Rules of the Game: Introduction


Have you ever heard that dreams are just desires revealed by your subconscious? I dreamt the other night that I met Juanfran at a water park. I was wearing a pair of swimming trunks, dripping wet, when he ambled by in a full Osasuna kit (which surprises my conscious self – he moved to Atletico Madrid this year). I approached him, confident that I was the only person in a thousand miles who’d ever heard of this guy. We struck up a conversation, talking about water slides and then football. He invited me to join his team. I was awestruck. But as tends to happen, the dream ended before my wish could become reality (the last thing I remember is waiting in the airport terminal for my flight to Spain, still soaked from the park). The debilitating sting of reality set in as I pieced together that the whole experience was, as they say, just a dream.

Are the pop psychologists right? Can our dreams give some insight into our aspirations? I’d like to think so. Never mind that I’m not an Osasuna or Atletico Madrid supporter, or that I don’t really find anything special in Juanfran, or that this whole ordeal happened at White Water of all places. I can’t deny that, somewhere inside, I want to be a professional footballer.

Of course, I’ll never play in the top flight or anywhere near it. I’m probably not good enough to get into most pub teams. But I don’t let that deter me from playing the game I love. There is an alternative. My catharsis – my subconscious respite – is pick-up.

I’ve played on dirt, sand, concrete, rubber, and grass, with veterans and newcomers, 6-year-olds and 60-year-olds, men and women, through rain and snow and lightning and wind and the nastiest pits of mud. As I’m sure you have, too, if you love playing as much as I do.

What I’ve learned from it all is that no game is like any other. I don’t want that to sound campy; evidently, every game will have a different outcome with regard to the combination of passes executed, the number and quality of goals scored, and the arrangement of players playing. What I mean to say is, each participant brings a different set of experiences to the game, and in sum, this creates a unique combinatorial groundwork for how the game should proceed. In other words, in the absence of a Hammurabi’s Code for soccer, players usually have to piece together the rules on the spot.

Linguists might use the analogy of a pidgin. When groups of people need to communicate but don’t speak the same language, they will accommodate by mixing vocabulary and grammar from their native tongues, creating a simplified, but mutually intelligible, language. It’s a way of getting by. The remarkable thing is that the pidgin arises because it has to, developing naturally as long as contact between the groups continues.

So it is in pick-up games. Without a referee to preside over the match, players must agree upon a combination of rules. How are teams divided? What counts as a goal? Should offside positions be enforced? And what do you do about corners? No doubt the onerous task of deciding upon rules can be frustrating as well as inspiring. It’s part of what keeps the game fresh.

Next week we’ll present a definitive list of pick-up rules, then cast our own votes on how the game should be played. In the meantime, send us a message at @O87Minutes with any interesting rules you’ve come across in pick-up. We’ll be sure to add it to the debate. Here are the categories:

I. The Field    –   How big is the field and how are its dimensions be marked?
II. The Goals   –   How big are the goals and how are their dimensions marked?
III. Out of Bounds   –   What do we do about touchlines and goal lines?
IV. Choosing and Balancing Teams    –   How are teams chosen, and how are they balanced later on?
V. Number Limits and Splitting Games   –   How big is too big for a game?
VI. Goals   –   What counts and what doesn’t?
VII. Odds and Ends   –   How do we interpret offsides, handballs, and tackles? And what do we do about equipment?
VIII. Ending the Game   –   When does the game end and how is the winner determined?

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