In spite of the best efforts of my father, revered football commentator Patrick Barclay, to educate me in such things, I know woefully little of football. I buy The Times mainly just to see the photo of my dad. But after this afternoon at Tilos football club, I just might be giving the beautiful game another try.
This is extremely local football. The ground is a leisurely ten minute walk from my house. I pass a barbecue set up at one corner being tended by Nikos from Livadia. There is no queue to get in. Scanning the grandstand for my friend Anna, I see Pantelis from my Tilos family – ‘Are you looking for me?’ he quips – and lots of other friends and acquaintances, one of whom points me over to where Anna’s sitting. On the pitch, warming up, are a team of guys I know from the bars, restaurants and shops of Tilos – most of them work in one or another.
There’s no distracting advertising around the pitch, just a couple of posters of the mayor. The backdrop is our beautiful mountains and the edge of the village of Megalo Horio clinging to the rock. It’s a sunny day and clear after a storm last night.
It’s all very friendly until the visiting team in yellow huddle together and erupt in an aggressive shout: ‘Sy-mi!’ Symi’s another small island between here and Rhodes. I’ve heard Tilos matches have been known to get a little heated, with the odd fight or two. Game on.
At first, our boys in red and blue look as if they might be out of practice – it is the first game of the season after all – but soon they are passing gracefully and pushing forward confidently. Within the first fifteen minutes, Tilos have scored. Goooooaal!
It turns out we’re in a very vocal part of the crowd. The Greek ladies next to us lead everyone in a round of 'Ti-los, Ti-los!' And the pace of the game gets quite lively. Symi equalise quite soon. And soon, also, the number of yellow cards start to mount up. There’s a bit of rolling around the pitch, and Georgos makes an appearance as the doctor. A group of army lads in uniform from the base across the road join the supporters partway through the first half.
Both teams, it has to be said, are an assortment of shapes and sizes. Some look like professional football players, some less so. But the point is they’re out there playing their hearts out. So when someone in the crowd lets their disappointment show after one of our players misses a chance at a second goal, it seems a little mean, and Stelios chimes in: ‘It’s OK. We’re going to get another goal now.’
And we do. In fact, by half time, imichrono, the score is 3-1 to Tilos. Two tiny boys in football strips help carrying stuff across the pitch.
Anna and I celebrate by buying souvlakia and drinks, and again there’s no queue, just a chance to say hello to friends. The pork souvlakia are juicy and delicious fresh from the grill – irresistible.
School must have finished because a few teenage girls with school bags saunter in to join the crowd, asking the score. Alas, Symi score again soon in the second half. It’s 3-2. Have we celebrated too soon? The rest of the match is somewhat dominated by the ladies next to me, who gradually shout themselves hoarse. The downside of local football is that these ladies know all the boys on the pitch very well and are somehow related to most of them.
In case there are any blind people in the audience, the lady in pink next to me is now directing the match play by play, coach/commentator, instructing each of the boys by name as he gets control of the ball. The older lady next to her is using some choice language that makes the army boys grin. I'm glad I don't live next door on a day like today, but bless them, they care about the local team all right.
But Tilos have an excellent defence and a superb goalie, and they’re not letting Symi through. We get a few more chances at goal, but it seems there’s no more luck to be had there. The best our boys can do is hold on to their lead, and they do, just. A few balls shoot over the fence into the eucalyptus trees. Both teams get a few more yellow cards, and at one time an injury at one end of the pitch is ignored as a fight nearly breaks out at the other. It’s never a dull game. We hang on to our win and it’s a happy moment when victory is ours.
As we leave, it occurs to me that the population of Tilos is a lot smaller than Symi, meaning that Tilos would be very much the underdogs, with a smaller pool of talent to draw from. I check with Stelios.
‘Yes, Symi is four thousand people. We are three hundred.’ Plus, he confirms, the Tilos team drink and smoke a lot…
I wonder if this is closer to what football was like when my dad grew up in Dundee. A bit smaller, a bit sunnier, but a similar feeling. I think I might come out to support this feisty team again. TI-LOS!