In Puerto Cabello, Venezuela, there is a twelve-year-old boy who puts a balón de fútbol on the point of his left shoe. Not on the top of the foot, not against the shin. On the exact point of his shoe, like a globe on a needle. He can balance it there for ten minutes. His name is Severino. Severino can do the same on his right shoe—and leave the ball there indefinitely. Even better, he can launch that ball, once balanced, with the same force as if he’d kicked it, but with more precision. It is a devastating skill.
Severino’s eight-year-old brother, Héctor, can’t do any of that. He envies his older brother in a way his parents have persuaded themselves is healthy and natural. He spends hours each day perfecting a different fútbol technique, a prodigious number of hours his parents have decided to decide is also healthy and natural because they have too many other things to worry about. Severino pays little attention to any of this, because a four-year difference means whatever attention paid to a younger sibling must be paid over the shoulder.
After weeks of practice, Héctor finally unleashes his secret skill. He does this one afternoon after school, on the field next to the used car lot, during a neighborhood game. His team lags by three points. His teammates are experiencing the kind of desperation that sucks the luck from every effort. The ball comes to Héctor. In a smooth rush of movement he falls to the ground, tucks the ball into the crook of his left leg, wraps his right leg around it and his torso too, then rolls like a beetle down the field with the ball safely ensconced—not once touching the ball with his hands—and scores a goal. The neighborhood boys are astounded. A few dismiss it as gimmicky, unfair. Interestingly, these critics are all on the other team. And even they want to learn how. Héctor is happy to demonstrate, over and over. Sometimes he scores by unraveling at the last moment and punching the ball with his right foot through the grasping crook of his left leg. He manages to do this from the ground, without stopping, without even slowing. But more often he scores simply by continuing to roll with his cargo through the goalposts. The latter method eliminates the risk of error, renders obsolete the very notion of defense, and is just rousing to watch. Rarely in life is the most expedient thing also the most magnificent. In this sense, Héctor’s roll-into-goal method is a bit of a miracle, and while the neighborhood boys are not aware this is the reason for the chills down their spine—they are still boys, so do not yet know everything—they certainly apprehend the extraordinariness of what they’re witnessing.
Through all of this, Severino toes the grass, quiet. Héctor notices. How could he not?
On Saturday the boys ride the bed of Luichi’s father’s pickup truck down to the port, as they do every Saturday. There’s room down the middle for one boy to stretch out in princely comfort; whoever gets the pleasure has to play goal when they get there. (They have not yet guessed that Tuto Fanuto only pretends to dislike playing goal.) The field down by the port has regulation-size netted goals, not stubby poles in the ground. Plus the boys get to play on a single team against all comers. Often their opponents are seamen, merchant mariners on shore leave from the freighters. The seamen, keen with land plans, glad as much for the freedom from care as for the competition, never have the right clothes on. They play in shirts that button. They play in pants that cling to the leg.
The Norwegians, who do not sweat, like nonetheless to untuck their shirts. The boys never lose against the Norwegians.
The Filipinos sweat plenty—their armpits grow dark beards, and the resulting Janus faces on their shirts may be why the midfielders are so formidable—but not an untucked shirt among them. The boys sometimes lose against the Filipinos, sometimes win.
The Greeks are their grimmest adversaries. They have never beaten them. The Greeks are their favorite adversaries. The Greeks play hard, never charitably like the Filipinos. They keep intent on victory, oblivious to the boys’ youth, with never a suggestion that the boys are anything less than worthy competitors.
This Saturday, it’s a vessel from Cardiff by way of Tampa carrying multifoil insulation and pneumatic drills. And Greeks.
The boys on offense charge with a raucous shouting like shrieking cranes. The defenders hang back, sheep waiting to be milked, distantly bleating in sequence the names of teammates who happen to touch the ball.
The Greeks advance in silence.
It’s 0-0 for the longest time. The Greeks are indefatigable. The boys grow restless. “Dále, Héctor!” the boys are saying. “Dále!”
Héctor gains possession. He deploys. He drops to the ground, wraps himself around the ball—more tightly than ever—and flows down the field, around the legs of two stunned Greek defenders, straight into the goal. The Greek goalkeeper stands to a side, pointing a bladed hand at Héctor and gazing upfield and asking with his whole body, “τι είναι αυτό?”—“What is this?”—half-flummoxed and half-indignant.
The Greeks grumble, they put their eyebrows further down than usual, but they do not protest. The boys understand the Greeks will not malign their own potency by acknowledging that this trivial prank is the least concerning. And so Héctor persists. One goal after another. The boys are celebrating loudly and conspicuously between goals. After the third goal, the cheers acquire a note of jeer, and the boys—bored of embracing each other—begin to goad the opposition in the nervous oblique manner (more volume than eye contact) of irascible puppies. And if you had been on the sideline, you’d be thinking it, too: you boys need to cut it out; you boys can’t carry on like this and not get yours.
And whether it is because fate arrives finally to right things, or because the Greeks, being Greeks, are built to out-clever the clever, a solution is hit upon. The Greeks simply start kicking Héctor as if he himself were the ball. Not in a frankly injurious way. But in a rigorous, unyielding, manhandling way. The first time he feels an unfriendly foot, Héctor, alarmed, immediately unwinds himself and springs up and loses the ball to the Greeks and their momentum-shifting goal. Severino, furious for his brother, punches one of the seamen—aiming for the chin but missing and landing a sloppy blow on the shoulder—and storms off the field. But Héctor finds his perseverance, stays tucked against all assaults, tolerates especially the counterkicks of his teammates who are doing their best on defense, and rumbles on. Héctor becomes the ball. Héctor is the ball.
In the end, with Severino on the sideline after having doubled back to watch—how could he not?—and dancing two-fisted and shouting “Dále, maldita tortuga mordedora, dále!” (“Go, you goddamn snapping turtle, go!”), with the Greek goalie thoroughly scandalized and staring saucer-eyed every which way in a kind of craze—the boys win.
Seven to five.
Because the other thing is, and in the neighborhood this is no secret, Héctor bites.