to give our team advice on how to play better, I realised that our tournament dreams were well and truly over. We retired having scored not a single goal. Humiliatingly, the Americans, famous for their inability to understand the sport of football, fared better than us.

The next day the survivors of the tournament rolled in to the auditorium looking much the worse for wear, many with sheepish looks about them, some vowing never to repeat the experience ever again.

And while even now I applaud the concept of introducing team sport into the social programme of an academic meeting, I can't help but think that the same overall effect could have been achieved with the tried and tested formula of a cheap bar and a dodgy disco.

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