Date: Thursday, 11 September, 2003
From: "Ade" <>
By five o'clock the following Sunday, the dust in the makeshift pitch at the park had nearly settled. It was nowhere near half time, but everyone was glued to the radio. In two minutes, River's match would be over, and they would beat San Lorenzo, thus taking the first place on the table.
"¿Y entonces?" El Irlandés wanted to know.
"So, if Boca draws or looses, they take the cup. We have to win!"
A few feet away, Nando and Rolo, both River supporters and wearing the white shirt with the red diagonal line of their team, jumped two feet high on the referee's final whistle. The songs that, as always, scorned the sorry existence of the 'dung dwellers,' as Boca supporters were called by their archrivals, soon followed cries of victory. Fists up in the air and smiles on their faces, the River fans managed to carry their onslaught to libellous lengths before someone did anything about it. Fleco, his voice filled with curses of his own, flung himself on his two friends and the trio ended up face down in the dust.
Soon, fourteen young men with enough energy to plough a good-sized farm with their bare hands were spending it carelessly on bashing each other. Only El Irlandés stood on the sidelines, his gloves hanging limply from his shoulder, his gaze calm, and his countenance grave. Running its own course, the brawl eventually dwindled to verbal abuse, then morphed to song again, and ended with the two teams siding on taking each side of the pitch with the ball in the middle, itchy to start rolling.
El Irlandes turned on his radio, tuned it to one of the sport stations and waited for the match to begin.
Good afternoon, this is Victor Hugo Morales from La Bombonera, and the stadium is heaving with excitement. You're listening to Radio del Plata and we're bringing you Boca-Ferrocarril Oeste. And this, Ladies and Gentlemen, is for the Cup!
Only two minutes after kick-off, Rolo emerged from the shadows with a piercing snap-shot that was tipped behind by a defender on Fleco's team. But that wasn't quite enough and Ruben swooped to make a last-ditch clearance to deny Roberto, their striker. Now, after that first scare, the worn, brown ball seemed glued to Fleco's right boot. He moved gracefully and unconcerned, his head coolly focused. A classic number 10, he enjoyed creating, manipulating the times of the game with both chessboard strategy and inspired improvisation. In short, it was Fleco's job to make his teammates play a good ball. Or at least that was what he liked to think.
Dribbling around the midfield, his eyes caught a flash of blue on his left and he advanced faster, leaning heavily to the right. When the coast was clear he lofted a long pass to the man in Blue, who slept the ball masterfully with his instep and then ran with it. Fleco and Blue one-towed all the way to the penalty area, and froze in the face three defenders. They needed back up.
El Irlandés had walked a few yards up, his radio still to his ear.
.Would you look at that? Sassone is wearing his lead shoes today, friends. Marini steals it with class, and now you try catching him. Ferro is in trouble. It's Marini to Chavez. Chavez to el pibe Garrido-
When Blue hit the brakes leaving Fleco ahead, he sensed the defenders would pull back to leave him off-side, annulling the play. Quickly, he drew back and towards the right, effectively evading White and Stripes. There, he waited for Blue and Gomez to arrive and only then stroke a centre.
El Irlandés looked up, following the ball.
.Garrido, Garrido, el pibe aims and.
The sound of a car horn drew El Irlandés from the game for a fraction of a second, just as Blue connected a powerful strike on the ball forcing Stripes into a diving save with a flicked header. Fleco, arriving from the far right, didn't miss the re-bound and hit low to the far post where Nando, the goalkeeper, was waiting with sure hands.
.Good save by Benitez, and Ferro can start thanking
its lucky stars!
Fleco stomped on the dust to share his frustration with Mother Earth, and on looking up he found the side of the pitch empty. Where was the foreigner? Puzzled, he did a quick search of his surroundings and found the lean figure of El Irlandés heading slowly towards the street. Parked by a newsstand was a green Ford Falcon with a Boca Jrs. Flag tied to its antenna.
"Milicos!" Fleco yelled, having recognised the trademark car at once.
Heads turned around in alarm and searching eyes ignored Fleco, who stealing the ball from the centre-field kicked it brutally in the general direction of the car. He sprinted after it and stopping a prudent fifty yards away from the unmarked Falcon, yelled, "Flaco, la pelota!" - give us the ball, mate.
El Irlandés turned around in surprise and found the ball a few feet away from him. His left eyebrow quirked in question, but all he got in return was a pair of frightened blue eyes that issued a silent warning: "Don't get closer to that car." Fleco saw the foreigner turn around and look at two men in the car; then bring his cold gaze back to him. The message was clear: "Mind your own fucking business," and all Fleco could do was take another, very uncertain, step towards his friend. For a few seconds the only sound that filtered through was the car's radio.
.Now the Boca players are gathering around the referee, too. It's the last warning, he seems to be saying. Clear off the lot of you, or else. Yes, that's a red card for Gomez. Boca will be playing the rest of the match with ten men.
"La pelota!" Fleco insisted, a note of urgency in his voice. He would not stay another moment. It was already too dangerous and if the foreigner wanted to commit suicide, well, it was up to him. He was done babysitting.
El Irlandés must have picked up on his fear, because Fleco saw him nod, his icy stare still on him. The foreigner retrieved the ball and started walking slowly towards Fleco.
"¿Amigos tuyos?" asked El Irlandés, as they started back towards the pitch. - Friends of yours?
"Fuck, no." Fleco replied, with a twinkle in his eye. " Those bastard milicos are all River fans."
"Bastards," Fleco corrected. "What did they want with you?"
El Irlandés shrugged his shoulders. "Directions?"
Fleco chuckled softly, but then grew serious again and giving the foreigner a sideways glance, said, "Imagine if they found out you're a Yank."
"I'm not."
"Bastards," Fleco said, shaking his head.
The game had stopped and that wasn't good. It attracted undue attention. Fleco quickly threw the ball in and immediately the players started moving, outwardly unconcerned. But Rolo hadn't, and though a centre forward for Fleco's rival team, he was still his personal best friend. Rolo's eyes kept veering left, towards the green car. Fleco frowned.
"Movete, chabón!"-Move, man! Stripes yelled at Rolo, when the ball had passed him twice without him even noticing.
His eyes alternatively on the game and the Falcon, El Irlandés cranked up the volume of his radio.
It's Viale now for the free kick, and things are
looking good for Boca. And Viale aims. But Benitez
rejects it with his fists. The ball is up for grabs, and there's el pibe again. Garridoooo, Goal. Gooooooooooaaal!
"Boca one, Ferro nil," deadpanned El Irlandés.
Gloaaaaal!" yelled Fleco's side, joining in a team hug as if they themselves had scored.
There was joyous honking coming from the car by the newsstand, and if the mood of the River Plate fans needed further sullying, that was the right incentive.
"I'm out. See you Sunday," said Rolo.
"Hang on!"
"You can't leave like this!"
But before the protests could start in earnest, Fleco hushed the outraged players with a meaningful look. Long faced, some of the spirit stolen away from them, the teams resumed the game. Fleco put a hand on his friend's shoulder. "Stay."
"Have to go, sorry," Rolo said, with a scurrying look towards the car. "Fucking dung dwellers."
Fleco gave his friend a belligerent push and took him to the side, so the game could continue. "They are all gallinas, didn't you know?"
Rolo smiled, "Oh, yeah?"
"Yeah," Fleco replied with a smile of his own. Then, more seriously, added, "We're not doing anything wrong. Stay."
El Irlandés was keeping his ear to the radio and his eyes on the pitch, but Fleco took a cautionary step away from him all the same. Rolo looked down, uncomfortable. "They know me," he said at last. "You don't want to be seen with me."
"We go to University together."
"That doesn't mean we're friends," Rolo said slowly. "Because we're not."
It was Fleco's turn to inspect the dust now. "Listen-"
"From now on, we're not," Rolo said softly, taking a step back. He looked at Fleco with a sad smile on his face and when he turned to leave his gaze clashed with another pair of blue eyes. An uncompassionate, harsh, and yet deeply understanding stare that equally unnerved him and made him relieved that he was leaving. El Irlandés didn't say anything.
Ferro is growing, friends. That was a close shave for Boca, but they'd better keep their wits up.
"We're not doing anything wrong!" Fleco insisted.
"I know," Rolo said, and walked away.
Fleco kept his eyes on him until he disappeared past the streetlights, and then round the corner. He breathed easier when the green Falcon didn't move, even when it meant the car had stayed and would remain there until something else made them leave. Fleco took a deep breath, carefully ignoring the man beside him, and focused his gaze on a distant horizon he wasn't really seeing. When the wind swept his hair forward and the view faded, he turned around and faced the foreigner. But he found the eyes of El Irlandés stubbornly glued to the game.
"Well?" Fleco asked.
El Irlandés looked at him.
"We'll cream them as they are. It will be slaughter if they're one man short."
El Irlandés seemed to be considering it for a moment, squinting his eyes for a sharper view of his would be team-mates.
"The side that loses pays for the pizzas and the cokes," Fleco felt obliged to point out.
"I don't have any money."
Fleco shrugged. "You'd better not lose."
---It's Galindez, number 7 out, and Ferrara, number 16 in. Just two minutes before half time, and Boca still up one-nil. Will their luck hold?
Boxing gloves and radio left behind, El Irlandés ran up to the midfield. Fleco couldn't help but smile at the celerity of his pace, and the determination of his stance. Soon, after a precise cross from Stripes, El Irlandés received the ball with such exquisite cushioning that Fleco whistled in awe. There was pedigree there. Left with enough time to ponder his next move, the foreigner took it forward a few yards and looked up to see who was policing the penalty area. Fleco, knowing there'd be three of them, hurried back for support all the same.
Now Stripes had the ball again, with the foreigner asking for it near the right corner pole. Roberto stroked a neat cross but El Irlandés had to move fast along the line to prevent the ball from going out. Acting as if a sixth sense told him danger would come from behind, he sprinted forward. Without back up, Brown, Blue Stripes and Fleco soon boxed him.
"Get him!" the captain said.
In a split second, the assailants came within inches of the ball. El Irlandés looked around in vain, and finding no support he tried evasive action. Zigging when he should have zagged, he lost it to Brown, who spent no time in planning the counter-strike.
"Defence!" El Irlandés yelled, frowning at Fleco's smile as he whizzed past him.
With his team struggling to create chances and his goal thirst unleashed, Fleco's legs moved at rocket-fuelled pace. He reached the goal area and controlling an awkward cross from Brown on his chest, fired the dropping ball towards goal from behind his standing leg. Two defenders stared helplessly as the ball rose, their heads shaking in disbelief. It would have been a shot worthy of applause, had it not gone a touch too high over Nando's head.
"High!" the keeper announced.
The issuing groans from Fleco's side conceded the failure in a tacit and mutual decision that, given the lack of a crossbar and net, was based purely on speculation. A pile of crumpled pullovers, sitting some twenty feet in a direct line from a rucksack, marked the width of the goal line. Its height was generally left to common sense, and sometimes to fists.
"Jesus," commented El Irlandés on passing by.
Fleco smiled through his disappointment. "Just a little lower and you'd be buying me pizza."
When the goalie came back with the ball after wrestling it back from an overzealous greyhound, both Fleco and the foreigner assumed their position on the midfield. The ball rose fast and travelled past the centre circle. El Irlandés, a few inches taller, headed the ball back into his own field and the sure feet of Roberto. With a long pass, the action moved to the farther right wing, dangerously approaching the goal line. But when Stripes fluffed a pass, the defence took its chance to clear the ball. Suddenly a cloud of dust enveloped everybody's attention as one player swept the ground and, rather than reaching it, connected hard with Gomez's shin.
"Foul!" cried Fleco and Blue.
"Fue a la pelota, loco!" answered Nando from the opposite goal line. - He was going to the ball.
"Like hell he was!" said Gomez, getting up and in the face of his aggressor. "Fucking asshole."
The other man had fight in him, and needed no further taunting. He pushed Gomez aggressively, and before he knew it he found a fist on his nose. Suddenly the ball was all but forgotten and the men circled around the two fighters. Gomez took a blow on his side, doubled over, and recovering his breath issued a kick.
"Dale, Quique, rompele la jeta!" - Smash his face, Quique!
"Don't let him get at you, Gomez!"
A man cried, "Hit him!"
"Kill him!" said another.
Quique dived into Gomez's legs, and the shorter man fell over. Fighting to get free, he bent over and bit his oppressor where he could reach.
"Not on the shins, not on the shins!" Quique warned and the pressure receded. There was still a game to be played, after all.
The two fighters stood apart, gathering courage, the cries from the crowd around them deafening. Fleco's enthusiasm was catching. "Desfiguralo, que igual quien se da cuenta!" Turn his face to pulp, no one will tell the difference anyway!
Quique turned around, like a bull being waved a red cloth.
"Epa---" Fleco said, rising his hands in the air.
But it was too late, and Quique charged madly, crushing Fleco against the dust. "Take it back!"
"I take it back," came the muffled reply.
Quique punched the man under him again. "What?"
"I take it b-"
Another blow. "Can't hear you."
Fleco fought under the weight of the other man, but made no progress. When, rather unexpectedly, the load was taken off him, his eyes finally focused on a pair of legs. He then felt a couple of hands under his armpits, and soon he was being helped to his feet. But suddenly all the support vanished as Quique's heavy bulk connected with El Irlandés.
The crowd went silent.
Fleco senses went immediately on the alert as he waited for El Irlandés' response. Jaw clenching with tension, he stole a glance towards the car parked by the newsstand, and nervously tried to make eye contact with the foreigner. But the gaze of El Irlandés was focused on one thing only, and that was the smiling, cocky countenance of his newly appointed rival. Gomez took Fleco by the elbow and pulled him away from the dusty circle, as the men parted to allow the new fighter some space.
Both fighters sized each other up quickly and after taking a few breaths to recover, bigger, sturdier Quique threw a well-aimed, low hook. El Irlandés took it partially on his left side, and as if he hadn't even felt it returned it with equal speed. His fist dived on Quique's stomach. It was a testing jab, designed only to measure the other man's resistance. Given Quique's distorted face, it wasn't much.
"Dale, che, que es un alfeñique!" Come on, he's light as a fly!
"Come on, Yank!" yelled Blue.
Fleco said nothing but chuckled softly, admiring the foreigner.
El Irlandés was not fighting, Fleco realised. He was playing. He was jumping around, ducking this way and that, controlling the force of his fists by not backing them with his body. The foreigner hit, Fleco noticed, as if to prove he could do it. A light punch here, a quick tap there, he inflicted little harm and yet his punishment was harsh. Refusing to turn the combat into play, with his mind focused and his face grave, he was simply driving his rival insane.
"Hey, stay still, will you?" the other fighter demanded.
El Irlandés, taking it literally, stood at attention, his guard down. His opponent grumbled in disapproval, sensing the lithe foreigner was up to something. He was not going to give up, however, so determined, he launched a powerful hook. El Irlandés, his feet as if nailed to the ground, flicked his torso and swayed to his right.
Fleco chanted under his breath the patented call that rewarded a brave matador's save: "Oooooleee!"
Quique tried again, his heavy chest rising and falling, his warm breath coming out in humid clouds. His eyes and fists focused on the handsome face that stared calmly back at him calmly. The foreigner ducked fast.
"Oooooleeee!" came the approval of some.
His face sombre, El Irlandés waited patiently. The third blow came sooner than later and well aimed at his stomach, took a quick side step to avoid.
"Ooooooleeeee!" cheered all the men now, rather amused as Quique's attempts gained in zest what they were already lacking in tempo. His boots lifted clouds of dust as they searched for sure anchorage on the ground.
A blow to the foreigner's right cheek. "Ooooleeee!"
A punch at his lower stomach. "Ooooleeee!!"
An improvised one-two at his eye. "Ooooleeee!!!"
Quique, feeling enough was enough and panting heavily, threw his arms in the air in exasperation. Standing as steadily as his tired legs would allow, he stretched out his hand. The men cheered. Between congratulatory slaps on his shoulders and fists raised in triumph, El Irlandés shook the offered hand firmly.
"Puta, los milicos!" said a hushed voice, and everyone turned to look at the car parked by the newsstand. Two men, dressed in civilian clothes had climbed out, no doubt attracted by the row, and were heading towards the pitch.
Fleco eyed the approaching pair and frowned. "Bastards."
"What do we do?" asked Nando.
"We're not doing anything wrong!" Fleco muttered the refrain through clenched teeth.
The faces looked back, filled with doubt.
"Let's come back once the match is over," Stripes suggested.
Many heads nodded, and Fleco was sure many of them would not come back today. He looked at the resolute face of El Irlandés, whose eyes seemed lost somewhere in the vicinity of the two military men. His radar for trouble beeping in warning, he took the foreigner by the arm. "Get your radio," he told him.
It took a moment for El Irlandés to register it, but when finally looked at Fleco no pretence of indifference showed. "What happens now?" he asked, as he picked up the radio from the ground.
"We leg it," Fleco said.
And as if hearing a starting pistol, all the men scattered.
To Be Cont...
To Part 3