Slide tackles | Football proceeds on ice, in the name of research

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Traditional elements of games below latitude 75ºS appear in this January 2003 match at Halley Research Station: irregular white surface with tractor treads, bulky kit, 55-gallon drums as goals, multiple photographers. (British Antarctic Survey)

Halley Research Station, Antarctica (U.K. claim) | The Kansas City Star shirks no continents in a summary of how world cultures will be captivated by the forthcoming World Cup finals. An e-mail exchange with Simon Herniman, general assistant at the British Antarctic Survey’s most isolated station, confirms that radio and Internet will aid researchers as they track England matches as well as the rest of the competition.


My main medium will be radio broadcasts, which suits me just fine. Audio commentary is fantastic—you get loads more feedback from the crowd for a start and it’s much more dramatic.

Otherwise I’ll have to watch the minute-by-minute updates on the [Internet]. This, however, can be stressful. While the screen refreshes itself you have to fret pointlessly for a moment awaiting either a dodgy offside decision or three goals in 7 minutes.

We applaud writer Pete Grathoff for his dogged pursuit of this story, although a few editorial oversights gave us a slight facial tremor as we worked through an otherwise excellent survey. The names of two of the greatest performers in World Cup lore, Eusebio da Silva and Zinedine Zidane, were misspelled, and Grathoff refers to Colombia having played its final six qualifying matches for the 1994 finals not in South America but in the United States. Huh? Also, Herniman in his e-mail apparently confuses one former Liverpool manager for another in attributing the “football is much more important than that (i.e., life and death)” quote to Bob Paisley rather than Bill Shankly.

Oh, well. It’s the thought that counts.

Copyright © 2006 NASA

In any case, what was in the main a carefully prepared article to give readers in the American heartland a sense of the tournament’s drawing power led us on a fruitful search for examples of football culture in a part of the world ever obscured on the base of desk-model globes. Diaries that form part of the British Antarctic Survey’s extensive research mission in meteorology, seismology, glaciology, radio astronomy, aurora and airglow effects and geomagnetism display concern with playing the beautiful game regardless of conditions. In this way the modern explorers share kinship with the missionaries of the late 19th century who spread the game from their way stations.

“Football is our sport,” continues Herniman, in his e-mail transcript with the Kansas City Star. “Each of us who has ever played football will live those missed tackles, ballooned shots and 30-yard free kicks as though we were on the pitch.”

Ben Molyneux of the RRS (Royal Research Ship) Ernest Shackleton, a BAS resupply vessel, posts on 27 Feb 2005 about an away fixture against King Edward Point base members on South Georgia Island, an early-20th-century whaling center in the South Atlantic. The match site was selected for its significance in whaling and football lore. Molyneux, with the time afforded at sea, apparently consults source materials covering the early days in Grytviken, the island port established by Norwegian captain Carl Anton Larsen in 1904.

The hallowed pitch on South Georgia Island.

Tales celebrating creation of the island’s first pitch become elevated in Molyneux’s diary. We read of grown men weeping for lost memories “as the sun set over Cumberland Bay and the flencing knives were finally exchanged for mugs of warm beer.” On one such evening, Vic Noskfithrskula, a young whaler, set out with candle and pickax to construct a full-sized field. Although whaling operations ceased in 1965—some 175,250 whales were caught from South Georgia Island in this 61-year period, according to the whaling museum (Hvalfangstmuseet) of Sandefjord, Norway—the pitch remains.

“The match was definitely a game of two halves,” recounts Molyneux of the game played in this young whaler’s honor.

Shackleton’s first half was downwind which had a big part to play in the run of the game. For the downwind team a useful tactic was the lofty lob towards goal allowing one of the forwards to glance the flying ball deftly into the goal. … Obviously the hours of tactics discussion was paying off. What [midfielders] Ben and Hef lacked in ability they made up for in tenacity. Each chased, harried and kicked like men possessed forcing the tiring [South Georgia] squad into schoolboy errors and basic mistakes. The mighty forwards were quick to capitalise and sent the all-stars into an early lead.

Despite the halftime switch, the Shackleton crew held on 12–7. Yet another remote land mass, where elephant seals now “snooze among the conveyor belts that once carried blubber to boiling cauldrons,” had proven a suitable home for the most widespread of recreations.

About the Author

John Turnbull founded The Global Game in 2003. He was lead editor for The Global Game: Writers on Soccer (University of Nebraska Press, 2008) and has also written on soccer for Afriche e Orienti (Bologna, Italy), the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the New York Times Goal blog, Soccer and Society, So Foot (Paris) and When Saturday Comes. His essay "Alone in the Woods: The Literary Landscape of Soccer's 'Last Defender' " in World Literature Today was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Also for World Literature Today he edited a special section on women's soccer, "World Cup/World Lit 2011," before the Women's World Cup in Germany. The section appeared in the May-June issue. His next project is a book on soccer and faith.

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