March 12, 2019


NONE WHO HAVE PLAYED IT ARE WELL (PICO IYER, 10/30/95, Sports Illustrated)

The Battle of Waterloo may have been won on that hallowed turf,
but minds, limbs and nerves are lost there every year. For Eton
fields a riot of homegrown sports played nowhere else in the
world yet celebrated everywhere for their mad brutality. Of all
these curious traditions, the most peculiar and the oldest is
the Wall Game. Few who have seen it are alive, and none who have
played it are well. During my five years at Eton, I built a
career at the Wall that was glorious though, in its way,
typical: I never scored a goal; I never saw a goal scored; and
in terrible fact, I never set eyes, let alone feet, on the ball.

For all that, the Wall Game has a breathtaking simplicity. A
soiled and soggy ball is placed along the eponymous Wall, a
278-year-old structure 11 feet high and roughly 355 feet long. A
small boy sits, henlike, on top of the soccer-style ball. About
15 of the game's other 19 players--called seconds, walls and
longs--pile on top of the small boy, forming a rugbylike scrum
known with killing aptness as the bully (rugby, you may recall,
was devised at another of England's high schools). Then, after a
signal from the umpire (usually a teacher in mufti), the boys
push, shove and tackle one another, while the bully shakes
around in a many-legged frenzy that, as one appreciative former
housemaster put it, resembles the "death throes of some
monstrous crab." After 30 minutes of this fun the players change
ends and blearily set about knocking heads for another 30
minutes. The Wall Game, they say, is an acquired taste.

Yet there is to the madness a demented method. At the northern
end of the playing area (a strip of grass 15 feet wide running
along the redbrick Wall) a tiny black door that opens onto a
private garden serves as a goal; its counterpart at the southern
end is the trunk of an ancient elm. In between pummeling
princelings and potentates, the players in the bully try to move
toward the goal by clutching the ball between their ankles and
hopping through the mess of enemy forces, all the while keeping
the ball in contact with the Wall. This is not much harder than
balancing an egg on one's nose while crawling through the
trenches of Verdun. Far behind the bully, the other two players
on each team stand around idly, painting their fingernails. One
is called a flying man or fly. Both, however, might easily be
mistaken for spectators. If the ball makes one of its biennial
appearances outside the bully, the job of these "behinds" is to
lumber up to it and kick it toward the opponents' goal. This
happens with the frequency of lunar eclipses.

Scoring is therefore virtually impossible. But the beauty of the
Wall Game is that it makes a mockery of the very notions of
victory and defeat. Since kicking an unseen ball into a tiny
target from 178 feet away is beyond the reach of all mankind,
some allowances are made. If one player close to the opposing
goal lifts the ball up the Wall with his feet (as if juggling a
soccer ball) and a colleague touches it while crying, "Got it!"
their team is allowed to pick up the ball and fling it goalward.
But should that throw be touched by any of the 10 players
defending the unreachable target, it does not count as a
goal--even if by some miracle it hits the target. Scoring by
this method is, therefore, also impossible. In desperation some
benign lunatics declared that the very attempt to make a "shy at
goal" would count for a point. Spurred by this, perhaps, the
Wall Game recently witnessed an offensive explosion: two goals
in the space of 27 years. And Americans think soccer is a snooze!

Posted by at March 12, 2019 12:00 AM