at Edinburgh Castle
1. According to Mazzi, winning was never a
question of what to do. Winning was a question of whether you were willing
to do it. And we emphatically werent. We were in love with the
comraderie, we were in love with the backheel, we were in love with Claudes
jokes. We tolerated good intention, rather than proper execution. And so
Mazzi, who had only a year or two left before hed be a slow old man,
was taking Ray and Hagi to join the newly-formed Superteam, which had a
lock on winning the league and climbing out of this lowly division. And
with that news, he packed his cleats into his bag and walked off.
"Got to hand it to him," Ashur
said. "He told us in person. Thats class."
"He couldnt have told us
sooner?" Freddie let out. The season started in a week.
Tony had moved back to Brazil. Spiderlegs
was taking care of his father in Chicago. The heart of the lineup was
Freddie was squeezing into his jersey. His
fifty year old moves were crimped by his sixty year old knees. Ashur was
hopping on one foot, the other tangled in his shorts, pushing the limits
of his fine motor coordination.
For a moment, I thought of all the other
things I could do with the 1,628 Saturdays that remained in my life.
Then Carlos Romero walked up and put his
arm around me. He was in his black suit, exhausted from an all night
shift. Carlos owned a small limo company. Eleven years ago, when he first
got here from Peru, he worked as a dishwasher in Paolos restaurant, and
he played in his soapy sneakers, too poor for cleats. And I remembered
thinking, dont be too friendly with Carlos, because there was no hope
for him and soon he will be sleeping on your couch.
What Im saying is, Id been wrong
"I guess well need some more
guys," I said.
They say its the sport of the people.
All you need is a ball, a patch of grass, and eleven guys.
But sometimes, getting eleven guys is not
2. "What about Paolo?" Ashur
asked. We told him the story:
Paolo had refused to play ever since, six
years ago, Freddie ate at Pasta Pomodoro, and the next day insisted it was
"No," Paolo argued furiously.
"If you sell pasta for seven dollars, you cannot be using the
freshest, best ingredients, and without the ingredients, it can not be
"Well, Im telling you, I ate it, it
Paolo slapped his forehead. "I roll my
gnocci by hand. By hand! My olive oil costs me twenty dollars a
"Paolo, as your friend, fourteen
dollars for pasta is too much."
Freddie didnt see a single ball from
Paolo that day, or ever since.
So Ashur hears the story. "Freddie! Go
eat at Paolos. Its only seven dollars."
"Im not ordering wine then."
"Youre ordering the wine!"
That night we ate at Paolos and
discussed the team with him. According to Paolo, a team was like a good
pasta. It couldnt be good if you didnt have good ingredients. Who
did we have to play with him up front? He was not going to stand up there
alone, marked by three guys. He would sign if Ollison would sign.
3. Ollison was from Trinidad, and he was
fast, but that was mostly because he was only thirty three. The league was
for players 35 and over. This rule was strict, and the punishment was a
ban of up to five years. But according to Ollison, the game was like any
other game. And in all games, there is one simple rule that trumps all
rules. This was true for the game of life, or the game of love, or the
game of pretending one country ended at this line in the sand and this
other country began at that line. The rule is, you play until you get
caught. The idea that some people play by the rules is a myth that is
believed only in America.
So Ollison paid a visit to a guy who makes
fake IDs for illegals, and like that, he was two years older.
With Ollison and Paulo in the lineup, we
put up two wins to go with our two ties.
4. According to Adriano, the world was a
swimming pool, or a big lake. And at the bottom of the lake were very
pretty rocks. And you could swim across this lake and enjoy the view of
the rocks, or you could swim down and stuff the rocks into you pockets,
until you were so heavy that your belongings drowned you. And so he took
it in stride, no problema, when his roommate had called immigration
on him. His roommate called immigration because Adriano made too much
noise again having sex with the Russian girl who lived next door. Two old
Russian hags lived there, and Irina was their slave, they wouldnt let
her out of the apartment, theyd literally lock her in there, but she
could sneak through the window of the lightwell into Adrianos room,
where he would swim with her across the big pool of a parallel, sexual
But Adriano didnt know it was his
roommate who had called immigration, and so when they allowed Adriano his
one phone call, he called his roommate.
"Look, Chi, theres fifteen hundred
dollars cash in an envelope taped to the bottom of my bed. Come bail me
So Chi stole the fifteen hundred dollars
and moved away.
Half the team went to Adrianos
deportation hearing the next month.
"Your name is Adrian oh Pashitta?"
the judge asked.
"Youre not him?"
"I am Adriano Paschetta," he
Adriano was so good natured that even here
he was all smiles. The judge thought he was making jokes. The judge gave
Adriano a devils bargain: if he left tomorrow, they would pay for his
airfare back to Italy. If he agreed to buy his own plane ticket, he could
take 90 days to leave the country. We all knew Adriano had no real reason
to stay. He was a wanderer. He was going to move to China after the season
to study acupuncture anyway. He looked at us, filling the last two rows of
the courtroom, one big boulder of a rock, there to drag him down.
"Okay," Adriano said.
5. Rabbi was a scrawny Jordanian homosexual
who wanted to join the team again. He was fairly worthless as a player,
unless it was one of those rare stretches where he was getting laid, in
which case he seemed to bring his luck onto the field.
"Well is he getting laid?"
Freddie asked, in a rare logical moment.
"You know how he brags," Ashur
said. "Hed never admit it if he werent."
So we went to Carlo, who explained that
Rabbis sexual activity seemed to correlate with whenever one of his
stories was published in a good literary magazine. In the glow of
attention, crowned the It Boy once again, he snared boyfriends with ease.
So my agent called Rabbis agent, and
learned one of his stories had just been purchased by The New Yorker, and
it might run in the summer fiction issue.
For six weeks, Rabbi didnt embarrass
himself on the field. But the fiction issue came and went, without Rabbis
story, and a month later the magazine wouldnt promise when theyd run
it, if at all. That day, he missed two sitters, in a game we should have
won, only perpetuating his downward spiral of self-loathing. The next
week, he stood on the sideline, refusing to enter the game even as a
substitute, insisting he was too great a liability to be trusted with
anything but the gatorade.
6. "Well, if youre going to sit on
the sideline, you might as well be useful," said Ennio.
And the next week, Ennios friend Luis
was on the field, and Luiss two little twin girls sat with Rabbi on the
sideline, playing patty cake and ring around the rosie. Luiss wife
worked Saturdays. Luis wore two pairs of socks. The outer pair was our
uniform socks, the inner a ratty pair of womens nylons. He told Uli and
Claude that in Peru, when he grew up, they had no money for a ball, so
they collected socks and tied them into a ball. There was nothing to do
but play, no crops to harvest, no work to do, so they played day and
night, and at 2 in the morning their mothers would come chase them home
Uli was entranced by the romance of the
scene Luis painted. "And those nylons youre wearing were part of
"These? These are Leggs from 7 Eleven.
Keeps me from getting blisters."
7. Ennios problem was existential. He
was haunted by a mirage, a recurring illusionary memory in which he was
tackled from behind. He believed this had really happened to him. Hed
played only once, three years ago, and he had blown his Achilles heel and
fallen in a bluthering heap. The snap of his tendon was so sharp and
sudden that, to this day, Ennio was convinced one of our opponents had
slid into him from behind with sharpened cleats up.
"But there was nobody there," I
insisted to Freddie. "I was the one who passed him the ball. Nobody
Freddie shook his head. "It doesnt
matter. Nothing will change his mind. Hes convinced he was assaulted.
Hes still full of rage."
So we brought Ennio to the game, and
pointed to a lazy gordo on the Ecuadoran team, playing on the other field.
"It was him," I said. "He did it to you."
Ennios eyes narrowed. He saw his chance
for revenge. "When we play them, I will make him suffer."
Nobody told Ennio that wed already beat
the Ecuadorans, and wouldnt play them again all season.
8. Igor was our goalkeeper. He was shy and
traditional and spoke usually only when spoken to. We introduced Igor to
Irina, the Russian slave, and he stole her from the two old hags and
married her in Reno one weekend when we had a bye. Every man on the team
was jealous. To be such a savior! To have a woman you could mold exactly
as you liked!
But as soon as they were married, Irinas
Russian genes kicked in. She began to act just as bossy as the hags who
had trained her. She sold his car. She complained about money. She told
him to go find work on Saturdays. So he would act like he was going out to
look for work, and I would pick him up at the gas station, around the
corner from their flat. Sometimes, he would just lean into the window and
say, "Cant risk it today." Without sport, his life was barely
worth living, but in a sad way, he gravitated to that state, it was the
only state hed ever really known.
"Come on Igor. Get in the car!"
"No. She will know. She senses when I
And right then I just knew. Irina was still
in love with Adriano. Or in love with the parallel sexual universe Adriano
used to take her to. In love with escape.
I got Igor in the car, and that day, we
each gave Igor an earful on how to make love to a woman. Ollison suggested
he train with a prostitute. Uli suggested he practice Tantra. Paolo told
him to keep his eyes open and be in the present, not in the mind. Luis
told him to eat peanut butter before going to bed, for stamina. Carlos
told him to strap a big belt around his wifes waist, and get her on her
hands and knees and use that belt to move her around. Be the boss. We told
him these things, but we knew there was no hope for Igor. We knew this
would be his last season, with a certainty we could not explain.
9. We were within six points of the
SuperTeam when the leagues Oracle approached us and demanded to see
Ollisons drivers license. We refused.
"A copy of his license is in your
files," we said.
The Oracle glared. He spoke to Carlos, who
translated. "He says we cannot play Ollison today. He has a
disciplinary hearing next week." If guilty, the team would be
stripped of any points earned when Ollison was playing.
Who was the informant?
"No way," said Claude. "Not
"Not Ray," said Ashur. "My
wife babysits his daughter."
Last season, Hagi had complained endlessly
over being moved to defense, and he blamed this decision for our loss in
the playoffs. On Wednesday, I went to the print shop where Hagi slaved
over a press in subhuman conditions. Covered in sweat and grease and ink,
with the presses thundering behind him, he got down on both knees and
swore on his second life that it wasnt him. "I was not a good
person before I come to America. But here, God gave me a second life. I
give myself to sport and to praying, and my life is good. Sport and
praying and labor. All my problems have left my head. If I had done such a
thing, God would send my problems back, and my head would be like a nest
We never learned who the informant was.
Ollison was given five years suspension.
The hearing was in Spanish, and he didnt
understand a word, but he didnt care. Being caught was a worthy
reminder of his mortality.
Our team was stripped of all but seven
points. We went from being second in the league to the very bottom,
positioned for relegation. Our team had turned into a nest of bees.
Adriano had gone to China, Ollison was gone, Rabbi refused to play until
the New Yorker ran his story, Paolo was losing more business to Pasta
Pomodoro, Igor was scared of his wifes sexuality, and Pierre hadnt
come back from France.
10. Pierre set jewelry. He learned the
trade from his father. He had a tiny one room shop over Union Square. My
girlfriend was pregnant, and it was time to do the right thing. So I made
some drawings, and gave them to Pierre to carve the waxing. He had it
forged in platinum, buffed it, and then began introducing me now and then
to Arab friends of his, who would show up at his office and pull an
emerald cut diamond out of their pocket, wrapped in ruled schoolbook
paper. Too yellow. Too narrow and long. Too cloudy. Meanwhile, my
girlfriend had started to show, and it was about then that Pierres
wife discovered that Pierre had a 14 year old son, thanks to a longtime
girlfriend-on-the-side. Pierre was not one prone to panic. He shrugged
his shoulders, took my several thousand dollar down payment and fled to
France to watch the European Cup. France won the cup, and Pierre chose
to stay another month to celebrate.
Finally, in August, he showed up on his
motorcycle. Hed smoothed it all out by agreeing to marry his wife.
Marry his wife!?
Apparently, in twelve years together,
Pierre had never bothered to marry Barbara, theyd just pretended. So on a
Friday in September, Pierre finished the ring, and a week later at City
Hall I married my girlfriend, who looked like shed swallowed a soccer
ball, and a week later Pierre married his wife, and we won both
weekends, climbing back up from the bottom of the table.
We needed only one point from our final
game at least a tie to prevent relegation. But we would finally be
playing the Superteam.
"We can win it," Ashur insisted.
Nobody believed him.
"Theyre so far in the lead, the
points dont matter to them," Ashur argued.
We looked over at the Superteam, donning
their shiny sweatsuits. Theyd just executed the Ecuadorans, seven nil,
in a game that also didnt matter.
A minute later, Ray and Mazzi approached
Freddie and whispered something, then went off.
What was that all about?
"Their coach has offered to throw next
weeks game," Freddie said. "For three hundred dollars. They
dont need the points, and we do."
"We can beat them," Ashur
Everyone looked at their shoes. We were all
thinking the same thing. We couldnt look each other in the eye.
11. There is a language that needs no
translation. Like the American dollar and the rack of boobs, its
universal, its accepted everywhere. This language is spoken in shifts
of weight, lookaway passes, the imparting of spin with the hard crestbone
of the foot.
And if you speak this language, you will be
accepted everywhere. Case in point: A big German medical company sent a
vice president to the Bay Area to locate a manufacturing plant here. His
name was Uli, and he went to see Mayor Brown.
"Mister Mayor," he said,
"Fremont is offering me tax breaks if I build my plant in their city.
What are you offering?"
And so the Mayor escorted Uli down the hall
to meet with Ashur. Ashur had built the Mission Bay Biotech complex, which
Ashur and Uli chatted, and Uli kept looking
at the picture of our team on Ashurs wall.
"You play soccer?" Ashur asked.
Uli did. He hoped to find a team.
"Well, I tell you what," Ashur
said. "You bring your company to Mission Bay, and you can play on our
team. You go to Fremont? Youre on your own."
The thing was, Uli was less than five feet
tall. He was a little person. Nobody asked why he was so short, nobody
cared. It didnt matter. He spoke the universal language. We were
ecstatic. Wed always been proud of our diversity, but having a little
person on the team was really that extra touch, the shaving of parmesan on
a handmade gnocci. The whole world was on our team. And theres a power
in that, a great natural kinesis, because who doesnt crave, deep down,
to be a citizen of the world? Who doesnt crave a world where people are
free to be themselves and yet also get along? Who doesnt crave a world
thats integrated without being culturally annihilated?
So that Saturday, we summoned this inherent
power. Our muscles twitched with its strength. We stood on that field,
representing the whole world against this Superteam, and we said No.
No to bribes, no to fixes, no to borders, no to prejudice, no to those who
judge us, no to our creeping ages, no to the crappy fields, no to our
jobs, no to the wives who think working can be sustained without playing.
It also helped that Rabbi had filled the Gatorade Cooler with coca tea,
which we all drank plentifully from before the game. Rabbis friend had
snuck the coca leaves back from Ecuador. Igor was insane in goal, knowing
it was his last game ever. Ennio and Uli scored two apiece. We were
unstoppable. The Superteam wasnt a super team at all, they were just
eleven guys, with skills not really any better than ours. All they had was
a willingness to do what it takes, and for that ugly character flaw, we
After the game, I went to the Gatorade
Cooler and unscrewed the lid. I pulled out one of the leaves, floating on
top, bit into it. I turned to Rabbi.
His eyes glimmered. "Just for
appearance. The teas Yellow Zinger. Should I tell them?"
"Naw," I said. "We might
need it again next year."
Next year! All we would need is a ball, a
patch of field, and eleven guys.