Health | The goalkeeper’s anxiety at the filtered cigarette

Portsmouth goalkeeper David James writes an entertaining column for Guardian Unlimited, most recently meditating on the cultural contact between football and smoking and confessing his own “15-year 20-a-day habit” (“It’s Time for the Whole Game to Stub Out My Filthy Habit,” Mar 16).

In prose form James has raised the same contradictions that Simon Armitage did in his poem “Goalkeeper with a Cigarette”—what former Tottenham Hotspur poet-in-residence Sarah Wardle terms the conflicting ideals of “physical fitness versus self-inflicted damage to health, and hardwon success versus laidback cool.”


Armitage’s goalkeeper looks unselfconsciously onto his fellows, an “upright insect / boxed between the sticks … stood with something up his sleeve / armed with a pouch of tobacco and skins / to roll his own, or else a silver tin / containing eight or nine already rolled.” I have never smoked—except for a half-dozen Marlboros in college, which I was too scared to inhale—but I understand the lure of snuffing out a smoking stick in disgust or tossing a butt to the ground in a universally recognized gesture of life’s futility.

James began his journey as a smoker when pushed toward the “laidback cool” end of the polarity as the result of injury. His lost his anti-smoking attitude

at 15 when I broke my finger making a save at Garston Leisure Centre on a Thursday night. I remember that moment very clearly. Participating in any kind of sport after that was not an option while I had a large metal pin sticking out of my finger. Frustrated and bored, I succumbed to peer pressure and joined the smokers’ gang. Before I knew it I was on 20 a day of some of the strongest fags around. Predictably, it became one of my obsessions and I stuck religiously to one brand. If someone turned up with a packet of “light” fags we’d paper the holes over or rip the filter off. “Light” fags were soft.

After a visit by Manchester United to Watford’s home ground, James found cigarette stubs in the visiting locker room. He thought, “Strewth, if a Man United player can smoke, it can’t be all that bad.” So he joined the ranks of inveterate footballer-smokers such as Sócrates, Michel Platini, Zinédine Zidane, Dimitar Berbatov and the legion of pudgy goalkeepers who, in Armitage’s phrasing, would cadge “a light from the ambulance men” and be proud of the fact that he had “no neat message for the nation.”

So smoking goalkeepers are now passé. James quit—smoking, that is—in 2000. Supporters in the UK, and in many other locations across Europe, are obliged to extinguish their fag ends outside the turnstiles (see 16 Mar 07). One of the best expositions of the end of the era of fans’ disgruntled toking is that posted in 2006 at The Round Ball in Ankara (“Civilization Going to Pot,” 5 Mar 06): “I admit that even I would feel a bit guilty having a smoke in a maternity ward (at least if you couldn’t open a window) but at the football!” (see the blog’s Apr 8 posting for more).

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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