Tom Williams

I'm extremely fortunate that my job means I get paid to write about football, but for me, watching and reporting on the game will always be second-best to playing it.

My dad started taking me to football matches before I was old enough to walk and I began kicking a ball around when I was about five. The first big game I remember being conscious of was the 1990 FA Cup final, between Manchester United and Crystal Palace. I decided to support Palace because I liked their colours and loved the way their name sounded. This will probably sound absurd to anyone who's spent any time at Selhurst Park in recent seasons, but to a five-year-old boy, Crystal Palace sounded like they belonged in a Disney fairy tale. My dad and I had a kickabout in the garden prior to the game - I was Palace, he United - and then went in to watch the match. I have no recollection of actually watching the game, but 27 days later the World Cup in Italy kicked off, and I was hooked for life.

The thrill, in those early years, was that the impossibly exciting spectacle I watched on TV - the startling greenness of the grass, the noise of the crowd, the dazzling bravado of players like Gullit, Gascoigne and Maradona - could be recreated, albeit imperfectly, in my garden, as soon as the match had finished. Impressionable and imaginative as I was, it took very little effort to convince myself that I was Toto Schillaci, burying a shot between the two silver birches that had been planted eight yards apart to act as a goal, or Peter Shilton, diving acrobatically to my left to touch away a strategically placed pea-roller from my dad.

From those back-yard kickabouts, I graduated to breathless games of Singles, Doubles and 5-0 'Keeper (a version of Heads and Volleys) with my mates on the Astroturf next to my school, and, ultimately, competitive matches in local youth leagues. Every element of the game, every pass, shot and save, brought to mind something I'd seen on TV; no matter how humdrum the surroundings; no matter how dire the quality of the football. I once played with a lad who went on to represent Wales and after slipping past him with a Cruyff turn during a training match, I involuntarily blurted out: 'Ooh, Ginola!' He collapsed into fits of laughter, but for about a tenth of a second, I probably thought I actually was David Ginola.

I've played football ever since - for my school, various local junior teams, my college at university, my college's old boys' team in a London amateur league, expat teams in Paris, and in countless five-a-side fixtures. And that childish thrill about the simple pleasure of kicking a ball around remains undimmed.

I have a mental list of my favourite personal football moments that I cultivate as you would a diary or a record collection - the sombrero over an opponent's head during a five-a-side game at Turnham Green; the 45-yard lob at university after the goalkeeper fluffed his clearance; the time I cushioned a high pass with my shoulder during a match in Paris and convinced myself, preposterously, that I must have looked exactly like Zinedine Zidane.

For me, it's all part of the same narrative. I'm privileged to spend my life reporting on the very best players in the world, but I have my own football career, too. And I'm not even any good at football, in the grand scheme of things, but for all the glamour of Old Trafford, Wembley or Camp Nou, nothing quickens my pulse like the sight of a big, grassy pitch, the sound of boots hammering across concrete, and the feel of a football between my feet.

Tom Williams

Tom is the London correspondent for AFP

To visit Tom's website please click here

Follow Tom on Twitter @tomwfootball

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