Since he spent much time with pencil and paper in his father’s study, dogs also became the chief subject of his drawings: an endless number of epic scenes in which dogs were generals, soldiers, soccer players, and knights.
—Milan Kundera, Life Is Elsewhere
The world’s most popular game and one of the most beloved symbols of domesticity would seem to be an ideal combination. Soccer and dogs can both create idyllic moments. The emotion that comes from watching a dog freed from his tether bound across a field parallels that of seeing some of the world game’s artists demonstrate their gifts in the 2010 World Cup.
Study the history of a sport that has enchanted people of all social stripes and you’ll see that dogs have had their place in it, nowhere more so than in the modern game’s country of origin—England—where the phrase “two men and a dog” long ago became the sportswriter’s cliché for the sparse but dutiful attendance at lower-division matches.
One of the indicators of increasing corporate influence and enhanced regulation over English soccer (football), in fact, has been the decline over the past two decades in the number of dogs trying to join the play. The so-called “pitch intrusions” were features of the game in its earlier days; when they occurred, the referee was required to stop the game, and players kneeled in frustrated attempts to coax the canine visitors into their arms.
How did dogs get on the field in the first place? I asked Roger Titford, who has written on dogs and football for English soccer magazines.
“One suspects that men sometimes said they were taking the dog out for a walk as an excuse, when in fact they were off to the match,” he writes. “This was much easier in the days of walking to a nearby ground and standing on half-empty terraces than it is nowadays. The dog got bored, startled by the noise or something, and escaped through a pitchside gate or by leaping a low wall and ran for freedom all over the pitch, usually round in circles until rounded up by the referee or, for some reason, the goalie.”
A notorious incident occurred at the 1962 World Cup in Chile in a quarterfinal between England and Brazil. A stray dog avoided several players until celebrated England forward Jimmy Greaves sunk to all fours and corralled it. According to some reports, Greaves barked. This counterintuitive approach to calming the dog had startling consequences, as the frightened animal urinated on Greaves’ England jersey. “I smelled bad,” said Greaves, “but at least it meant the Brazilian defenders stayed clear of me.” Garrincha, a Brazilian midfield player, enjoyed the display so much that he adopted the dog after the tournament. Garrincha scored twice in the match. England lost.
But of all sporting events in which animals have interceded, few incidents top the exploits of Pickles. The mixed-breed Scottish Border Collie, accompanying his owner, a Thames barge worker, on an evening walk in South-East London’s Beulah Hill on March 27, 1966, drew the man’s attention to a package wrapped in newspaper.
“I picked it up and tore some paper and saw a woman holding a dish over her head,” recalls David Corbett in an interview with the London Observer earlier this year, “and disks with the words Germany, Uruguay, Brazil. I rushed inside to my wife. She was one of those anti-sport wives. But I said, ‘I’ve found the World Cup! I’ve found the World Cup!’”
One week earlier, the Jules Rimet trophy, the prize for the winning team in that summer’s World Cup, had been stolen from its glass display case at an exhibition hall in Westminster. England’s Football Association, domestic organizers of the tournament that was taking place in England for the first time, consulted Scotland Yard and started ransom negotiations with the thieves. The FA also surreptitiously commissioned a replacement trophy in case the £30,000 solid-gold statuette could not be recovered in time.
But Pickles saved authorities from greater embarrassment. The theft, remembers Corbett, gained such attention that it had “knocked [Prime Minister] Harold Wilson off the front pages.”
Pickles was feted. He lived life as a celebrity dog, starring in a film, The Spy with the Cold Nose, earning medals from canine-advocacy groups and receiving a year’s food supply. The medals, attached to Pickles’ weathered red collar, remain on view at the National Football Museum in Preston, England.
Beyond these chance intersections between pets and the game, do dogs themselves play soccer? The idea has intrigued me since attending the 2005 US RoboCup Open at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. There, I watched teams of Sony AIBO dogs programmed to play four-a-side games on artificial turf. The Japanese word aibo means “companion.” Before being discontinued earlier this year, the robot dogs, marketed to Japanese consumers, eventually became the most commercially successful robots in history. These “bots” play amazingly well, considering that their moves are not controlled by programmers but rely on algorithms devised in artificial-intelligence labs.
Flesh-and-blood dogs, typically burly Labradors, occasionally join me and my friends during casual weekend soccer games at an Atlanta park. One dog in particular likes to flop down in the standing water at the goalmouth—a born goalkeeper, ready to soil his jersey.
In order to avoid injury to ourselves and the dogs, we shoo them away. But Kim Schive, who breeds Shetland Sheepdogs in Carlisle, Massachusetts, says that youth soccer coaches have sometimes looked admiringly at her Shelties when she takes them on park outings. Some of her dogs, she says, use their front paws as “hands,” whereas other breeds typically rely on the nose to propel a ball.
One dog, Toby, “would often stop an airborne ball by actually jumping up, catching it between his front paws, and slamming it to the ground in perfect position to be propelled forward with his nose.” He “would also ‘head’ the ball if it was airborne and if he was close enough to me to knock it back to me with his head. He had a real knack for leaping into the air and hitting the ball at just the right angle to drive it back to wherever I was.”
Toby may have only played in the World Cup in his dreams, but he was an AKC best-of-breed and herding-group champion. Playing soccer, says Schive, looked like another expression of his herding drive.