Alone, but together. Isolated, but side by side. From the adoption of the 1883 edition of the Laws of the Game until the infelicitous developments of 2016, the kick-off – perhaps more than any other single moment of a football match – encapsulated the beauty of the game. Two athletes in the centre circle, with a ball situated at their feet and thousands of pairs of eyes trained on them, waiting for the whistle of the referee.
Their opponents could not encroach within the outlined ten-yard radius; their teammates usually didn’t. The two kicking-off, then, were about as lonely as anyone could be on a football pitch. And yet they had each other – they were alone as a team. No one individual stood forlorn and forsaken; this was no portrait of solitary pressure à la a kick from the penalty spot. It was a reflection, instead, of football’s emphasis on teamwork, a reflection of the importance of standing shoulder to shoulder with a comrade on the precipice of 90 minutes of 11 functioning as one.
And the way that the Laws produced this pre-match moment of lonely togetherness was itself a testament to the ethos of the sport: “The game shall be commenced by a place-kick from the centre of the ground in the direction of the opposite goal-line.” The first movement of the ball, in other words, must, without fail, be a forward one.
Every single match must begin with an attacking motion, says the 1883 edition of the Laws. The ball can then be promptly sent backwards to a waiting midfielder; a spell of controlled possession can ensue; a team can hunker down into their catenaccio or immediately send an ambitious long ball to a winger charging down the flank. It does not matter, so long as that first pass goes forward. Centimetres forward, rolled by the sole of a foot. The sport’s ultimate ambition, of penetrating through contested territory in order to find some way, any way, of getting the ball into the back of the net, is encoded into the very first gesture of every match.
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I had never felt the slightest indication that this 1883 precept, which had outlived two World Wars and the turn of two centuries, wouldn’t outlive me, so it was with immense confusion that I watched that fateful Euro 2016, when team after team sent just one player into the centre circle to kick the ball backwards at the start of each match.
Three years later, my confusion has not worn off. Rather, it’s festered, growing malignantly into mournful remorse. We as a footballing community have turned our back on our beautiful, time-honoured kick-off, just as surely as the very first player who touches the ball every single game now turns his back on his opponents.
I admit to frequently taking a small-c conservative stance when it comes to the sanctity of this sport I so dearly love. I am joined by many in my utter disdain for VAR, and by far fewer in my outspoken disapproval of goal-line technology – but my yearning for the kick-offs of yore bears not a trace of any sentiment that could potentially be construed as my own Luddite quixotry with regards to the intrusion of high-tech into football.
The kick-off is not a technological issue; it is not even a consequential one. Returning to the purity of the two-player kick-off does not influence the outcome of the match, for the one-player kick-off does not make the game more rational or objective in the way that goal-line technology unquestionably does and that VAR can at least strive to do. There is no reason why we should not be kicking off with two players – I have yet to hear a persuasive argument that a one-player kick-off actually improves the game by any metric, though if someone does have a compelling case, I am certainly willing to listen.
I think that I can trace my affinity for the two-player kick-off back to one very specific moment, a moment that occurred almost exactly ten years before FIFA tolled the death knell for the traditional commencement of a match. It was 2006 and I was eight years old, watching the first World Cup final that I have a strong personal recollection of.
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Of course, the whole world shares the near-unanimous belief that Zinedine Zidane’s infamous headbutt is the defining image of the 2006 final, but for me it was actually something else from that match that ended up indelibly searing itself into my memory. And it wasn’t even anything particularly dramatic, like Gigi Buffon’s acrobatic save from Zidane’s point-blank header in extra time or David Trezeguet’s tragic penalty miss that ricocheted agonisingly off the bar.
No, for me, the most striking moment of the 2006 final was far more quotidian: it was Luca Toni and Francesco Totti standing in the centre circle of the Olympiastadion in Berlin, as camera flashbulbs erupted in the stands. The two prolific Azzurri expectantly gazed across the ten-yard chasm of empty, immaculately-manicured grass to Horacio Elizondo, the Argentine referee.
Toni rested his elegant white and gold right Lotto boot on the elegant white and gold Teamgeist ball; the only thing that everybody on Earth knew in that instant was that the ball would momentarily be rolled forward to Totti. And it was. Then Totti played it back, Toni ran forward, and the sacrosanct ten-yard buffer zone around the two teammates collapsed as the pitch was subsumed into the free-flowing unchoreographed choreography of football.
I think that that split-second, that gentle forward roll of the Teamgeist from Toni’s Lotto, was when my eight-year-old self first processed the enormity of the World Cup final. When I grasped that what would transpire over the next 90 (in actuality, 120-plus) minutes would become part of history; when I realised that the actions on that pitch would be watched and re-watched, analysed and debated, praised and bemoaned by generations of humanity; when I began to comprehend, as it were, the futurity of football: a few rarefied athletes’ lonely deeds, waiting to be transmitted endlessly forward into eternity. A magnified echo of those two lonely players, together in the centre circle, waiting to transmit the ball centimetres forward into the opposing side’s half.
By Justin Ross Muchnick