In loving memory of Sameena Jamil, aka Queen Jamila
One midsummers 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
Pantellerias First Eleven. Well, to be honest, their only Eleven. And since, at this
point, were 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. Thats 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, midsummers 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
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 shouldve 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 greyd and crows feet had already begun to stagger along the skin towards
How did you get in? I asked, aware that my voice
seemed to be coming from the end of a long tunnel.
Through the bars. How dyou think?
You always were a sleek one.
So they said.
Midfield, wasnt it?
I didnt really have a position. After a while, I
would go to wherever the ball drew me.
Like a magnet.
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
I came to see you, you dolt!
Now it was the great midfielders 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
Im 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
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 wasnt 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 hadnt 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
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. Thats where Pyar comes in. Pyar is the Urdu word for romantic, human, physical
love. Its 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; its 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. Thats 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 youre back in the void, chasing after comets in the darkness
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 kissd, 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
scourgd by the taild 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 bladderd 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,
hornd 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 happd 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, its about being possessed by a
kind of a spirit, a duende, the Spanish might call it, or a succubus, if you like
how dyou spell that?
But he was on a roll. He was dribbling and spinning and slipping between defenders. He was
The anima which is inside every man and the animus within
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 youre 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 doesnt 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.
Youre 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. Thats all that
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 hadnt actually
stretched across the murk and touched his arm, so I couldnt 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 Aflatuns 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. Youll be shot on-target, a missed opportunity. A brilliant save! But for
you, the glorious egotist, the flawed genius, there will be no salvation. Thats
where the goalie comes in. The penalty box is the goalies 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 devils simulacrum of our world, that
pigs 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 couldnt 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! Pigs
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,
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:
Dont. It was inevitable, in the same way that a penalty can be fated. You know what
I mean. You can feel it coming, when youre 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 pigs
bladder. I wasnt faking it, not here, not now, not in front of the Great Akbar
Allegros 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 worlds
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 sows 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, youve
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 heavens net. Qaaf. A fit
way to end. Music from the deepest part of the vocal apparatus, from the throats
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 wingers 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 Captains 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.