Tuesday, 10 January 2012

The inferred footballer

The inferred footballer 

It was at a fog-bound league match between the Dutch sides, FC OSS and Almere City FC, where I witnessed the final professional appearance of the Spanish defender, Tomas Anselmo. The game took place on a Sunday morning at the Mitsubishi Forklift Stadion in Almere. Anselmo was, of course, playing for OSS in his normal position of Centre Back. On this occasion the captain’s armband had been awarded to the team’s young striker – Karlens Yount – a muscular, endomorphic Frenchman with a quick temper. A week after the game, following a domestic incident that may, or may not, have been related to what took place on the pitch that day, Yount was charged with violently assaulting his girlfriend; a crime for which he served 11 months in jail.  

The passing of almost five years has conferred upon the OSS / Almere City match a legendary reputation that is entirely undeserved.  If anything the game is a curiosity, or perhaps a cautionary tale. These reservations have done nothing to deter a German television company from making documentary almost three times the length of the aborted match itself. Nor have they stymied a tide of  fact-light magazine articles speculating on the events of that day, most recently a meticulous 20 page analysis that appeared in the quarterly soccer journal - The Snow Globe.

If one were to take at face value the claims of those who say that they were in the crowd that day, then you would judge the match to have been very well attended.  As a confirmed spectator who was interviewed  after the game by a Nederland 2 news crew in the stadium car park, I can relate that the actual turnout was very low. I was also one of the few who remained in his seat for the game’s entire 41 minute duration. Throughout this time I felt a steady current of bodies brushing past me as they made their way towards the exits. Furthermore I can report that the overriding opinion of those who were present on the day, and who I spoke to in the aftermath, was that the whole thing had been a dangerous farce.

The seeds of the tragedy that was to occur had taken root in the peculiar weather of the region. Overnight a bank of thick fog had rolled in off the Markermeer - a shallow, 270 square mile, inland lake - and engulfed a portion of the city. This in itself was not unusual. Almere is often poetically referred to as “the city that forgets itself.” There are fanciful urban legends of whole buildings being swallowed up by fog and never seen again.
What was unusual on this day was that the fog did not disperse but rather continued to grow in  density. By the time the teams jogged out of the tunnel, visibility was limited to roughly 15 feet,  beyond which anything solid was robbed of detail and consistency, condensed by the suspended water vapour to a soupy silhouette. Those of us who had braved these conditions, in the absurd hope that we would still see a coherent football match, crowded the barriers. It was here that I gained my last view of Anselmo in the flesh, striding into the mist, being guided towards the centre circle by the repeated whistle blasts of the unseen referee.   

The atmosphere in the stadium was disquieting. We could not see the opposing supporters, whose disembodied chanting was disorientating and even somewhat menacing. As the match wore on and the crowds diminished the vocal support at both ends slowly ebbed away until it was nothing more than uncoordinated shouting. 

The game itself had become a metaphysical pursuit; a leap of faith for player and spectator alike. The participants were murky presences on the pitch. Sporadically a player would emerge from the gloom, apparently disorientated and bemused  to find themselves so close to the sidelines. Some would squint into the crowd as if attempting to ascertain from the fans’ colours at which end of the pitch they had arrived.
Only on three occasions did I catch sight of the ball. Twice it rolled out of the fog with nobody in pursuit, like a wayward piece of Day-Glo yellow wreckage, surreptitiously removing itself from the scene of a mysterious accident.

There were numerous collisions between players, unseen from the stands and mostly accidental. It is in one of these coming-togethers that Anselmo sustained the horrific injury that cost him his professional career. With whom he collided and in what circumstances are a matter of speculation. It will do no good here to lay bare the already over-examined theories for further scrutiny.

In the 37th minute of the game I saw a large, peculiar-shaped silhouette, a shade of grey darker than the fog. Later I rationalised that this must have been the two stretcher bearers carrying the badly wounded defender off the pitch. It is estimated that he had lain their in mute agony, drifting in and out of consciousness, for ten minutes before he was discovered by the Almere Forward - Derek Markham, who raised the alarm. Shortly afterwards the match officials finally saw sense and play was suspended.

In the stadium car park, myself and the television news crew who were interviewing me, were forced to shuffle aside for an ambulance. It was moving at a slow crawl through the fragmented crowd, employing blasts from its siren to disperse any meandering stragglers. Beyond the vehicle’s blacked-out windows, I inferred the presence of Tomas Anselmo. A few hours later, at the Flevoziekenhuis hospital, his right leg was amputated below the knee. 

Around the same time, a few streets away from the stadium, a family of four were killed when an articulated lorry ploughed into their car at as it crossed a junction.  The Markermeer fogs may not swallow entire buildings, but they can engulf both the lives and the livelihoods of men.

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