The Dead Ball Men

“Do you see how beautiful the stadium is,” the father said. “The flawless emerald rectangle where the players assemble, the crowd hushed, the giant screens replaying the game in hallucinatory slow-motion, like our dreams projected on the night sky…”
On Friday evenings they were swept along in the crowd hurrying towards the glow of the floodlights.
“Are we late?” the boy asked. “Will we miss the kick-off?”
“Don’t worry,” the father said. “The games always start late. It’s for TV.”
The noise of chanting, drums and cheering behind the goal at the north end was the loudest thing the boy had ever heard, and in moments of drama and crisis in the game the noise became a physical assault, and he watched as if in a dream.
The boy wore the team shirt with the name and number of his favourite player on the back: Rodriguez, 22.
“Rodriguez,” the father said. “Doesn’t run. Doesn’t need to. Lets the ball do the work.”
Rodriguez barely raised a trot, moving in a splay-footed waddle; he was near the end of his career then, overweight and slower than ever. He seemed to be running behind the play, but when the ball came to him he flicked it away from his opponent with one touch and sent it straight to the feet of a teammate with another.
Rodriguez walked up to a free kick like the corporal in charge of a firing squad. He looked the opposition players in the eye, took a couple of steps back, and fired a shot over their heads towards the goal.
“He’ll score from there,” the father said. Or, “Not from this angle. Too straight.” He could see the trajectory the ball would take as Rodriguez struck it, and he’d be on his feet before it hit the back of the net and the crowd surged into a roar that was a mingling of ten thousand shouts.
After Rodriguez there was Klein. If Rodriguez was a corporal, Klein was an officer, the man who would deliver the coup de grace. He was tall, slender, fair compared with the dark, squat Rodriguez.
Klein arced corners onto the heads of leaping forwards or spun them away to the edge of the penalty area, where a defender would hit the ball on the volley. He held the ball at his feet hard against the touchline, surrounded by opposition players, and found a way past – through – his opponents.
The father called them the dead ball men; one always played on their team. They moved with a disdain for space that they’d learned in the crowded schoolyards of Buenos Aires and Santiago, and they were most dangerous when the whistle blew, the game stopped and they stood over a dead ball: the boy couldn’t count the number of times times he’d seen Rodriguez or Klein win a game with a curling free kick in the last minute, cooly, as if the result were a mere formality.
“Klein is good,” the father said at half time. “But everybody over there is that good.”
They were a goal up: Klein had sent a free kick dipping over the wall and skidding off the turf into the corner of the net. The goalkeeper didn’t move.
“Anyway,” he said. “Do we want ice cream or not?”

They were swept along in the Sunday afternoon crowds winding through the narrow streets around the stadium. Women watched from the balconies of the old apartment buildings, and young children playing in the courtyards peered out at the men marching by with a single-minded purpose.
The boy was old enough to go to the games with his father. Their team was the Wanderers, who hadn’t won anything since the beginning of the professional era. The stadium wasn’t beautiful. The grass was green, but it was open to the street behind the low terraces at each end. The boy, standing on the cold concrete, was pressed against his father by the crush of bodies, and the air smelled of tobacco, sweat and working men’s clothes.
The game was harder, less cultured than it became later, more of a contact sport. The noise from the crowd was louder than anything the boy had ever heard: chanting, drumming, yelling, a roar that swelled and reverberated on the terraces. Nothing else in his world was that loud.
They ate peanuts from a paper bag and threw the shells on the ground, which was littered with them. The father smoked cigarettes like all the other men.
Wanderers lost more than they won; winning wasn’t the point. Other teams won: the Catholic University team, or Athletic, who had never been out of the top division, and whose fans were a rough bunch from around the port. The Wanderers fans worked in small factories, administration offices, the railway yards, and they lived in the neighbourhood near the stadium. They came to see the momentary victories that never added up to a championship. They had learned to believe that their lives couldn’t support more than that.
On Monday mornings the boys met at the school gate to talk about the game.
“Did you see Sanfillipo?” said a boy called Diego. “What a goal, huh?”
“Yeah, but you still lost,” said a boy called Armando, whose father worked in a government office. He supported Catolica, the university team.
“Shut up,” Diego said. “We’re Wanderers fans around here. Don’t forget it.”
“Communists more like it,” the boy said, and ran off to join a game that had started in the playground.
The boy and Diego watched from the gate. A dozen boys were fighting over the ball. One of them won it, burst away from the others and raced towards the goal between two satchels tossed on the ground.
“Let’s go!” Diego said, and they ran to join in.
The point of the game was to win the ball, dribble past the other players, and score. The last player to score was eliminated, and a new round started. It went on like that until only one player was left, and Diego was usually that player. He could score any time he wanted, but then he would have spent most of the time watching. So he stayed in the game, stealing the ball off boys like Armando and setting up goals for other boys, until he decided it was time to score himself.
No one was as good as Diego: everyone said he was going to be a professional player. In a couple of years he’d join the juniors at Wanderers, and then the seniors. One day he’d play for the national team.
That season, to the surprise of everyone including their supporters, Wanderers started to win more games than they lost. Sanfillipo scored some unbelievable goals.
Wanderers began to climb the ladder. Sunday afternoons took on a different quality. The mood on the terraces changed; the pleasure in the small victories became anxiety about a bigger victory that now seemed possible, an unexpected success that might turn into the terrible disappointment of a near miss, something that had never been part of the Wanderers fans’ lives.
The mood had changed in the city, too. There were strikes at the factory where they assembled European cars for the local market. The workers there were better paid than anyone, but even their wages weren’t enough. There were pickets at the gates and a standoff with the police. In middle-class neighbourhoods the women were banging pots in the streets because they couldn’t buy bread, and in the high-rise estates on the outskirts of the city young men with beards were acquiring pistols.
The boy’s father supported the Popular Front government. The strikes were a test, he said: how long could they hold the police and the army back? Could they stand behind the workers, or would they allow the strike to be broken, as governments always had in the past? An army general went on TV to say that the strikers at the auto factory should go back to work or go to jail: foreign investment was good for the country, and they should be grateful to have such well-paid jobs when many other workers had much worse conditions.
“Perhaps they should be on strike, too,” the father said when he heard the general on TV.
“Careful,” the boy’s mother said. “Be quiet!”
At school, Armando said that the strikers were all communists, and the government should do something, but they wouldn’t because they were communists, too. Every time Armando got the ball, Diego tackled him and let someone else score, until just the two of them were left in the game. Then he beat him, scored, and knocked him out.
“That’s not fair!” Armando said. “You’re supposed to try and score straight away.”
“Says who,” Diego replied.
The mood on the way to the game that Sunday was tense: more police than usual watched the fans outside the stadium. Excitement about how the season was going was mixed with apprehension about what the police might do, and the crowd was restrained: something more important than football was at stake.
Neither team could score, then Wanderers won a free kick just outside the area with only a minute left.
The boy turned to his father: “Can you believe it?”
“They were playing for that,” said the father. “Didn’t you see?”
Sanfillipo stepped up to the ball. The Athletic wall crowded close, and the referee waved them back, marching up to them with his chest out and one hand in the air. Wanderers players jostled to get into the wall, and in the penalty area the forwards and the defenders pulled each others’ shirts.
The referee got the wall where he wanted it, then ran to the penalty area and warned players about the shirt pulling. Sanfillipo stood back from the ball, one hand on his hip, as if he were waiting for a bus. The crowd fell silent. Finally, the referee stood and blew his whistle. Sanfillipo took two steps and kicked the ball. The Athletic players in the wall jumped, the Wanderers ducked, and the boy watched the ball arc over their heads and spin through the air. It looked like it was going to miss, then it dipped towards the top corner of the goal in slow motion, as if the crowd’s breath, held, had stopped time, and then, in an instant, the ball slammed into the crossbar, cannoned down onto the turf and bounced up again, and as it fell towards a Wanderers forward an Athletic defender hooked it high into the stands. The referee blew full-time and pointed towards the tunnel: the game was a draw. Wanderers were still on top of the ladder, equal with Catolica, and there were two weeks left in the season.
That night, the police attacked the striking car workers and the army stormed the presidential palace. In the morning the boy saw helicopters over the city and the air smelled of spent fireworks. When he came home from school his father was examining the shelves in his small study, putting books in a pile. In the night the boy smelled more smoke, this time from burning paper. Through the bathroom window he saw his father standing in the dark courtyard, lit by flames.
A few days later two men in suits came to the door and invited his father to go with them to answer some questions. There was no point refusing. From the balcony the boy watched the men push his father into the back of a Ford.
“Come inside!” his mother said.
She telephoned one of her uncles, a retired colonel, every day. “They’ll send him back eventually,” the uncle said. “They’re more interested in the real troublemakers, the young men with the beards and the guns.”
The black and white television in the living room played announcements from the new government. Ricardo and his sister sat in the semi-darkness of the shuttered apartment, listening to the silence outside. He went down to the courtyard to juggle a ball by himself. “Don’t go into the street,” said his mother. The air no longer smelled of fireworks, but the helicopters still buzzed overhead.
As they walked to school his sister asked, “Where’s dad?”
“He had to go away. To help at another school.” The boy couldn’t think what else to say.
His mother talked on the phone to her uncle every day. She held her hand over the mouthpiece so the boy and his sister couldn’t hear what she was saying. The only sound in the apartment was her whispers, then the silence while she listened to her uncle’s replies.
The stadium was an ugly place. Army trucks lined up in the street outside, and the gates were surrounded by wooden barricades and barbed wire. The boy peered in through the end to see what was going on and saw a line of men being marched across the turf, their hands on their heads. A soldier waved him away with a gun.
His mother was packing things into suitcases and boxes. She had been speaking on the telephone to her uncle. “We’re going away,” she said.
“Where?” the boy asked.
“I don’t know,” she replied.
The police had taken his father to the local station and locked him in a cell with some other men. In the middle of the second night they put them all onto a bus and drove for several hours. When the bus stopped it was still dark. They took the men into what seemed like an empty aircraft hangar. Guards brought food and water and gave them a few cigarettes. At night it was dark, and they heard nothing but the occasional truck engine or the beating of rain on the iron roof.
The men smoked cigarettes and sat on the floor. They walked around the walls of the hangar as if they were looking for a way out: but where could they go if they escaped?
After a week they were taken outside and across an airfield onto a plane. The men thought the soldiers were going to throw them out in mid-air, but the plane flew to another airfield, and the men were taken to a locked barracks: at least now they had beds to sleep on.
After a few more days an officer came and called the father’s name. He thought he was going to be taken and shot, but they put him in the back of a military truck and drove for several hours. The truck stopped on the edge of the city, and they pushed him out: “Go home,” one of the soldiers said. “Quickly, before we shoot you.”

“He was sure one of the neighbours reported him, after he burned the books,” the father said. “When the police came he still had one or two that he couldn’t bear to part with.”
“What about Wanderers? What about Diego?” the boy asked.
They didn’t play the last two games that season: the league was suspended and the ladder stayed as it was, with the two teams equal on top. “We were the champions, but we were never crowned,” said the father.
“I never heard from Diego again, and we never went back, even when things changed; my father felt betrayed.
“I remember the stadium surrounded by barbed wire, with the trucks lined up outside and the lines of men marching in but never coming out. I remember how ugly it was.
“And I remember Sanfillipo, the first of the dead ball men, and maybe the best.”
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One thought on “The Dead Ball Men

  1. Rattling good yarn and a nice twist to book burning. Wasn’t it the great folksinger guitarist who had his hands crushed in the stadium?
    Try it out on REGIME.

    Like

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