issue 49: July - August 2005 

 | author bio

Sufisticated Football
Suhayl Saadi

In loving memory of Sameena Jamil, aka ‘Queen Jamila’ (1982-2001)

One midsummer’s night, awhile back, I was lying in the cells at the dark bottom of the Old Partick Police Station. It was the balmiest night I can remember, perhaps because I was tanked-up on Supers and a whiff of crack to boot. But just before I had arrived at this spot, someone had given me a small square of card, on which was emblazoned a tiny, monochrome figure clad in the 1882 soccer strip of Pantelleria’s First Eleven. Well, to be honest, their only Eleven. And since, at this point, we’re into truth (the whole, and nothing but), then I may as well admit that the reason I was there that night, was because I had been attempting to play football on the roof of a four-storey Glasgow tenement, while listening to a hundred watt rendition of The Living is Easy, an old number from the Dream Police. An interesting para-gravitational experiment. That’s what happens when you ingest small sections of cardboard in your evening porridge. You see, I had spent years writing around, commentating on and thinking about football, and I had come to loathe the voyeur which I had become. So that was why, on that burning, midsummer’s eve, I had accepted the offer of a dance with the various substances of the night.

I was lying on the hard stone floor and my belt and laces had been removed. My eyelids were bruised, possibly from an encounter with the men-in-black, or was it the boys-in-blue? Anyway…
Through the bars of the high window of my cell, I could just make out the crescentic spine of the moon and beyond that, a blackness which was inordinately deep. It seemed odd that there should’ve been no stars when an entire slice of moon was visible. I allowed my tender lids to close. A breeze flitted across the swollen skin and this should have soothed me, yet it caused panic to wind like a spring inside my chest and so, painfully, I opened my eyes again.

Facing me, sitting cross-legged on the floor, was the astral body of Akbar Allegro. I knew it was his astral form, because in places, I could see right through the red football top, straight through his ribs, heart and spine, to the hard stone wall. He was smiling. I recognized him from the archaic mini-disks my father used to play. Old Akbar was balding and grey’d and crow’s feet had already begun to stagger along the skin towards his temples.
      How did you get in? I asked, aware that my voice seemed to be coming from the end of a long tunnel.
He shrugged.
      Through the bars. How d’you think?
I chuckled.
      You always were a sleek one.
      So they said.
      Midfield, wasn’t it?
      I didn’t really have a position. After a while, I would go to wherever the ball drew me.
      Like a magnet.
      A bird.
I sucked in my breath.
      So, Akbar, what brings you all this way through the night air from the clean blue line of the Riviera to the wondrous smoke-stacks of the dear green prison?
I came to see you, you dolt!
Now it was the great midfielder’s turn to pause.
      Well, what are you waiting for?
I reached into the lining of my jacket and with a sense of triumph, I pulled out a miniscule notepad and a boot stud biro. Being a sports journo meant that I was always prepared.
      I… I’m ready, I said.
Akbar Allegro stretched his spine, puffed out his chest and inhaled deeply and this action caused some of the night to tauten around his form, so that he grew more solid than before. His scarlet shirt and yellow shorts-and-socks glowed in the moonlight as though he were standing along the halfway line of a football pitch, waiting for the kick-off whistle and dreaming of the perfect fractal. Then his form began to alter again, red-and-yellow-and-black re-arranging themselves like in an interactive hologram, only more. Then I realized that he was singing his body into shape and the red, yellow and black, took the form of letters, thus:


I tried to scribble it down in longhand, but my pen had run out of ink. I shook it vigoroursly, swore in three dialects and then sucked hard on the hollow end. Almost gagged on the foul blue chemical taste.
By then, then his whole body had become a mouth and the mouth began to speak:
A football game is a reflection of the cosmos and the cosmos is a reflection of love.

Ghosht is the Urdu word for ‘meat’. The physicality of things is the meat of the Game. A bum pass sounds like the word, ghosht - especially in Scotland, where the ball is often sodden. The players move through glue around the pitch; there are obstacles at every turn. Even if you stand still, someone else is gonna come and get you, take the ball off you, propel you inelegantly back into the void. Tackles, tentacles, fish. Our lives are the ghosts of our selves. The ball itself is meat. Bull leather. And yet, it is fashioned in the form of a perfect sphere. It is insufflated, not with blood, but with breath. Breath, moving across darkness, becomes the Word. Like you and I, Ghosht strives to be more than itself, to lift and stretch its reality, and the realities of a million spectators, all of whom become instant birds, ersatz judges. A parliament of fish and fowl.

I awoke and it was dawn in the Police Station. First light hovered tremulously beyond the bars. I was lying curled-up on the floor, but I wasn’t the least bit cold. I thought of my life in the chabolas, of the family I had never had, of the dusks and the dawns and the feel of the sun searing into my back as I touted around the alleyways for money. And I decided that it really hadn’t been worth it. Why had I been born into the life of Acebo, the street-kid? What had been the purpose? What was the game? My body felt stiff. My skeleton was fifteen years old, yet I felt as though I had aged decades during the night. I was slumped, naked, in the midst of thirty similar unfortunates and we were all lying in pools of urine, which had coalesced to form one great stinking lake. I was the only one awake. I had not slept all night.

With a loud, iron clanging, three soldiers entered and the first seams of daylight slunk in behind them. The soldiers had to stoop to avoid striking their skulls on the concrete ceiling and they clambered awkwardly in their studded boots over bodies and piles of excreta. They grabbed me roughly by the arms and neck. My legs promptly gave way. I could taste their breath on my face. They were expressionless.

The light outside was pure and blinding and it burned into every pore. After six weeks in the low cell, I had become a worm, half-blind and crawling around on my belly. Even though it was barely dawn, any light whatsoever had become intolerable.

They dragged me to a piece of waste ground which was surrounded by a circular, eight-foot high wall of corrugated zinc. I felt the coarse, metal ridges indent the bones of my spine. Even the sky was angular. Then I saw that I was standing in the middle of a rectangle. Red paint had been daubed roughly onto the zinc, in the shape of posts and crossbar. They had brought me to a football pitch, to the goal-mouth. In the chabolas, we had played against just such a goal. At first, we had aimed at doorways, but this had incurred the wroth of coupling lovers who had been disturbed too often by the sudden entry from the alley of a flying, plastic bladder. So one day, someone had found a tin of red paint. Over the years, with millions of ball impacts, goalposts and crossbar had flaked and cracked and fallen to the ground. Yet they had never quite disappeared and were still there, a perfect geometric figure, when the bulldozers rolled in. Perhaps the soldiers, too had battled against walls like these, yes, they were poor boys, I could see in the blacks of their eyes, that certain fear which even after death never departs from the soul. Yet perhaps they had not been as skilled as I at the game and so while I, Acebo, had remained in the labyrinths of the chabolas and smashed my balls against the molten walls, they had put on uniforms and now fired a different kind of world.

One of the soldiers must have been an officer, because he produced a long-barrelled pistol from his hip. Undid the safety-catch. The sound of concrete on bone. Barked something at the other two, who promptly followed suit with their rifles. From somewhere, a cock crowed. The wall changed colour, from grey to red, and I knew that dawn had finally arrived. It filled my head with a buzzing sound. The three soldiers pointed their guns, but they were no longer pointing at me. They were aiming for the goal-mouth. I could see that the left-hand one would miss completely. I wanted to tell him. After all, I was the better footballer. For years, I had swayed through the chabolas, looping spheres across the shifting roofs and shooting holy seed toward the sky. I raised my arms above my head. Between the bones, two birds danced an imperfect arc and then flew out of vision. I waited as the first streaks of red broke across the blue.


Akbar Allegro had assumed the form of another word, of whose meaning I knew nothing. Even though my whole body was aching in some nightmare alchemy of lead, yet my diminutive pen slipped seamlessly across the paper and my right hand had warmed up. My left was still freezing, however, so I switched ends. You see, I am ambisextrous, I mean, ambidextrous and ambipedrous as well. I can hit with any of the four. Five, if you count my head.

But Old Akbar was off and running.

The centre circle of the pitch is our world; half-perfect, half-diabolic. The halfway line separates our consciousness from that of the other. The Game is about entering the internal (and external) world of another, and thereby beginning our journey towards our goal, towards illumination. Through physical love, do we strive for spiritual, cosmic love. That’s where Pyar comes in. Pyar is the Urdu word for romantic, human, physical love. It’s an awkward word: PYAR. You have to get your tongue around it. To produce the correct sound, you have to dribble the tip of your tongue over your hard palate at a certain frequency. You could never train a golem to say it. The love which may grow between human beings is always difficult; half-satanic, half-sublime; simultaneously selfish and selfless; it’s a schizoid mid-fielder of a thing. It never knows whether to go for goal, or to just be the backbone. It requires intelligence, adroitness, instinctive cunning. But it needs something more. Through the difficulty of the first phoneme, the field suddenly opens out at the end of the long, deformed aleph sound and we end on a note of satisfaction, satiety, post-orgasmic tranquillity. A long, rolling field ‘rrr’. A classically Scottish, ‘rrr’. That’s where most people stop, of course. A fag afterwards is their idea of spiritual enlightenment. The rising smoke, their deity. The ghosht of love, become music, is not the end; it is merely the means. The rhythm of the build-up suddenly falls apart; it just takes one pass to be less than perfect; and you’re back in the void, chasing after comets in the darkness without border.

It is the hour of the witch, the moment of knowledge. By the trunk of the blackthorn tree, the Witch Queen holds between her teeth the balls of the kiss’d, blinded king of oak and she feels the life slip from his body and his shadow rushes to the rough ground beneath her feet. She lays him down on the fire, anoints herself with the salt of his skin, then leaps over the cauldron eightfold, once for each garter, and then in the green smoke of his flesh, she begins to dance in a circle. She dances slowly at first like a molten stream, but with each deosil sweep of her white arm, her feet move faster and faster until she is wheel-kicking over the arc of her skull and then in a moment of perfect circularity, the balls fly from the clamp of her jaw and whirl through the air, and land on her fee, each ball rolling on the tip of a big toe. And now, she, the balls and the wind swirl into a blur and occupy all points at once. It is total football.

Then she rises and flies as a wheel across the willow forest and the moors of red heather and the teeming city and she crosses the cold blue sea to the island of summer where words spiral in poetry up mountain-goat tracks. The octagonal House of Aradia welcomes her within its magic walls of cedar, sandalwood and juniper. Still cradling the balls of the King in the epidermal forest of her foot-skins, the witch eats the food of the dumb supper, she drinks from barrels of mead, she hears music which has no sound, no notes and she bathes in wine which evaporates slowly from her skin into the air. She is scourg’d by the tail’d cat and bleeds vines into the earth and as joyous fireflies pour down in light upon her, still she dances between the peaks of song.

At sunrise, she is whirling widdershins and her fingers have grown and lengthened and they pluck wrens from the boughs of ancient oak trees and the blood of the wrens feeds her belly which has bladder’d across the hog valley so that as her spine writhes in the dance, she lies down upon a blossom couch and from her raised, opened thighs, leap eleven wild women. And the women sing in a chorus-line:
      Horse and hattock, horse and go!
      Horse and pellatis, ho, ho, ho!
They sing this eleven times and their words raise a bone fire into the sky and the witch rocks on her rolling heels so that her feet become the long cone of a striker, head-to-boot, and the striker takes aim and shoots the balls of the King into the heart of the flames. The world stops. Breath ceases. The commentators in the pubs and prisons find themselves praying for the world. Then, from the heart of the fire, there leaps a giant, horn’d god. And the Witch Queen is unmoving as the beast lies down upon her and the two take up the chorea of electric blue moving stillness and their glowing transparency becomes a fiery line which cuts into the ground to form a spherical, glass altar. And through the glass, the Witch Queen sees the dark bone arch of the new moon, omphalos in the magenta sack of the sky. And in the black mirror of Idris, she calls and reads the scoreboards of all that has happ’d and everything that will come.

I checked myself to make certain that I had not sustained a long, wet dream. Nope. All okay on that front.
      Wow! Akbar-man, I said, somewhat breathlessly, Is that what you were thinking of when you scored the hat-trick against Strathclyde Police?
      Listen, you idiot, it’s about being possessed by a kind of a spirit, a duende, the Spanish might call it, or a succubus, if you like…
      A succ… how d’you spell that?
But he was on a roll. He was dribbling and spinning and slipping between defenders. He was singing.
      The anima which is inside every man and the animus within every woman.
      I dig it, I really do.
I was somewhat lost. He was somewhere, far away and I wanted to be there.
      Coming up through the tunnel, the hot concrete closes in on you and you feel as if you’re going to suffocate and die there and never reach the pitch, let alone the trophy rank. It feels as though right at that moment, the ball of the world is resting, on your shoulders. Your whole body trembles with fear, or with something beyond fear.
      Scottish Gas versus Parks and Maintenance? I ventured.
He shook his head.
      It doesn’t matter. The principle is the same. But once you have become filled with beauty, there comes a certain, white line which you must cross. If you baulk at this, you will remain a talented soccer player. The boundary between those who are merely talented and the truly great is indefinable. Tenuous. Yet they exist in different worlds, my friend. The second your studs hit turf, the moment you are out there, the blood pumps from the earth, up through the muscles of your legs, the quads, the hams, the buttocks, loins, right up through the fine coils of your brain, and you are out there, wheeling around the halfway circle and you are somewhere else. You’re churning up the earth, digging deep, searching for the stream of gold.
      But what about artificial turf?
My voice sounded hollow against the walls, as if nobody was there, in the cell.
Akbar impatiently waved away my question.
      Beneath the turf is bedrock. That’s all that counts.
His hand turned into a fist. For an insane moment, I thought he was about to punch me. Two symmetrical lines divided his forehead and the biceps and brachioradialis muscles of his right arm had swollen almost to bursting point. His eyes burned with such intensity, they were almost black. I could see, then, why this man had been the greatest player-manager the world had ever seen. How else could he have taken a team from a lonely Atlantean rock to the fire-and-light belly of Cícero Pompeu de Toledo where with these same hands, he had held aloft the magic, golden cup.
Bedrock, I nodded.
He seemed to relax, then. His features softened.

As a child, I had watched the old newsreel on TV. It had been my defining moment. I remembered that look on his face. The closed eyes, the expression of someone utterly, finally, at peace with himself and with the world. What I had seen, through the glass of my television set, all those years back, was not the face of simple triumph. It was the visage of illumination. Now I knew why, in the lush valleys of the Gironde, Akbar had been known as ‘Le Chansonnier’, the songwriter, and from the swaying, blue littoral of the Maghreb, to the dust tracts of the Sahara, as ‘El Said’, the lord.
      Yes. I said. I know.
But he just smiled dreamily and seemed to sink into a kind of torpor, so that he began to resemble one of those heavy-lidded, blue Hindu godlings which you see carved into the walls of temples and daubed across the frontages of multiplex cinemas. His form had become steadily less tangible as the night had worn on. But then, I hadn’t actually stretched across the murk and touched his arm, so I couldn’t really be sure.
He had other things on his mind and was keen to continue. I had run out of paper and so I began to write, big, on the walls.

If the passes work out, then the next obstacle is the semi-circle on the outside of the box. This is Aflatun’s shadow world of ideal concepts. Only the sublime halves of our souls exist here. It mocks us from afar. Mocks our wars, our pestilences, our hopeless long-shots. And if we try short cuts, it penalises us mercilessly. That brings us to the ref and the goalie. Both are archangels. One dwelleth among us, sorting out our petty squabbles, dealing justice and injustice in equal measure (since how can we know justice unless we experience its opposite?), and sometimes, dealing death with a blood cipher. It must be a pretty depressing job. No wonder the Referee dresses in black. It takes a lot of pyar to get through this life, and not to despair of the garden. If you hog the ball, and not pass it on when you should, if you are driven by an excess of ego, then you will falter. You’ll be shot on-target, a missed opportunity. A brilliant save! But for you, the glorious egotist, the flawed genius, there will be no salvation. That’s where the goalie comes in. The penalty box is the goalie’s stomping ground. It surrounds the original paradise which, in its turn, encircles heaven - the goal. Goalies are different. Whichever archangel tossed us out of the beatific place now stands guard outside its walls. They have to be able to see, far and wide, to bounce and spring and slice and do everything in their power (which is almost, but not quite, total) to prevent us from sending that piece of ourselves, that devil’s simulacrum of our world, that pig’s bladder filled with holy breath, across the last boundary of this life.


ALLEGRO AKBAR. Peacefully, after a long illness, at the Tree Tops Nursing Home, Maryhill, Glasgow. Beloved son of Madre Aradia and Padre Acebo, much loved bhai of Vittorio, dear father to Stanley, Manoel Francisco, Edson Arantes, Eusebio, Franz, Gerd,

Bobby, Dennis, George, Alfredo, Diego, Ferenc, Michel, Zinedine, Johan, Lev and Sara. Funeral service, to which all friends and family are respectfully invited, at Cathcart Mosque, on Monday 21st June at 11am, thereafter to Hampden Park Stadium.
No flowers please.

My pen had finally run out. I swore in eleven languages, I stamped and kicked with both feet simultaneously, managing, of course, not to fall over in the process, but nothing worked. Akbar Allegro was fading fast. With a wry expression on his face, he began to wave slowly at me and at what appeared to be an enormous crowd who en masse, were swaying their bodies back at him. Through the discordant roar of trumpet notes, he was mouthing words. Good job I could lip-read. One of the skills one learns, as a sports journo. Though usually, it would be multi-lingual expletives which one would be most expert at deciphering and those, you couldn’t print.
Goodbye, adios, adieu, Khuda hafez, soraidh, auf wiedersehen, kalay shu, zai jian, arrivederla, gule gule...
I appealed to him:
      Akbar, tell me, what would you have done in a tight situation like this? When you were right up against it, when you had to lead your team, Muckle Flugga United, against the serried ranks of Telecom Technik, the Kings of Faisalabad and the Lothian and Borders Water Company Limited or, once you had driven them like happy Carmelite Nuns, up the dank slope of League Double success, how had you arraigned the sloappie boays against the steeled Castilian might of Real Madrid?
But he just faded further into the rising dawn.
I was desperate. The Supers were wearing off. The crack was long fizzed out.
Akbar Allegro! Niño of the Red Chabolas! Witch Queen of the Northern Reaches! Pig’s bladder concatenation of all our dead heroes and heroines! Help me score, just once before I die, help me be something better than myself! No flowers,
No reaction.
I felt my face pound with blood. I began to header my pen into the air in a frantic game of keepie-uppie. But it was hard, there, in the fading light with no black-cloaked referee and no car-coated stress-line manager about to crack down the middle with the incipient weight of a red-hot coronary. Have you ever tried it? Well, my advice would be: Don’t. It was inevitable, in the same way that a penalty can be fated. You know what I mean. You can feel it coming, when you’re really up against it, from somewhere in the marrow of your long-bones, you can just feel it coming.







  Against the wall

I fell to the floor, half-swooning, my scalp bleeding over my face like a stuck pig’s bladder. I wasn’t faking it, not here, not now, not in front of the Great Akbar Allegro’s astral body. No sir, Ref., Man-in-Black. It was real. Real, real, real


A brainwave. I would pen the final lines of Akbar Allegro on the prison wall in the Old Partick Police Station which like all the great games of this world, was no more. But more than that, I would quill the ultimate thought-forms of the world’s number one crack shot in my own blood. A muscular arm helped me to my feet. I blinked, through the red waterfall, at the great man. He was making one last effort, one great sweep up front and he was doing it because up front is where miracles happen. Alchemy.

Ishq. The Arabic word for the highest, purest form of love. The love which can exist only between God and sentient being and which is transmuted, through breath, into immanence and transcendence, revelation and its opposite. The sound of the perfect shot. Ishq. The trajectory of the ball as it spins on its axis through the air, with the eyes of a million tripping lightly across its transfigured surface. With a football boot, with muscle, bone and breath, you can turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse. A photon of love. The sound made by the ‘i’ is the intention, made real. The swing of the leg, the harmonic arc of the body, mirror the lines and curves of the field and the elegant, unseen fractals of the air. Aleph, undeformed. One. The long ‘shhh’ sweep of the ball through the sky. The last archangel knows that this time, you’ve managed to transfigure the kernel of yourself past the gates of the old, apple-green paradise and up, over the line of gnosis, into the vault of heaven’s net. Qaaf. A fit way to end. Music from the deepest part of the vocal apparatus, from the throat’s throat. And yet, that which is produced is not guttural, but sibilant almost like the pure note which lies somewhere within Middle C. The sound of the ball as it strikes the net. Zidane. Hampden. 15th May 2002. 45th minute. A sound which, amidst the alleluia epiphany of the oceanic roar, is never heard, except by those who know. Huu.

So singing, Akbar Allegro, Master of the Midfield Dribble, Shah-en-Shah of the scimitar strike, Royal Duke of Angular Delusional Defence techniques, singer-songwriter, Barón of the Chabolas, invisible dance-partner of all the aspiring, perspiring greats, magian of the winger’s impossibly long sweep and Queen Witch of himself, vanished into thin air.

A rattling of keys at the door.

The moon, the cell window, the cell itself, all had disappeared. No pen, no lines, no paper. This place no longer existed and so whoever was at the door was not a good old, dear blue police constable, but something else altogether. Perhaps it was the Soccer Satan, the relegated angel, but then that would mean that I was in the Ninth Division of Hell. I closed my eyes, took a single, circular, deep breath and then held it taut, within me. I held the air inside my chest for as long as I possibly could, longer than I had ever before managed. I held it in for so long that flecks of light began to dance between the dark, inner skin of my lids and the moist globules that were my eyes. I held the ball of breath in my lungs for so long that they began to swell and my chest, to expand. I grew bigger and bigger until I came to fill the darkness of the Old Partick Police Station, of the Dear Green Place, of the cold, white land, of the geo-harmonic entity known as Eurasia and finally, of the great big, soft leather ball of the world.
Then I let out my breath. Opened my eyes.

The sky is a huge blue oval. Below the sky, people. Lots of them. Thousands, maybe millions. Tiny faces, of all colours, and each one is yelling, singing, burping, blowing on a tin bugle or just dreaming. Only in the Elite Presidential Box, are the voices silent, the faces, empty.

The stadium is like a funnel, siphoning the crowd into a hum around my head, a single note which becomes the pulse of blood through my brain. My body arcs across the centre spot. In the far distance, the tiny rectangle of the goal. Now it is all so clear. No wood. Twenty-one other players on the field; two and one is three. The ball, the goal and me. Ghosht, pyar, ishq. I have relinquished the role of voyeur; I am no longer vicarious, I am physical and I have stretched beyond myself. The fractal of the pitch pullulates in my brain in a rhythm which like all rhythms, is beyond words.

I draw the studs of my heel backward in a slow arc across the bright green Astroturf and then tap, hard, once, twice, thrice. My ritual. To measure out the space, to fire my own personal sonar down towards bedrock. On my right arm is wound the Captain’s band. In my eyes, burn the madness of the black fire. And over to my left, a solemn man in a black cloak. He raises his hand to his face. Om. Tattva. Baraka.

The whistle blows. The air smells good today.

© Suhayl Saadi

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author bio

Suhayl on the beachSuhayl Saadi is a novelist and stage and radio dramatist based in Glasgow, Scotland whose latest, hallucinatory realist novel Psychoraag was short-listed for the James Tait Black Memorial Prize (2005) and will be published in French by the Paris-based Éditions Métailié. His short story collection,The Burning Mirror, was shortlisted for the Saltire First Book Prize (2001). His first novel, written under the name Melanie Desmoulins, was literary erotic fiction, The Snake (Creation Books, 1997). He has edited several anthologies, has appeared on several continents and currently is working on another novel and several stage plays.

See also in TBR: Bandanna and review of Psychoraag


issue 49: July - August 2005 


Nicholas Royle: The Performance
Suhayl Saadi: Sufisticated Football
Cyan James: Lewis and Clark, Bryce and Tony


Josh Capps: Soldier of...

picks from back issues

Ann Cummins: Where I Work
Todd Sandvik: The Note


‘Marys’ in Literature
answers to last issue’s quiz, Food and Drink in Literature

book reviews

Antwerp by Nicholas Royle
The Not Knowing by Cathi Unsworth

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