Words: Max Porter
Images: Offside Sports Photography
A while ago my eldest son became obsessed with football.
I don’t come from a footballing family, but I’m pleased he chose Palace, our local team. And I’m pleased he shows no sign of wavering. His mates all support Barcelona, the little bastards, and my son does an adorable little shrug when the Palace results come in and insists that Roy has a plan. And he knows—as many nine-year-olds know—the most insane amount of trivia. He can tell you birthplaces, shoe sizes, routes up through academies, the beautiful blend of facts a person can get from magazines, playing cards, and his granddad’s Non-League Paper. The obsession has only deepened by the arrival of an XBOX, so now he can be Palace, Palace can win the league, he can make decisions about Palace that Roy is simply too wise to make, like spending some money.
I stand in the rain, watching them play, buying my son all that nylon crap, listening as he talks about Palace. He talks about it constantly. For a long time I listened and found it kind of annoying if I’m honest, my son going on and on about the emotional toll Luka Milivojević endured when leaving Olympiacos, because, fundamentally, I did not give a shit.
But now I’m in. Now I give a shit. It started with those Match Attack cards. I’d say ‘Bournemouth, midfielder, Jo—’ and he’d shout ‘ANDREW SURMAN’ before I even had the chance to say ‘—hannesburg’. We would play this for hours and hours and I’d be watching on proud, albeit mildly concerned, that he could fit all this into his little head. Even my father-in-law started saying ‘help me; he’s going to kill me with statistics’.
These days I find myself checking the score with an excitement that nearly matches his. For midweek games with an after-bedtime final whistle, my son would ask me to write D, W, or L on his hand so he could find out what happened the second he woke up. And I’d find myself writing ‘W’ on his clammy little hand, attempting to add, in tiny letters, ‘Benteke, 86th min’ underneath and, in the morning, he’d come in with pen all over his face, a black smudge on his hand. ‘Well?’
So, this has all been good. I love my son. I’m happy to have football in my life. But there is a third man in all this, a triangulation point, and it’s Wilfried Zaha.
I’m aware of the dangers of a cult of personality as much as the next, but I am sat there helping my boy draw a half-Zaha, half-eagle. Now I’m a believer. I’m favouriting all his Tweets, liking his dog photos, his new car photos. I’m loudly using him as an exemplar of a perfect, modern African-Englishman, proud of his roots, proud of his home, this charming man, this unapologetic man of faith, this lynchpin who gives a massive chunk of his salary to charity every week, who joined the Palace academy when he was only a little older than my son so knows a bit about loyalty and longevity, who saved the ladies team from going bust, and has never once, ever, in his whole career, dived...
We talk about him at least five times a day. The pressure he’s under, the injuries, the treatment he receives from defenders and referees, the wit and the grace, his attitude to Côte D’Ivoire and his attitude to Selhurst. The man’s a true inspiration; I can’t think of a better role model. My son’s a smart kid; he knows he’s not going to be a footballer. He knows the modern game is insane and bankrupt. But he recognises a good person, doing a good job, and he likes him. He thinks he’s cool. And I agree.
I didn’t have anyone like that in my life when I was a kid, but he recently asked me if I had any Blu Tack so he could put a new poster of Wilf up next to his others. And I laughed because I’d already been up to his bedroom earlier in the day and put it up for him. For the both of us.