It could only have happened in a country like ours, where the jungle and the streets are undivided from one another, and the fetid undergrowth of the earth is indistinguishable from the brown-clouded, smog-canopied sky. This nation, knocked together like a lean-to from the detritus of the ancient-extinguished empire by once poor nineteenth-century libertadores who strutted along as victors in high collars and brocade, could only have produced a Rogelio. Like the patria that is at once rolling hills and coast and skyscrapers and tin-roofed slums and forest and river and equatorial heat and mountain snows, he was an abomination of flesh and cruel nature, yet a soaring magnificence of beauty and sublime grace.
I knew him as a boy. He was once one of my parishioners, back in the days when I was earnest, when I believed — in God, in Liberation Theology, in compassion, in myself, before I lost all the fixed stars of my cosmos, before the scolding by John Paul, before the shame of the charges, all false of course, but no less destructive, no less effective in casting my spirit adrift in an empty vacuum of dead hopes.
His mother was a Nauracota. When I first met her, she was living in a one-room, dirt floor shack in a small village thirty miles east of the last suburb outside Carthago. It was in one of those invisible valleys just before where the foothills explode and mutate into craggy peaks. It was a place fragrant with coffee and cocoa, thrumming with the noise of a trillion unnamed insects in every hectare, humidity scarcely abated by the beating of their two trillion wings.
She could not have been taller than 140 centimeters: black straight hair, black eyes, long lashes, the slightly distended belly of the persistently pregnant and often famined. She wore rags, usually shorts and filthy T-shirts discarded by others, and she sometimes looked as though she had been beaten or kicked into a ditch by her father or her man. Even with bruises, her face had an ancient, inscrutable placidity, like an indecipherable glyph uncovered on a stele of a city abandoned to the jungle. “Either yes or no,” said her expression, “it makes no difference to me.” Sometimes she was beautiful, like all women, just long enough for misfortune and regret and further indignities.
Maybe as a girl she had had pretty eyes or lips, or a playful smile. But by the time I met her, she had already had three children, had lost three more, and she had no man. Nothing about her sex and poverty was likely to attract attention. But her bare feet were marvelous, beautiful to the point that men looked at them first, yea oh Lord, even the new priest whose purity and faith in all other respects burned with youthful vigor and incorruptibility. They were powerful but delicate, almost dainty, almost like a porcelain doll’s feet, and despite the mud and rain of her red clay valley, they were both hard and soft, like a ballet dancer with callused toes and heels powdered with talc and wrapped in silk ribbons.
Her children sat inside or outside the hut all day, every day, collecting infections and viruses. The eldest, who was seven, had been kicked in the head by a mule, some said. Others claimed he had had his forehead caved in by the rifle butt of a drunken soldier. In either event, he was a pitiable sight. Perched at the door of the hut on a low stool, he lolled his head back and forth and swatted flies and screamed random curses at unpredictable intervals. A neighbor asked me to do an exorcism — such ideas still persisted in the 1970s, probably they still do today in this country — but I simply blessed him three times, elaborately, with great emphasis on the sign of the cross. I truly believed God would welcome him into the kingdom of heaven, even as the idiot called me maricon and laughed.
Her other two surviving children were no less difficult for her. One girl grew feathers along her upper arms and forearms. And beautiful they were too, soft, downy, with mottled blue, green and black iridescent patterns. The youngest had a tail, not that little pink nub of a vestigial simian evolution that is quite common, but a big brown bushy tail, like a cat or a fox. Some of my rustic fellow novitiates at the seminary had warned me, me who grew up among the elites of the capital city, that I would see strange things like that in the interior of our country, laughing that I was being sent to a particularly cruel bolgia of hell, but of course I did not believe them. But then just a few months later I was standing in a tin-roof shack watching a young girl pluck her own feathers.
It was unclear whether the other children Maritza bore were stillborn or perhaps simply killed at birth as an act of mercy. One reputedly had the head of a boar, and emerged from the womb fully bristled. Another is said to have flicked out a split serpent’s tongue at his mother’s nourishing breast, a fact which, combined with the punishments of labor, and the newborn child’s elaborate pattern of blue-ink tattoos, caused her to pass out and remain in a coma close to death for two days. As to the third child, I could never find out many details; the midwife and the local women simply shook their heads and shuddered when I asked.
Not much could be certain about the father or fathers of this progeny. Men came through on their way to the mines or to the smugglers’ passes in the north, and some would be seen with Maritza over weeks or months. Some said one father was a miner who was caught in a shaft collapse, and that he is down there still hammering away with pick and chisel in total darkness. Others said it was one of Versino’s assassins, one of the many who ended his days in the same manner he ended the days of many others. Some said it was the big mestizo shepherd who drove cattle into the high meadows each summer. Whoever the fathers were, none stayed when the pregnancy became obvious.
As to the father of Rogelio, let me just say that it was not me, it was not me, it was not me! I am not his father, though I have often been accused of it, and I have often wished to feel the pride that must rest in the heart of the man who was, if indeed it was a man. Just imagine the delight of that parent, a sweet sin of accidental birth, the mortification of creating what seemed to be a monster, and then a twenty-year run of ever-swelling gratification and fame. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea dulcissima culpa.
You see, for many years after his birth, Rogelio was regarded as another one of Maritza’s freaks. It was believed by anyone who saw him that he would eventually be sold off to the sideshow of some travelling circus, like his siblings had been. His life would play out in cages and straw and hayricks with the other animals that danced and reared and performed in chains when flicked with a whip. He had incredibly large green eyes. They were so acute that when he finally learned to talk — at age six — he could tell his mother the number of spots on the back of a ladybug one hundred yards away.
As remarkable as his eyesight was, however, it was not the most distinguishing feature of his physique. His arms did not extend in the way that normal human arms extend; they could articulate both outward and downward to an incredible degree, like a great condor or an eagle, so that his reach was many times the length of his own body. Moreover, he could extend them and retract them with incredible speed, like a serpent could uncoil and leap out at its prey or fend off a potential predator. Finally, there were his feet, as fine and agile and solid as his mother’s, but soft and delicate to the touch.
One evening when he was about seven years of age, one of his mother’s men stumbled up to their hut, full of violence and cheap aguardiente. He started shouting at Maritza, who had been asleep, and as he did so he flailed at her with a closed fist, but missed. Maritza got to her feet and avoided another blow, but as she moved away from her aggressor, she backed herself into a corner, and the man finally found his target. He beat her about her temples, as she crouched vainly defending herself by putting her arms over her head. The man was standing directly above her, and he was about to deliver a direct punch to the face when he felt his blow parried. He looked around, thought in his drunkenness that perhaps someone had intervened, but only saw Rogelio standing across the room, meekly watching him. In his confusion, he became furious and he glared down at Maritza, gathering strength for another blow. Again, it was parried; again, he was confused and enraged, he looked around the room for some explanation. He screamed and decided to throw a barrage of punches on his victim, but everyone was stopped, no matter how rapidly he threw his fists. Cursing, he tried again and again to beat the woman, but every punch was absorbed as if he was hitting a feather pillow. Exhausted by his vain efforts, and overcome by alcohol, he collapsed and was dragged by his feet out into the road by Maritza and Rogelio. During the night, a passing truck ran over him, breaking his spine and flattening his neck into a treaded tissue of blood and cartilage. Maritza could never sell Rogelio to a circus.
Because of his peculiarities, Rogelio was cruelly mocked by the other children and he did not go to school, even as rudimentary as it was in that isolated valley. After the first week there, he cried to his mother and begged her not to send him back and of course she quickly relented. The only time he ever saw other children — his siblings had all departed to distant travelling side-shows by then — was when I came to sing mass, which I did once or twice a month on Sundays. The other children would not dare to tease him in my presence, so he often stood close by me when I spoke with the laity after mass. Even within the sphere of my spiritual protection, he tried to hide his condition. He wore a man’s ruana in the presence of other people despite the midafternoon heat. I tried to encourage the boy, administering the sacrament of penance, and blessing him when he came forward for holy communion. After mass I would often seek out Maritza to speak to her about getting her son a proper education, the importance of taking him for vaccinations to the mobile clinic run by the archdiocese, and so forth — that is how all the gossip got started naturally — but she would simply lie to me with tranquil insincerity, and tell me that she would do it right away, without meaning a word of it.
Rogelio helped his mother by working alongside her as a picker, sometimes vegetables or yams, sometimes coffee beans or cocoa. His fingers were already long and soft and spindly, and he was a diligent and focused worker even as a child. He preferred to be out in the fields or orchards working with men and women who kept their heads down and did not gawk at him. It was soon discovered though, that Rogelio’s unusual condition made him an excellent fruit picker. The foremen for the growers realized that he could harvest all the fruit from a guava or plantain tree in just a few minutes, even without the long poles used by other workers. Of course, as soon as they realized they had a human machine at their disposal, the agents for the oppressive landowners — which including my own greedy family, of course — immediately tried to hire him by the hour, instead of by the bushel. When Maritza told me this, I convinced her to threaten to take Rogelio to a farm that still paid by the bushel. It was as if it had never occurred to her or anyone in the history of her entire tribe to negotiate. Maritza and Rogelio soon had more money than they had ever had in their lives. They could afford to buy new clothes and tins of meat, and I was touched when I saw them put money in the basket for the poor during mass one Sunday, though I was saddened when I realized it meant I would have one less excuse to visit Maritza.
Even though Rogelio and Maritza gradually came to possess a little money, they were still just barely above the level of subsistence, and they were still far from the edges of the abiding terra incognita of ignorance and exploitation that oppress peasants and workers everywhere.
It happened that a few of Rogelio’s co-workers saw another potential use for his special talents. They arranged for him to go with them into town for Carnaval. On this particular year, Carnaval fell on the same calendar day as the feast of our Lady of Lourdes, a favorite in our sick, unlucky country. It also just so happened that on this same Tuesday, our national team was playing a World Cup qualifier against our despised neighbors and rivals, Los Blancos.
If you have ever seen one of our provincial towns on either Carnaval, or a religious feast day, like our Lady of Lourdes or the feast of St. Peter Claver, or on a Match Day for our national team, you know that the central squares and cafes of each town are mobbed with people who have come in from the country for the day. They ride in packed twenty to a pickup truck, six to a motorcycle, five to a donkey. The truly poor will walk twenty miles each way just to bless themselves before the Virgin, and scream at the porous defenses so typical of our team’s back lines. Some shepherds even bring their livestock, and the roads are swollen with animals and people and machines, and vendors selling fried dough and skewered meats and cheap plastic trinkets and narcotics. You can imagine what this particular year was like, then, when all three of these events occurred on three consecutive days.
Naturally, Maritza was very protective of Rogelio during this trip, since it was perhaps the only time she visited the seat of the province since she had been a girl. She insisted that Rogelio stay by her side throughout the festival. This was an impossibility of course. He was separated from her by the mobs thronging the icon during the procession to the cathedral. Some of the other pickers were with Rogelio, and they convinced him that he should use his special talents to help them get some money so they could get a place to stay for the night, and not have to sleep in the plaza.
Rogelio went with the men to the square near the government offices. A café there had several televisions set up to broadcast the game, as well as speakers playing the radio call of the match. Only the patrons who could afford to eat in the restaurant were allowed inside, but a huge mass of men gathered on the pavement just outside the café to hear the radio broadcast, and perhaps get a glimpse of the action on one of the small black and white television screens.
The plan was simple: Rogelio’s co-workers would identify a particularly drunk man outside the café. They would engage him in conversation, bump into him or otherwise distract him, while Rogelio, standing across the street at a distance, would steal the man’s wallet with his nimble fingers and condor arms. It was as easy as picking an overripe guava. Not one of the victims ever felt a thing. Even on the few occasions where the victim confronted the men who had jostled him, they simply turned out their own pockets to show they had nothing, laughing wildly as they did it. From across the street, Rogelio plucked the escudos and every last centavo from the very bottoms of their pockets. And although the street was filled with people, no one who witnessed the thefts would swear to what had happened, for fear of being taken to the madhouse. They literally could not believe their own eyes.
Well, of course you know how such an episode has to end. The men were flush with the money that Rogelio had stolen for them, and naturally they went to some out-of-the-way bar to drink aguardiente and find whores. Once they were full of alcohol and had taken turns with the whores, they started talking too freely. It turned out that one of their victims, a patron of the restaurant from whom Rogelio lifted a massive roll of cash, also happened to be the son-in-law of the lieutenant governor of the district. The son-in-law of the lieutenant governor complained to the police capitan, with the usual heavy-handed threats of dismissal. In a country like ours, even the prostitutes are working for the police most of the time. They promised the constabularies who were looking for the pickpockets that they had heard nothing but would be on the lookout for the thieves. The whores went back to work and after a few hours, having taken every last centavo from them, they handed them over to the gendarmes. The evening ended with the men in jail and no money to pay their way out. They immediately informed on Rogelio. He was easily identified and soon picked up.
Maritza came to the rectory at two in the morning in panic and tears and begged me to help her with the police. Of course, she knew perfectly well that I would do anything for her, so I donned my cassock and cross and went down to the station. Capitan Duarte and two of his men had Rogelio in the morgue, naked, held up against the white tiled wall by his back. They weren’t torturing him, or anything else, though by custom in our pais such techniques are the longstanding innate rights of the ever-fascist police. In this case, Rogelio was in the morgue because it had the best lighting.
Duarte was the most dull-witted, corrupt and bribable simian on a national police force filled with insensible, dishonest apes, but that night, I came upon him in a moment of genuine human curiosity. He had the two police officers hold Rogelio’s arms out so that he could see the remarkable extent of his wingspan. No comprendo, he said over and over again, as he walked from one end of Rogelio’s reach to another. Duarte periodically looked down to the floor at the flaps of flesh hanging there, or felt one of Rogelio’s many arm joints. No comprendo. I had seen Rogelio’s arms fully extended before, so I remained poised and tried to explain to Capitan Duarte that Rogelio had been made this way by God, and it would be wrong to question the Creator’s will. I pretended not to notice Rogelio’s huge member, that looked like a mallet and appeared to be under its own autonomous control just as though it belonged to some pachyderm. Duarte just repeated, “No comprendo.”
I intervened for the young man, using every bit of logic and dialectic I had learned in the seminary. I appealed to the captain’s sense of compassion. I urged him to consider Rogelio’s youth. I even went so far in my wrongheadedness to suggest that in a feudal society like ours, the impoverished have been oppressed for generations and that in their ignorance and desperation, they can think of few other ways to alleviate their poverty. This last argument was predictably met with a scornful smile. Finally, I told them that Rogelio helped to support his mother. Perhaps I should have described her as “aged” or “decrepit” or “old,” because the Capitan immediately looked up and asked, “Is she here?”
One of the guards responded, “Si, capitan! In the waiting room.” Duarte immediately left the room, cuffing the guard on the head for good measure. “Why didn’t you tell me?” Over his shoulder he said, “He can put his arms down, or whatever they are.”
Rogelio folded his arms up and attempted to hide his nakedness. He sat on the floor crying, and I embraced the young man, reminding him that it was among the many glories of God that forgiveness was given to those who truly repent. He was truly sorry, there could be no doubt, and I granted him absolution in the name of Jesus Christ, the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. I also embraced him because I did not want him to see my own tears. I begged forgiveness for my own sins, desiring Maritza while posing hypocritically as a virtuous man, like a Pharisee, at the same time casting her into further self-abasement with my own careless remark. I knew exactly what her expression would say to Duarte: either yes or no, it makes no difference to me.
I stayed with Rogelio all night. It was terrible for both of us. When Capitan Duarte returned to the station the next morning, Rogelio was released and he ran to his mother. She had a fresh black eye, despite her humiliation, or perhaps because of it.
Two or three years passed after this episode without incident. I would say mass in their village once or twice a month, holding the Eucharist aloft with solemnity even as I tried to banish from my mind lurid thoughts of Maritza, and some other women parishioners, it must be admitted. I arranged for one of the sisters at the convent to visit the town twice a week and help Rogelio learn to read. She reported that he liked poetry very much.
One Sunday, when Rogelio was about fourteen, I was in the village for a long day of masses and baptisms and weddings. I was frankly exhausted. Sunday is the day of rest for everyone except priests. But just as I was about to return to the rectory, the local men asked me to officiate their match. It seems there had been a fight the previous week, and the referee had gotten the worst of it. He refused to return this week. Like most of my fellow countrymen, I love the game too much. I even abided the sin of pride in my own skills. My brain still tingled with pleasure at the memory of one of my own well-struck shots, a winner in extra time for my university team. Of course, I accepted the whistle.
Even in a “friendly” Sunday match, my countrymen play like pumas. There were two injuries to one side; five to the other: crunching leg breakers that required cartas amarillas and ten Ave Marias. I finally had to administer a red card to the goalkeeper — at a full sprint, he had run off his line and outside the box to deliver an uppercut directly to the genitals of the opposing striker — thus avoiding a penalty kick he was certain not to save.
“I had to do it, padre,” he said of his termination of the striker’s entire genetic line, “it was a professional foul.”
“It was a foul, certainly, but this is not a professional game. Seek Julio’s forgiveness and say the rosary to contemplate your sins.” He pulled off his gloves nonchalantly and tried to shake the victim’s hand. Julio refused, with great theatrics and a mask of agony. He was soon on his feet and demanding the right to take the free kick.
Meanwhile, the other teammates verbally berated me for having sent off their keeper — telling the most outrageous lies to justify his patently violent conduct. Their chief complaint was that they now had no keeper, it was wrong to make them use an outfielder as a keeper, I had practically decided the game with this atrocious decision, etc. “You are already losing five to one,” I pointed out, “and Juan Carlos is practically crippled any way. Why don’t you sub him off, and bring in your back-up keeper?”
That was the problem, they said, the back-up keeper had fallen off of a donkey and split his head open. They had no backup.
Over the shoulders of the importunate, I saw Rogelio watching the game at a great distance from the sideline. “What about Rogelio? He is a good defender.”
I summoned him to the pitch and saw off Juan Carlos, who limped off with the usual pantomime of an imminent and certain quadriplegia. The expelled keeper helped bear him off, and stopped to hand Rogelio his gloves; but of course, they would not fit Rogelio.
It only took a few moments to recognize that Rogelio was a brilliant choice for the position of keeper. I knew from that night in the morgue that his arms, when extended, could cover the entire surface area of the goal. Even without a scintilla of understanding of the subtlety and complexity of the game, he could not be beaten. He simply stood on the goal line flat-footed, awaiting the approach of play, not reacting to any of the charging or dribbling or passing. He merely waited until the ball was in flight, indeed until it was almost across the goal line, and then he would flick out those miraculous arms in a flash that even the shooter found difficult to discern, and the ball was blocked, no …. gently accepted into the soft envelopment of his avian arms.
His skeptical teammates, who had doubted him just a few minutes earlier, now patted him on the head or shoulders by way of gratitude (they were afraid to touch his arms) and though they themselves preferred reckless counterattacking to defensive play, thus exposing Rogelio to 3-on-1s, 4-on-2s and, in two instances, 3-on-nones, he did not allow a goal. They still lost, but the following week, when the teams were picked, Rogelio was the third pick; the week after that, the second; the week after that, the first.
As a shot stopper, our Rogelio was a revelation of the divine. He simply could not be beaten in open play, or for that matter, on free kicks and penalties: his arms were too long and his hands were simply too fast. The most talented of our rustic jugadores, the ones who worked on set pieces after long days toiling in the fields or in the factories, could not beat Rogelio, even with bending, deceptive free kicks into the top corner from close range. For the remainder of that year, no one scored on him.
Yet for all his physical gifts — well, perhaps, “gifts” is not the right term — he was not truly conversant with the language of the world’s beautiful game. He found it difficult to connect with his teammates. He dreaded the back pass. Indeed, he was most at risk when he possessed the ball. The first goal that was ever scored on him was an own goal, one scored by himself. Rogelio had stopped a penalty kick with his usual feathery flash of hand. In anticipation of the save, one of the attacking mids had unobtrusively drifted forward into the empty space on the right side of midfield. Unmarked, he signaled frantically to Rogelio for the ball. Rogelio caught his eye and attempted to throw the ball upfield in the way he had seen opposing keepers do. Unfortunately, his arms were not built for that kind of whip action. Rogelio only succeeded in bouncing the ball off the back of his own head and into his own net. The opposing players, who had gritted their teeth in frustration for months, laughed and laughed as though they had played some triumphant part in this minor humiliation. For weeks after the own goal, Rogelio skipped the Sunday game. When he returned, he would only roll the ball to teammates outside of the box.
The following year, at age fifteen, Rogelio was already 185 centimeters. He was still lanky as a rail, but now he had the wispy moustache and the chin beard of un-confident adolescence. He played keeper for the entire year, allowing exactly four goals. All of them were own goals, but Rogelio himself was only responsible for two of them.
The next year he was 190 centimeters and though still thin, his moustache had filled in so thickly with bristles that his mouth and chin remained dry in a pouring rain. He now possessed an intimidating appearance to go with his marvelous skills. Again, there were only a handful of goals allowed during the entire season. Again, they were all own goals. At the end of the year, the best side was picked from the local men, and sponsored by one of the growers, they were sent to play in a tournament in the state capital. I was by now widely acknowledged as the team’s protector, and I went along as coach. Maritza tried to give me a few escudos for Rogelio’s room and food. I refused, covering both her hands in mine, and praising her virtue, whispering Christ’s message that the poor would inherit the earth, keenly feeling my own human weakness and failings.
While our local provincial team was energetic and played with rude rustic health and vigor, the urban teams from our major cities actually held training sessions, some of them every day of the week. Even before the first kickoff, it was obvious to me that we would be outclassed. They had coaches, they had cones, they had pinnies, they had water bottles. Our boys warmed up on the sidelines with a few sprints and lazy passes to one another. Many of the other teams had timed pre-game passing and shooting rituals. The most I was able to achieve as coach was to get our boys to give up smoking, and that only on the bench for the duration of the games.
We were embarrassed in open play. The other teams either wore us down with nearly uninterrupted possession or cut through our gauzy notions of defense with long balls over the top to fleet wingers. We held our own however, only because of Rogelio. He did not allow a goal in the entire tournament, despite being pinned down with shots. Unfortunately, we could not manage a single goal on offense ourselves, so we exited the tournament before the knockout round, with four points after four scoreless draws. Our only honor was that Rogelio was named Most Valuable Player of the tournament. In four hours of tournament play, he was credited with sixty-eight saves.
Fearing a repeat of the tragedy that characterized his last visit to town, I stayed by Rogelio’s side the entire time we were in the capital. And it proved to be a good thing that I did so. During the tournament Rogelio had been noticed by coaches for a few of the domestic professional clubs. They were obscure fourth and fifth division toilers —scarcely better than our Sunday pick-up teams. Knowing perfectly well that Rogelio had remarkable potential, they nevertheless tried to hondo him by suggesting that he might be, puede, lucky enough to get on their team if he agreed to play for 2000 escudos a season, an amount roughly equal to what he made as a fruit picker. Many of our other town players would have immediately quit their jobs and slept on the street for a chance to play for a pro club for such a pittance, but I was truly angered that these men would try to take advantage of my Rogelio. Sometimes as a priest, the black raiments I wore conveyed an impression of a certain moral rectitude to the laity, but in this instance even the scarlet of a cardinal’s skullcap could not express the degree of my moral outrage at these insulting offers. I was not acting or negotiating when I angrily pulled Rogelio away from these curs at the hotel cafe and shouted over my shoulder that they could all go to hell before Rogelio would ever play for them. His other teammates were dumbfounded at my outburst, truly shocked that their mild coach and spiritual deacon was capable of such an eruption. As I roughly tugged Rogelio along beside me, I could see that he was smiling. I winked at him while we stormed out.
Soon, they were coming to Cartago, spinning their tires in the muddy hillside tracks, enduring the bed bugs in the crowded bunkroom behind the bar, just for a chance to see Rogelio play. Against the local competition, he had no equal. He was by now also cognizant of his own shortcomings on the field, and he consciously endeavored to defend even against himself and his own teammates. For the first time in his life, he practiced, mainly goal kicks and drop kicks: he still was too timid to throw the ball out of the box. There were serious clubs looking at him by this time, from all over South America and even Mexico. No first division sides yet — clubs of that caliber did not send scouts into the hills to acquire goalkeepers — but there were scouts from several second and third division sides, and those clubs had development deals with first division clubs.
The word had gotten out that they could not talk to Martiza or Rogelio without me present. Once again, I indulged in the sin of pride. When they came to ask for Rogelio’s services, I made the scouts wait outside, even in the pouring rain, while I discussed what little I pretended to know of each club and city with Maritza and Rogelio. I veered into the theatrical, having the custodian admit them into an empty church before emerging from the door behind the altar, sweeping in, wearing my best black cassock and long sash. I always began calmly but archly, “What is it you want with this young soul?” (It was the voice of my mother, I knew it myself, addressing one of her score of servants.) I dismissed many such pilgrims simply because they did not evince good character or indeed the proper respect.
In the end, we chose Leones II, the Under-21 feeder club for one of the top teams in the nation’s capital. Though I was reluctant to do so, I called up my father at his palacete and asked if we could have Stein, his man of business, help negotiate the contract, with me as an intermediary. That bitter old man was bemused. “So now you need financial help? And you are suddenly dealing with Mammon again? What happened to Christ qua Marx?” I endured his taunts again for the sake of Maritza and Rogelio. The contract was signed. An account was set up so that his pay would be shared with Maritza, with me as his guardian and power of attorney.
In his first season at Division II, Rogelio did very well, though in some ways it was a repeat of his first year playing the game. He played in virtually empty stadiums against competition of a quality that he had never seen before. He gave up no goals to opponents, though he relapsed into a spate of own goals and howlers. He still could not be beaten on set pieces, but at this level, the opposition knew how to get the entire defense off balance, and the play was so fast that sometimes they contrived to make Rogelio run into his own teammates or goalposts, and trundle the ball across the line amid their confusion.
Rogelio was 196 centimeters now. The senior team recognized that it was time to break him into play at the highest level, even though his footwork was still amateurish at best, and his dainty feet could scarcely get a goal kick across the midfield line. They included Rogelio on the team sheet for a midweek fourth round game in the Copa del Plata. They wanted to give the first division regulars a rest during a busy stretch of Clausura play, and in the Copa they had drawn an away game against a fifth division team far upriver in the most humid part of the country, surrounded on all sides by a million hectares of rain forest. The Leones senior team knew it would be a rout, so they reasoned that they would send a lesser team for the grueling 300-kilometer journey into the jungle. That team would include Rogelio. Maritza and I talked to him by telephone the day he got the news. Not only was it going to be his first top-flight game, it was also going to be his first flight on an airplane.
You may have already heard the story of his performance in that game. By the standards of Leones first division team, the outfielders’ play was abysmal. In ninety minutes of play, they had managed only one shot on goal against the Minotaurs, a squad of brawling, pot-bellied has-beens that never should have made it out of the third round. In extra time, however, Leones had won a corner. The coach, dreading a scoreless tie and a rematch against these pygmy goons, called Rogelio forward to attack — with his height, he was an aerial threat in the box. Unfortunately, the corner was dreadful — it did not even clear the first man, who quickly chested it down and in the best display of ball control in the match, took it on his left foot and sent a long looping pass to the striker, who had broken for midfield. Although he was marked by the last defender, the striker could see the empty face of goal, and he broke to his own left to get a yard of space to attempt a long-distance shot. The ball went up, bashed with force and precision: it looked as if it would be the winner.
The only recording of the play is a crude, choppy piece of videotape, a Zapruder film for the birth of a legend. Only in its blurry mysteries and faded colors does it give any notion of the true dynamism of the moment. Having observed the failed corner, Rogelio runs at full sprint to the midfield line. Up to this point, it is the typical play of a keeper caught dangerously out of his net; but just inside the circle, Rogelio ducked his head and shoulders low like a crane, and without breaking stride, he lifted off the ground and extended his miraculous arms, soaring almost thirty-six meters to the goal. Just an instance before it crossed the line, Rogelio caught up with the descending shot, tipping aside what had seemed like a certain goal. The fans let out a collective gasp of astonishment and frustration. The Minotaur striker had already started his goal celebration, but hearing the fans’ reaction he turned and in disbelief he saw Rogelio tangled in the net, and the ball harmlessly bouncing over the touch line for a corner. The striker fell to his knees, and hands pressed in prayer, he questioned the divinity how his shot could have ever been stopped. It was the best shot he had ever taken in his life, the best shot he ever would take in his life. He quit the game.
I was watching this match with Martiza at one of my mother’s apartment in the capital. When it happened, I turned to her and in earnest asked, “Did you know your son could fly?” She shrugged, and went to get a can of guava juice.
On the ensuing goal kick, Leones came right down the field and in six connected passes scored the winner. The back pages of the major newspapers the next day all showed a photo of Rogelio in midair, just at the moment that the tip of his middle finger redirected the ball from goal. The headlines all called it Jueves de Ascencion.
After this, Rogelio was promoted to back-up keeper for the Leones senior team. They won the Copa del Plata that year, with Rogelio starting the last four games, including the final in the national stadium. He did not allow a goal in any of those matches.
Once the Clausura ended, Stein and I approached management, and to our surprise, they were more than happy, even generous, in renegotiating Rogelio’s contract. He did not get striker money, of course, but he was the most highly paid keeper in the league, and he had a three-year deal. (Only later did we realize that by paying Rogelio handsomely and locking him up with a long-term contract, Leones were maneuvering to keep him from going to Europe.) Rogelio bought a small house near the training facility, and Maritza had a lovely bedroom of her own, which she often filled with flowers.
I was reassigned to the North by the bishop, just before Rogelio’s first full year as number one keeper. I saw less of Rogelio after that, and less of Maritza as well. Still, I followed all his games in the papers and I watched him on television every chance I could. When Leones played in our province, I was always invited to the field before games. Rogelio grew to manhood with many of the best things life in our poor country has to offer, but every time I visited with him in the capital, in his new house, with his new Japanese car, with the ever-changing young women, I was struck again and again by the realization that he was just a naïve, scared country boy thrust into a life he was not prepared to live. He liked popular music and movies like most teenagers, but he would not go to parties, and he would never dance, so self-conscious was he of his physical peculiarities. He was acutely conscious of the many humiliations he had suffered, not that long ago, because of the same peculiarities that now accounted for his success. What had been mocked once was now celebrated. With Rogelio, though, one always suspected that he thought the indignities might return at any moment.
It was a blessing that he did not care for drugs or alcohol. He had been so thoroughly ridiculed as a child and an adolescent that he would never let his guard down. He firmly resisted his teammates’ occasional efforts to draw him into their use. Indeed, he suspected the whole outside world of potential treachery, that it would turn on him if he so much as relaxed for a minute. It was part of the national character, I suppose, that every one of the native born has been conditioned to trust no one else, especially those who appear to come in friendship. Even with the girls, who threw themselves at him in the most lascivious way, he was cautious, but that caution was overcome by man’s essential nature. He did smoke, but back then everyone smoked, and, as a keeper, he was not expected to run ten kilometers in ninety minutes, as his teammates did.
For Rogelio, the training pitch became a refuge, blocked from the prying eyes of the public. He was happiest at his repetitions, diving, popping up, diving again, tip drills, snaking through cones, popping up and diving for the save. His considerable natural skills were refined into magnificence, a glorious, reflexive, defensive expression of the divine. It was these years in the capital, on Tuesday mornings, Wednesdays after lunch, on late afternoons of extra training, goofing around with the teammates after the coaches had walked off, and no supporters there to watch, that he learned to love football, and thereby to love his own life.
I came for a visit to one of these practices. We went to his house afterwards and were served chicken and rice by Maritza, who shuffled to the table in plastic sandals and caressed Rogelio around the ears. After the meal I was surprised — and indeed concerned — that he had many books in his room, including several volumes of the poetry of our famous Nobelist. At that point, I was honestly not certain that Rogelio could read very well, much less that he had any aesthetic refinement. Indeed, I was worried that he did not have the education to understand or appreciate the complexity of a secular humanist worldview without being misled into its inevitable nihilism. But I need not have worried. On my next visit, some months later, Rogelio asked if I loved my life. When I said certainly, he said he did too. He thanked me for bringing him on to the field that day in Carthago. Then he read me a little poem he had written:
At the end of practice
In the orange dusk
With the chill of coming night in the sky
I connect passes to my defense
Who connect with the center mids
Who slash forward and lay off
To the careening wingers
And on to the head of the attacker
Who leaps fully extended
Connecting the play from back to front
And connecting all of us to the stars
And to millions of galaxies
We smoked in silence for a time. It was a little clunky, especially “careening wingers,” but the boy had obviously found something in the beauty of the sport that transcended the ordinary, which made him feel a part of God’s holy universe. On his own, he made the connection between the kinetic beauty of open play on the pitch and the sublime gait of a moving line of verse. I gave thanks to God that he let me be the catalyst for such a metanoia. It was one of the few times in my career as a pastor that I felt that I had achieved a conversion, and possibly even a salvation.
It is at this point that Rogelio’s career becomes well known to even a casual football fan. The first year was the famous Ano Indomito season, where Leones did not allow a single goal during thirty-two games of league play, winning twenty-eight of them. Rogelio himself scored his first goal that year. He was one of the earliest keepers to roam high up the pitch, knowing perfectly well that if he needed to, he could soar back into his own crease. In a game against Pegasus FC, he controlled at midfield a clearance by the opposing keeper. Seeing that his opposite number had slipped to the ground, he launched a curling shot into the top corner. He lay down in the center circle on his back and he was dog-piled by his teammates.
Rogelio was halfway through his second season — again having allowed no goals, again with both the league and Copa titles easily within reach of the Leones’ jaws — when the Lions’ only serious rival in the league undertook a new strategy to deal with Rogelio’s impregnable defensive line. FC Central Sarmiento was coached by a brutal and ignorant man, Evans Derrico, who had once been an enforcer and gambler with the state’s largest crime syndicate. Certainly, two or three times a year, his teams had a strange ability to lose games in which they were very heavily favored by the bookies.
In any event, Derrico hatched a plan to break the blockade of goal by Rogelio and Leones. Just before an away fixture for Sarmiento to Leones, he promoted three unknown strikers from their fourth division team to the senior squad. It was an outrage, an insult to the very talented established front men of Sarmiento’s 4-3-3, to say nothing of the aspiring players on the third and second division clubs. I was in the stands that day, and I heard the howls of the away supporters when they saw the team sheet. It soon became apparent that these men were not football players at all. They seemed mystified by even the basic rules of the game, much less the complex choreography of a counterattacking football system. For seventy-five minutes they wandered around the pitch, often offsides, periodically flailing at but missing balls passed to them. One of them botched a throw-in! Finally, after conceding a goal, the midfielders for Sarmiento took over the attack themselves, and won a corner in the seventy-seventh minute. Even before the corner was struck, the three attackers fell on Rogelio, tackling him to the ground, and stomping on his knees until Rogelio’s teammates pulled them off and the assistant referees ran on to the pitch.
In the melee, the ball was lashed into the net. After a long delay, eventually Rogelio was stretchered off and taken to hospital. It will not surprise observers of the beautiful game in our corrupt nation to hear that the goal was not waived off; no fouls were called; no red or yellow cards were issued; no evidence of fairness, integrity or compassion was detected in the conduct of the center referee. It was obvious to everyone that he had been compromised. Having accomplished their only objective, Derrico subbed off the three assassins, replacing them en bloc with the usual first-team attackers. His thugs did not even go to the Sarmiento bench; they went straight to the locker room. In the only faint shadow of justice that night, someone in the crowd threw a bottle at the departing goons, striking one of them in the head.
In addition to failing to punish the perpetrators of the injury to Rogelio, the referee disgraced himself further by adding twelve minutes of extra time, and in the one hundred first minute, he awarded a PK to Central Sarmiento. Their usual starting striker coolly slotted it into the corner against Rogelio’s back-up. It was Leones’ first loss in seventeen months. The crowd rioted. It was in the news everywhere, even in Estados Unidos, cited as further proof that “soccer” was the sport of barbarians, hooligans, lowlifes and rioters.
Whatever short term profits Derrico might have made from this ignominious chicanery that night, neither he nor Sarmiento benefited through the remainder of the season. Leones still won the Copa, though they fell short of the League Championship, losing out by a single point on the last day of the season to Rio Verde FC. As to Derrico himself, it was later revealed that he demanded kickbacks in a pay-for-play scam from several of his players at Sarmiento. When the victims finally came forward, he asked to be put in a solitary cell in the federal prison. Such a request was laughable, of course, as our prison system is even more corrupt than our police force or civil administration. Derrico had a private cell for a time, but in return the guards and the warden extorted him for every last escudo. His gambling winnings and connections eventually ran out, and he was turned out of his private palace. He was killed even before trial, punctured by more than a hundred stab wounds.
Fortuitously, there was no permanent damage to Rogelio. His patella was fractured, but the surgeons assured the club that he would be back after a few months. Maritza waited on him day and night. I came to visit them once a week during this period of rehabilitation. Rogelio took his rehab seriously, swimming in pools, lifting weights in the gym, and doing road work that any boxer would respect. Rogelio even found a little hillock in a vacant lot near his house, and he used his own money to buy sand and sawdust to create a landing area at the base. Sometimes on Sundays, he would spend the afternoon having me throw balls off the hill, slightly out of reach. He would practice diving for them into the pile of sand and sawdust. In this way, he felt he was toughening himself up for the return to league play. He read me another poem.
Anger bubbles up
Out of the swamp
Choking on its own
But revenge flies,
Righteous and smooth
Bringing retribution from
The cold cumulus.
When he returned for the beginning of the next Clausura, this spirit of retribution was within Rogelio, and indeed with all the returning veterans. They felt quite rightly that they had been cheated, that they had been denied a championship that they surely would have won. They played like the name written on their kits, attacking opponents with a ruthless ferocity. The title was theirs before Carnaval, with their closest competitors barely earning a point a game. Even though they lost two matches during that campaign — the coach would occasionally give Rogelio and his other stars a rest — they clinched the title a month before the season ended, compiling the highest point total in the league’s history. They also won the Copa and, completing the treble, they prevailed over a Chilean team in the continental club tournament. There were a few fluke goals scored on Rogelio, but these were ascribed to his injury troubles. His knees sometimes locked up when it was either too hot or too cold.
The Europeans came to behold our marvel, and Stein and I spent a great amount of time in the off-season negotiating for the privilege of Rogelio’s services. Here is where Stein and I began to diverge in opinion about the future of Rogelio’s career. Stein only saw escudos (or pounds or deutschmarks or francs), but I worried that Rogelio might collapse in a foreign land, crumble under the weight of expectations and the renewed ridicule that would occur when he was first seen by foreigners. Football fans after all are not usually refined sophisticates — especially back then. They were proletariats who looked at match day as their own personal holiday from the grind of their grim lives — a day when they could sing out the violence and degradation of their own existence on rival teams and players. I knew that every group of opposing fans that saw Rogelio in Europe would ridicule him as if he had been sold to the circus after all.
Leones barely competed to keep him. Management knew perfectly well that they could not pay him what the big clubs of Europe could, so they bombarded us with exhortations about the immeasurable value of home and country. They appealed to his sense of loyalty. It was Leones, after all, who had elevated him to the top league, and paid him even when he was injured. They straight out told him he could spend his entire career in our city, and that he would go down in history as the greatest player in the nation’s history. This was not hyperbole.
The top three teams in Spain came. Each of them lied to Maritza and Rogelio in a typically arrogant Spanish way that life in Spain, with its common language and mother church, would be just like living at home. (They avoided mentioning some other parallels between our nations, such as repressive fascism and casual attitudes towards corruption.) Among the Spanish sides, Sporting made the best pitch — their manager came to meet Rogelio personally along with midfielder Alexandro, another native of our country playing in Europe. Alexandro worked out with Rogelio one afternoon. He was a pleasant man, a genius of insight and passing on the pitch; when he walked off the training ground he gave me a look that said, “I cannot believe the greatness I saw here today.”
Naturalich, the Germans were very interested also. When we met with them, it was hard to tell whether they were football men or scientists preparing to shoot a chimpanzee into outer space. They had Rogelio jump and sprint and run attached to a breathing apparatus before we even set foot on the pitch or kicked a ball. As they watched him dive and deflect shot after shot, they made notes on the pads of their clipboards. I remember thinking to myself that Rogelio’s talents could never be captured in shorthand or compiled in statistics. His movements were like the ethereal verses of his poems. For the Germans, their football was business and, if Rogelio played for them, it might be joyless, like picking fruit. I shuddered to think what would have happened to him if he had been born thirty years earlier. In the end, we passed, even on the great Bayern Munchen.
Finally, it was the Italians that prevailed. The Azzurri play defensive, organized football, and that national character spread throughout the Series A. It was a perfect fit for Rogelio, and AS Napoli, with aspirations to win the European Championship, already had a few Spanish-speaking, South American players. Rogelio came in as number one. It was a huge contract, beyond the wildest imagination of anyone born into poverty on the edge of the jungle and myth, though just a line entry on a balance sheet or income statement to people like my father or Stein. Rogelio fit in perfectly, and on a preseason friendly tour, he made several incredible saves, possibly among the best of his career, that won over his teammates in just a few games.
Maritza was never not coming to Italy with Rogelio. She bought a little apartment near the training ground, but it had a large balcony that looked out over the Bay of Naples. She was a funny figure among the sophisticates in that building, who went around in designer suits or dresses. She walked around dressed the same way she did back in the jungle: old shorts, a T-shirt and rubber sandals. Many of the buildings’ residents at first thought that she was one of the new maids. On the first day of practice, Rogelio and Maritza walked to the training grounds holding hands.
It is at this point that I largely stepped back from their lives. My cardinal had by this time already noted on several occasions my diminishing zeal, and my frequent absences from the diocese due to my role as — what? Perhaps foster father, adviser, confessor to Rogelio? I asked for permission to move to Italy, but this was quite rightly denied. I thought briefly of resigning holy orders, even toyed with the idea of perhaps becoming an agent myself, with other players as clients, but I could not do it. All I could see was my father — ascot, cigar, glass of Malbec — laughing at such an outcome. I plunged back into ministry, briefly with renewed fervor, out into the farthest arroyos and jungles, where certain tribes still lived untouched by the Western hegemony, and still did not know of the miracles of Jesus Christ, though I was by now quite certain that they surely knew other miracles.
Rogelio’s story after the move to Italy is very well known. Between the organized defenses and Rogelio’s skill as a shot blocker, AS Napoli dominated the Serie A that first season, conceding only nine goals in the entire campaign. They easily won the title, and though they lost unexpectedly early in the domestic cup competition, they advanced to the European finals, where they were beaten by one of the great Spanish sides of that era, Granada FC.
That final game of the year was the beginning of a great rivalry that would play out across the Eastern and Western, the Northern and Southern Hemispheres over the next decade. The Spanish side featured three of the greatest players in the history of our beautiful dance. You know them all without my adding a single laudatory word about them. Piso was a Greek from Argentina. At 165 centimeters, one would see him in pre-game warm-ups and ask, how did that child get on to the pitch with the players? He was too small to be in the right league. Surely, he should have been playing for the academy team with the U-13 Boys. Yet when in possession of the ball, he seemed to glide along the pitch, as though the laces of the ball were tied to the laces of his shoes. He would plunge right into a crowd of four or five or six defenders, and with subtle feints and rapid jukes, emerge unmarked at the top of the box. The mathematician, physicist, and football enthusiast, Schorer, said in his Nobel acceptance speech that Piso had invented new kinds of triangles and vortexes, never thought of by the ancient Euclideans, and that Piso, better than he, described the undulations and orbital flights of objects through time and space better than any quark, slope, or beWegungKoeterdammerung.
I never pretended to understand the last concept, but surely, Schorer’s remarks were true. Piso was even more spectacular and dangerous without the ball. He would lay off a pass to a teammate, and even though every defender on the pitch knew not to leave him unmarked, Piso would literally disappear, only to emerge somehow onside and unmarked before the open face of goal. When he scored, he did it almost apologetically, as if the act of regretfully passing the ball into the side netting was equal to the final chord of a great symphony that now, unfortunately, had to come to an end.
Granada FC also had The Dutchman, van Donsen, at midfield. A tall blond Germanic type, with blue eyes and a square jaw, he had the vision of an oracle: it was said that he could see a counterattack developing before the opening kick-off. He was the master of the dummy, the long ball over the top, but especially of the look-off. He could make opposing players trip over their own feet using just his eyes, then deliver the ball to a teammate precisely through the space the defender had just vacated. He seemed to communicate telepathically with Piso, and often the first person Piso looked to thank after scoring a goal was the Dutchman.
Juan Franco was the third member of this famous trio. His real name was Juan Franco Carlos Estaban Morales y Sepulveda y Colona y Salamanca. In some ways, he and I were very similar. He was born into one of the largest landholding families along the River Ichito. He claimed descent on his father’s side from the line of Ferdinand VI, which means he may have been one of my own distant cousins. Despite his lineage and wealth, or perhaps because of them, in his youth he sought out the life of the common man, eschewing equestrian sports in favor of football. In this he excelled, absorbing and adopting the lowest and most disgraceful street football techniques to achieve success. Everyone in the world remembers how he handled the ball off the line in the eighty-ninth minute to prevent a winning goal for plucky Congo in the World Cup quarterfinals. He was sent off, but Congo missed the penalty, and lost the game in extra time. Juan Carlos was also known for dirty play. He would taunt opposing players verbally, insulting their mothers and sisters, their towns, clothes, cars, motorcycles, pets and of course, their race and religion. He was known to pull down an opposing player’s shorts when no one (and everyone) was looking. In a crowd he could knee five players in the groin in a matter of seconds. He held shirts, he held hair, he was even known to grab and twist an opponent’s manhood if the opportunity arose. He scratched, he bit, he drove opposing keepers headfirst into their own goalposts. His menace was legendary, and in some seasons, he sat out as many games on suspension as he played. Paradoxically, off the pitch he was a mild and charming gentleman, always well dressed and soft-spoken, the very essence of civility. He was abstemious, charitable, and gentle with children and women, a devoted family man. I met him once at a polo match at my father’s club. He too was dressed in a navy blazer with an ascot; and he pulled it off convincingly, as though to the manner born, as so he was.
It was this trio that frustrated Rogelio in that first European Club Championship. Juan Carlos was chattering away about Rogelio’s arms, calling him a circus freak and “bat-boy.” Rogelio had toughened up by then, and he could cope with mere verbal insults. He did not retaliate. However, it was late in the game, and Rogelio had already parried eight shots during the scoreless tie. On a corner kick, Juan Carlos rushed in on goal and grabbing hold of Rogelio by the flap underneath his right wing, he rode Rogelio to the ground, screaming indignantly that he — Juan Carlos — had been cruelly fouled. He writhed on the ground — still clutching Rogelio’s skin, pretending that his own ankle had been broken —until he saw the ball flash into the net, even as Rogelio flailed at it with his other, free arm. Juan Carlos popped up in time to join the goal celebration with no visible sign of injury. Worse still, Rogelio retaliated against Juan Carlos, kicking him perhaps too obviously on the next rush down the field, and he was sent off with a red card. It was a tough loss, and the injustice of Granada’s victory was discussed in the sports pages across Europe for the rest of the summer.
There was nevertheless much success for Rogelio in Napoli. Year in and year out, AS Napoli finished among the top three in the Serie A, and regularly advanced deep into European Cup competition, but that trophy eluded them. Twice in the next five years, they were knocked out in the final by FC Granada, the second time on a truly magical goal by Piso. He received the ball at midfield, evaded the defenders by dribbling back towards his own goal; he back-passed to his own keeper, received the ball back and proceeded to cut and dash and dribble and spin past all the Napoli players, who fouled him one after the other. Five times the referee played the advantage, as Piso kept running forward, even on his knees. Finally, he had only Rogelio to beat. But Rogelio was already in excellent position, cutting down the angle and beginning to spread out the huge curtain of his arms. The slow-motion replay would show irrefutably that Piso had nothing to shoot at: the goal was entirely covered. But what did that little genius do? He glanced up, drove the ball ferociously into Rogelio’s face, astonishing him and knocking him off balance. Then he coolly collected the rebound, and slid it between Rogelio’s legs for a nutmeg goal. Piso wheeled off to the corner casually exhausted, until he was tackled by his ecstatic teammates, the substitutes, the assistant coaches, the ball boys, and about one hundred supporters and police. The referee pointed to the center spot, then delivered four yellow cards and one red to the defenders who tried and failed to stop the magical Piso in his journey to the most glorious goal in Cup history.
While Piso’s conduct off the field was not always honorable, (with the tax evasion charges and the many, many illegitimate children), his honor on the pitch was unimpeachable. On that particular play, Piso was simply confronted with a series of obstacles followed by an insoluble dilemma; and like any good mechanic or mathematician or surgeon or wizard, he solved it. There was nothing malicious in it. That it should appear snarky to us, dim observers of his incalculable brilliance, was no concern of his. He shook Rogelio’s hand after the game, even gave Rogelio his shirt — the only keeper to whom Piso ever gave such a gift during his long career — though he surely knew that Rogelio would not give him his own.
This play, giving up the final goal in the biggest club game in the world, foreshadowed a crisis for Rogelio. Next season, every striker in the Serie A shot either at Rogelio’s head, or at the space between his feet. They no longer even bothered to shoot at the corners of the goal: there was no joy there. Rogelio gave up more goals than he allowed in any season in his career. He lost confidence in himself, and it seemed on a few occasions that he was pulling his head away and closing his eyes even before the shot was launched. He even let a few soft ones slip through his fingers. Napoli finished sixth. In the off-season, growing ever shorter due to international tournaments, Stein brought in a Swiss psychiatrist to treat Rogelio. I told him it wouldn’t work, that science could do nothing with a religious or poetic discipline, (which is what football was to Rogelio), but that cursed man would not listen. Neither did Rogelio. After three sessions, Rogelio got up off the couch and never visited the Freudian quack again.
As ever and always in football, now and at the hour of our death, amen, the ownership in Napoli could not fire all the players for the prior season’s poor performance, so they fired the coach, who could not in fairness be blamed. Management wanted to bring in a superstar coach, one that might help the squad clear that last hurdle and claim the European Cup. They picked a mercurial Scot, Dave Hill, (“Ye kin gall me Mister Heell”) whose Spanish and Italian were as inscrutable as his English. He had won major domestic leagues and tournaments in England and Scotland, and he took an unlikely Greek team all the way to a semi-final victory in the European Championship.
Unfortunately, Hill also liked to play head games, long before it became a prerequisite for the job of top-flight manager. One of his favorite motivational tactics was to undermine every single player on the side with off-the-record critical remarks to reporters that suggested someone younger or on another club could fill the player’s role nicely. The news naturally spread to every tunnel and corridor and locker in the clubhouse, and instead of just a team in a slump, there was now a team in a slump whose every player questioned his own ability, skill and self-worth.
Sometimes Hill’s tactics had the desired effect, as with Ter Tilleman. Convinced that he would be traded next time the transfer window opened, the midfielder played with a ferocity designed to impress his next prospective employer. He became like a rotary engine in the center circle: from whatever direction the ball came to him, it would be shot out again instantaneously in brilliant but unpredictable directions, right on to the foot of a streaking teammate or into empty space at the end of the run of the intended target. Under Hill, Ter Tilleman had his best season ever, finishing as runner-up for the Golden Boot that year.
Others responded badly to Hill’s psychological gamesmanship. Just after being hired, Hill told a reporter for Il Reverrecia, “I never wanted DiAntonio. But don’t mention it to him.” The next morning it was on the front page of Sport. DiAntonio had always been a better-than-average striker, a player whose talent and potential were apparent to anyone, but he never seemed to rise to become a breakout star. With Hill’s comments, he now began to think that he had failed to reach his own potential in his career. His defeatist attitude was reflected in heavy touches, clumsy lay-offs, and shots over the bar. He was benched, dropped from the lineup, and traded during the Christmas break for a fourth-division youngster, plus a bag of cones, balls and nets. Yet two years later, under a different manager, one who did not undermine his stars, he led Serie A in goals and scored the winning PK in the Domestic Cup.
With Rogelio, Hill was relatively restrained. “A carse, Goowal-keepers er diff’rent. Roger’s had a [unintelligible] bit of a bairn, but ya luke a’ it, ‘e’s still one of the top keepers in the weireld.” Stein and I spoke by telephone after this remark, but even after inquiring of his friends in the City in London, where Stein had invested Rogelio’s money, we could not tell if this was an insult or a compliment: we were utterly stumped by the phrase “a bit of a bairn.”
Despite his Highlands accent, Hill was no footballing troglodyte. It was he who made Ter Tilleman into the distribution hub of the club, and it was Hill who promoted the free-flowing, joyous, possession football that restored Napoli to the European Cup qualifiers. He was not sure what to do with Rogelio, however. On the one hand, the young man saved any shot that he could reach, but on the other, teams knew that in order to score, Rogelio had to be pushed, pulled, tripped or intimidated into a mistake, and that happened from time to time still. Hill seethed at the referees, was sent off the pitch publicly advocating for Rogelio. Privately, Hill’s instinct was to “toughen the lad up,” but he could sense that Rogelio was as spirited and tetchy as a bird. Hill had enough sense to know not to tread too heavily.
For his part Rogelio worked to improve his game. He measured the circumference of a football — sixty-eight centimeters according to the Laws of the Game — and sometimes before shooting practice he tied his feet together, or his knees together, so that the available space was less than the diameter of the ball. “’Tis mad as a box o’ frogs,” Hill scoffed at the technique, but it worked. The nutmegs stopped, and after a time, Rogelio learned to endure the shots off the face. e e He even practiced angling them off his cheeks, tipping them over the bar with a flick of the temple, nose or forehead.
In the end, the practice and the mind games paid off. In Hill’s second year, Napoli won the League and the Domestic Cup. Hill took all the credit, called the players “ev’ry one of them was like me uw-en children.” It was only in the quarterfinals of the European Cup that they faltered. Juan Carlos bit Rogelio on one of the flaps of skin on the underside of his right arm. He literally hit a nerve. Rogelio fell on the villain, who taunted him saying, “You taste just like your mother’s clitoris,” and the like. (But he politely used the formal Usted for this remark.) They were both sent off, but only Rogelio was crying. Juan Carlos laughed and mocked all the way down the dark unholy catacombs to the visiting locker. Never ones to squander an opportunity, Piso and the Dutchman scored four in twenty minutes against the substitute goalkeeper.
I saw even less of Rogelio those days, as I plunged into dense forests of the unsaved, unredeemed, and unrepentant, trying to convert men in a state of nature that suggested no transcendental telos. Once, perhaps twice a month, newspapers made it up river or across the mountains, and I would read of Rogelio’s exploits and Napoli’s successes four to six weeks after they occurred a hemisphere away. The well-known rivalries between Napoli and Granada, and between Piso and Rogelio, took their now familiar shapes. Because their clubs were in different leagues and because they played for different national teams, they never saw one another during the regular season. However, during international breaks, and during European club tournaments, they became the focus of the media buildup. One must say that Rogelio usually got the better of Piso. During continental tournaments and international play, Piso scored loads of goals from free kicks twenty-five or thirty meters away, usually by making the ball dance and swirl in its flight in a way that befuddled the best keepers in the world. For Rogelio, though, these were trifles: at most he might bobble, spill or fail to control. Piso never scored on him directly from a free kick, not in Europe during club Cup competitions, not in South America during World Cup qualifying tournaments, not in the EEUU or Asia on pre-season tours. No, though Piso had a left foot with the explosive force of a cannon, he could not get the ball past Rogelio on strength alone. Piso’s true power was kinetic: he played games with physics to curve himself and the ball around defenders on invisible concave planes.
On holiday one year, Maritza and I once saw Piso play in a pre-season friendly at La Bombonera. He received the ball at the center circle and drove to his left down the sideline, with defenders trying to keep astride him. Piso seemed to climb the invisible wall of the touch line at the attacking end of the pitch, like a bobsledder running high onto an ice bank at a dangerous turn, and then return down into the space inside the box near the goalposts. When he descended, the gravitational pull shot him downward towards the goal so fast that Piso was almost behind Rogelio before he could react. As often happened with Piso, the goal itself was denouement, a gentle tap across an unprotected line.
These battles went on over many years, with Piso, the Dutchman and Juan Carlos combining skill, intimidation, deception, power and a contempt for physics with a sucker punch of violence to net a goal against Rogelio on average every thirty shots or so.
Both Piso and Rogelio went from success to success, year after year. They regularly won their domestic leagues. If Piso’s side was knocked out of the Club championships, Rogelio’s side won the cup, and vice versa. In international competitions, one or the other regularly won the continent. Piso was the best attacking player every year; Rogelio the top portero. The trophy cases sagged under the weight of their silverware.
About a dozen years into his pro career, Rogelio wrote me a letter in which he expressed a longing to retire from European football and return home. He knew that he had done great things in the game, and that, except for the World Cup, there was nothing left for him to win. He did not want to cling beyond the proper age to his career, like so many footballers, whose physiques were glorious racing machines at twenty-four and patched-up and broken junkers at thirty-one. He mentioned the Cypriot keeper Kiki, struggling into his mid-forties, having to be helped to his feet by his teammates after diving to make a save.
“The man was ridiculous,” he wrote, “worse than me with my flaps! I have been young and laughed at and mocked. I do not want also to be old and laughed at and mocked. Kiki has to bum a cigarette from the fans just to make it through a half. Fans pass him a bottle when he walks off the pitch at halftime. That is not going to be me in old age. I am going to get a place for me and Mama high in the mountains, away from town, and enjoy the quiet and the birds and look back with dignity on what I have done.”
He was a truly grateful young man. He thanked me for my guidance, claiming that I saved him from the thieves and slave-drivers and the circus. He even made some appropriate obeisance to our Lord and Savior, though of course I knew he did not believe. How could he? No Christian God would have created him! He said he had to come home into retirement in the hills of our country because Maritza especially had grown tired of what she called the “cold” Neapolitan winters. The newspapers were also then making salacious reports that Rogelio was sick of the way Italian women tried to “own” him. He had his mother, he told them, he needed no other woman; though if the papers were to be believed, he had hundreds. I wrote back to him, telling him to stay on a few more years, that he could never know when he would need the money, that work was noble, even when work was play.
It was in his fifteenth year of his professional career, after many years of unparalleled success, after Rogelio had won the domestic title many times, that Stein’s infamy was exposed. During a routine audit of one of my father’s subsidiaries — such audits of public companies are “routine” in our country in the sense that the auditors expected only small bribes — it was discovered that Stein had been skimming not only from my father, who would have expected some theft, but also stealing heavily, openly, brazenly from Rogelio. Stein had also been an agent of the cartels, laundering money for them, sometimes through my family’s legitimate businesses, and indulging his disgusting pederasty in places like Thailand, Morocco and the Philippines. Stein left behind a cache of passports, a welter of debts, and a house of mirrors of dummy corporations, many with emptied bank accounts in Luxembourg and Switzerland. Stein, suddenly observant and patriotic (though he spoke not a word of Hebrew or Yiddish) grew a long beard, donned a black hat and coat, and fled to Israel. He disappeared in ignominy into a desert kibbutz. Our nation had no extradition treaty with Israel: it was at a time when relations between our countries were poisoned by the charge of “harboring Nazis.” A decade later, Stein was killed in a West Bank marketplace attack by an unidentified gunman in a keffiyeh. To this day I suspect that the gunman spoke Spanish.
Stein’s embezzlements made things very bad for a time, both for me and my father. The press roared with delight at the scandal. They could blame the bankruptcy of a national hero — such was Rogelio by the time of these events — on the landed aristocracy, the Roman Catholic Church and Jewish financiers, all at once! Every newspaper in the nation could take its pick of whom to vilify. I was recalled from active ministry, and accused by the media and my bishop of being Stein’s greedy conspirator, somehow conniving with him to circumvent my vow of poverty, the one vow which I, a lowly sinner, have truly observed since I was fifteen. I lived at a monastery during this time of the Canonical inquest, essentially on house arrest, only going into town without my collar or robe, and only after I myself had grown out a full beard, so that I looked like a communist guerilla. Eventually, the matter was dropped, after villagers told the investigating monsignors that I lived a modest life in the hill country, and that I “only loved God and Maritza and football.” Unfortunately, some of them also told the investigators that I was Rogelio’s father, a lie that was reprinted by all of our nation’s unscrupulous newspapers.
My father’s business affairs were not so easily resolved, even with all the top lawyers and press agents and bribe carriers my family’s resources could provide. Even the comically inept underlings of the Department of Justice could not fail to see that my father’s companies — controlled by Stein, of course, since my father never did a day of work in his life — had moved millions of lire and pesos and pounds out of Rogelio’s investment accounts and into ConReVol N. A. corporate subsidiaries. These inept bureaucrats actually won a criminal conviction against ConReVol; and there was a tense thirty-day window for appeal, during which it actually seemed possible that ConReVol might be dissolved or, worse, nationalized. This would have been a huge disaster, both for my family and the country, where a full five per cent of all legitimate private sector jobs were tied to ConReVol’s mineral and agricultural businesses. Fortunately, an appeal was permitted, and the case went to the Supreme Court, on which august body served four justices who attended boarding school in Switzerland with Don Miguel, my father. A laughably insignificant fine was assessed; a censure was issued; and the nation’s Minister of Finance had six of his relatives appointed to an oversight committee, generously funded by ConReVol, of course.
With the revelation of Stein’s perfidious crimes, I exited Rogelio’s life. Just as he was on the verge of a contented and youthful retirement, he was perforce plunged back into the toil of his career. Rogelio did not return my letters of penance; he rebuffed all acts of contrition. He signed with a new agent and business manager, Quito, a man recommended by Havelange himself. This scoundrel, so closely connected to the FIFA high throne of corruption, simply took the highest bid for Rogelio’s services, thereby pocketing 7% of the contract, and 25% of all licensing revenue. He and Maritza went to Milan, and Quito promptly splashed Rogelio’s silhouetted image and nickname, “The Bat,” on any apparel, equipment or billboard he could find. Rogelio labored five more years in Milan. They played him in almost every league game, domestic cup game and European qualifier. His hair went from jet black to salt and pepper. He shaved only occasionally, and the stubble came in grey. His joints became painful. Even though he continued his workout regimen, his jumping and diving and kicking was somehow less fluid. He was by now a wily old veteran, of course, and he often relied on good positioning and guile and prescient anticipation to frustrate strikers. But as one commentator noted, the years of physical attacks by opposing players had worn him down. He had lost a step, some said; he had lost a flap, joked others.
Because of the bitter cold of winter in Milan, Maritza regularly came back to South America from October to March, though Rogelio still spoke to her every day by telephone. One morning, Maritza came to mass at the parish church where I had been reassigned. Even though it was a weekday mass, I decided to conclude the mass by exiting down the center aisle, confusing the altar boys who wondered why I was engaging in such elaborate ceremony as though it was a Sunday or Holy Day. I merely hoped to see her during the recessional hymn and spend a little time talking with her at the church steps. I had an urgent need to explain myself to her and make sure she understood I never took a penny from Rogelio, that it was all Stein’s doing, and that I wanted to speak with Rogelio again. I barged past the other parishioners at the apse of the church as she approached, but she did not even look up at me. Before I could even say a word, she merely patted my arm and said “Lo se. Lo se.” Thus, forgiveness in degrees, worthy of the saints and our savior, borne from the meek. It was the last time she ever spoke to me.
Throughout those years in Milan, the legend of the rivalry between Piso, the greatest offensive force of the generation, and Rogelio, the greatest keeper of all time, continued to smolder. Both won leagues, cups and continents with regularity. Magical goals were scored and impossible saves were made. The media screamed that there was a bitter hatred between the men themselves. They conjured fictitious calumnies, quotations attributable to Piso or Rogelio, to pin to the bulletin boards of the respective opponents’ boot room. It was all fog and falsehood. They respected each other’s talents, recognizing greatness in the way that only greatness can.
After more than a decade of facing one another in club play, the only prize that eluded each of them was the World Cup. In national team play, of course, our country has always had the challenge posed by our relatively small population, as compared to footballing giants like Brazil and Germany. But it was thought that 1984 would be a different year. Our men strolled through the qualifying round, and internationally, it was a year that there was no one dominant side that everyone expected to win. We got a lucky draw, and Rogelio, now probably past forty — no one knew for sure — was a sentimental fan favorite. He allowed no goals in the group stage, and he was presented in the newspapers not only as an aging warrior girding himself for one last campaign, but also as wearing the sentimental corona of victimhood. Every story about him started with a telling of how he had overcome poverty and his “handicap” in childhood, and how he had recently been fleeced by his unscrupulous agents, by which they meant, in part, me.
The culmination of the duel with Piso came in the famous 1984 Mexico City World Cup. Piso’s side met Rogelio’s team at 10,000 feet, in the rarified polluted air where the tormented souls of the Aztec victims and garroted kings and Juan Diego and the Mother of Guadalupe flew above the pitch, cheering for one side or the other. At the time it was played, it was perhaps the most anticipated game between South American nations of all time, and South America, of course, has famously fought at least one war over football. There were no friendly bets between diplomats and presidents; to the contrary, embassies were closed and delegations sent off, with emergency contingency plans in their attachés. Havelange was in the FIFA box with the President of Mexico and the UN delegation. Armed guards surrounded the fields.
The match started brightly for our men. They pressed the attack and prevented the defenders from getting the ball forward to Piso. In the ninth minute, there was a mishit clearance, a stumble by the central defender, and Costasas was in alone! He did not lose his head in the critical moment, with the entire world watching. He leaned left, committing the Argentine keeper, and cut back right. His touch was perfect and he fired the ball into the yard of space on the near post. The streets and alleys, the arroyos and hills, the bays and the jungles reverberated with joy throughout our country at that moment! When the commotion died down, and chairs were propped back up, and spilled drinks were mopped up, everyone came to the unsettling realization that, while having an early lead was great, it meant we had to defend against Piso for a full eighty-one minutes, and perhaps more. A black cloud, doubt, covered the nation.
Is it human nature? Why does every team that noses ahead in a big match immediately fall back and defend? That is what our side did that afternoon. It was a dreadful strategy, and only Rogelio prevented an immediate equalizer. He was at his best that afternoon. The Argentine midfielders, knowing Rogelio was likely to stop any shot from distance, launched ball after ball onto the edge of the box, cross after cross, hoping for a header or a redirection, or a drop, or a misplay. It was very unlike their usual balletic passing game. In the first half alone, Rogelio made ten saves, dropping his right or left mitt to the ground in a blink to prevent low curlers, and leaping high to tip sudden strikes over the bar. The broadcasters entered into raptures of oratory in praise of our beloved keeper. The Argentines, frustrated after each failed shot, leaned over in place, cursing and pretending to adjust their shin pads. The camera returned to Rogelio again and again as our defenders thanked him for his efforts. The Argentine attack was so ferocious and relentless that some of our players dropped to the ground in exhaustion when the halftime whistle blew, as they might when at the end of game. There were at least forty-five minutes more to play.
The coach at halftime exhorted his men to press forward, to play a more offensive style of football, to bring the defensive line higher, and not merely to sit back and defend. This strategy lasted for five minutes at the start of the second half. Then began the assault. Every defender was running, grasping, kicking, punching, thrusting a foot in, clashing shins and ribs and temples. Camallo’s long unruly sweat-soaked hair absorbed the blood that was oozing from his forehead. I don’t think he saw a single ball that he headed from his position as central defense in that second half. The holding midfielders, unable to keep up with Piso, simply grabbed his shirt any time they could reach him, until each mid had been shown a yellow card. One was shown the red in the 53rd minute. Argentina returned to their brilliant passing football. They achieved 79% possession in the second half. They earned fourteen corners.
Rogelio gave the performance of his career. He was so thoroughly engaged in the match — he felt every touch, he saw every revolution of the ball — that he was shouting instructions to his own defenders even as he was sliding out to scoop up a through ball. In the 62nd minute, he almost scored. With the field tilted toward our goal, scarcely having crossed the midfield line for the prior ten minutes, Rogelio leapt forward to grab a cross. Seeing that everyone in a blue- and white-stripes was forward on the attack, in one fluid motion he rolled the ball to his own feet and took it out of the box himself, dribbling toward the empty space near the technical area. The Argentine keeper was in full flight back to his line, but he was too late. Rogelio launched a shot from inside his own half: one bounce and it hit squarely off the near post, rebounding into the arms of the relieved Argentine keeper. He fell to the ground, smothering the ball. When he stood up, he blessed himself over and over again, until the referee looked at his watch.
The attack was on again, and this time it was successful. In the 79th minute, after several corners in a row, his own defender, Gruli, unintentionally boxed out Rogelio, who was calling for the ball. Because of Gruli, Rogelio could not extend himself to make the catch, and his abbreviated punch ricocheted off the head of an opposing player, and right to the feet of Cavelli, who was offsides.
Cavelli punched the ball into the vacant net all the same.
The flag stayed down.
It was a goal.
The players, the coaches, the substitutes, the fans in the stadium and thirty million of my countrymen screamed at once. Everyone on the planet knew that Cavelli was offsides. His teammates knew he was offsides. Every tango-ist in Buenos Aires knew it. Every gaucho on the pampas knew he was offsides. Cavelli himself knew he was offsides. On television, the camera caught Piso shaking his head, almost in disgust: he himself never would have touched the ball in that offsides position.
Rogelio fell to the ground on all fours. He pressed his forehead into the muddy pitch. The rest of his teammates surrounded the referee, imploring, beseeching, demanding, gesturing with great violence, calling on God almighty and basic notions of human decency for the goal to be waived off. They begged him to consult with the assistant. Several players went over to the assistant referee and remonstrated, respectfully at first, then with unconstrained fury. Two even ran over to the assistant on the far side of the field, fifty meters away, and entreated him to correct his blind colleagues. Inevitably, the wrong words were spoken, someone was pushed, red cards were issued, more than one coach was sent to the stands, and my team was down to eight men, for the remaining ten minutes, plus extra time. It was more than enough time for Piso to conjure a legitimate goal.
When the debris was finally cleared from the pitch, everyone expected our men to fall back into a defensive phalanx in front of their own goal. They would try to keep the tie intact and go to penalty kicks, where our keeper gave us a clear advantage. Everyone knew, even amid the chaos of Cavelli’s phantom goal, that Rogelio was much more likely to remain perfect in PKs than the Argentine keeper. It was really our only hope of victory.
But then something truly remarkable happened. With only eight men, they played the ensuing kickoff all the way back to Rogelio. He drew the attackers toward him, then slotted a pass up the middle of the pitch to the central midfielder. The mid turned, and launched a long diagonal ball to a streaking unmarked winger. Everyone gasped, held their breath — at the realization that this was a designed play. The winger, Adalberto, took the ball in stride. He raced toward goal. The keeper was in no man’s land, and all he could do was juke and make himself big. The defenders were facing their own goal, running at a full sprint. Adalberto shot, a tremendous blast that caught the Argentine keeper flush on the arm. The ball in an instant bounced off the keeper and right into the shins of the Argentine central defender. It bobbled over the line. An own goal. We were ahead, 2-1, with less than ten minutes to go!
We were delirious! I thought for a moment that God himself in His divine notion of justice must have intervened to repair the imbalance of that obviously offsides goal. Heretically, I thought karma might be real. I thought, I hoped, that the only true son I ever had would be the first of my countrymen to lift the World Cup. I coveted that chalice.
It was Piso who ran the length of the pitch to pluck the ball out of his own net and hurry it to the center spot for the next kickoff. He was disgusted with his own team — his chance at glory was slipping away — and he had decided to take over what was left of the game. As he stood impatiently with hands on his hips waiting for the referee to blow the whistle for the restart, my elation was tempered by the niggling awareness that if anyone could equalize in less than eight minutes, it was Piso. He took the kick off, and pirouetted through the now gaping space at midfield to about twenty-five meters from goal, encountering almost no resistance. There he met the parked bus. Piso gained a half yard of space on the defenders. He shot with his left foot: the ball started inside the post, but swerved almost two full feet outside the far post. It was close enough that Rogelio could take no chances: he had to tip it wide.
At first, we all thought that perhaps Piso had fluffed his strike. It was unlike the diminutive wizard to miss by such a margin. But such was the genius of the man that he did it three times in a row, as the clock continued to tick up toward ninety minutes. Three times more Rogelio pushed the ball wide for a corner, creeping a few inches farther away from the frame each time.
If the game had ended as regulation time expired, we would have won. But an incredible nine minutes of added time was appended to the match, due to all the complaining and red cards that were incurred as a result of the offsides goal. In the first minute of added time, Piso sprung his trap. Having drawn Rogelio farther and farther away from the center of goal with shots apparently aimed at the far post, Piso thrashed another in exactly the same direction. Only this time, he intentionally played it directly off one of our defenders. As Rogelio dove towards the empty space near the far post, his feet flailed uselessly as the ball ricocheted off the defender and into the side netting of the near post. The match was tied.
Afterwards many observers, including Piso himself, claimed that it was a lucky bounce. But Piso knew what he was doing. He had sent Rogelio the wrong way with those four prior tantalizing shots, and then he had played the ball deliberately off the central defender into the goal. The replay, which I have watched a thousand times now, shows Piso running to collect the ball from the goal even before it had crossed the goal line.
We still believed we would get through the game. After all, in penalty kicks, we were sure to prevail. But Piso ran the ball to the center circle, and when the restart occurred it was clear that our men were too exhausted and demoralized to continue the fight. With just eight men, they could not sustain possession, and if any defensive player could manage clean contact, he was content to boot the ball as far down field or into touch as he could. They arrayed themselves in 4-3 formation at the top of the box, and conceded the flanks.
Somehow, we made it into the 99th minute, and it was still tied. A wild clearance delivered the ball into midfield, where the Argentine keeper delivered it to Piso, who embarked on one of the most and famous and fateful goals in history. He one-two’d the ball with three different teammates into the final attacking third. There he simply took possession and became invisible, even to the defenders who were kicking and grabbing at him. He nutmegged one, sombrero-d two others, caused one more to trip over his own socks, and relieved another of his athletic supporter. Almost at the PK spot, he put his head down and struck with his left foot. Of course, Rogelio made himself big in an instant, even before Piso made contact with the ball. This time, though, there was no trickery in Piso’s tactic. He used his left foot to generate supernatural speed. The ball was struck so explosively that its temperature accelerated. Time and space melted along its trajectory. It became a flaming spear, hurled by a pagan demigod, and it passed right through the flesh under Rogelio’s extended left arm for a fatal goal. Watching it on television, I thought I saw a spray of blood as the missile passed through Rogelio’s body.
One who has not heard of this goal might think I am speaking with the unhinged hyperbole that is typical of my countrymen. It is not so. As Piso reeled away, to be mobbed by his teammates and countrymen, having made the last kick of the match the winner, Rogelio pulled his left arm close to his torso, clutching it to his side with his right hand. Players and teammates said there was a sickly burning smell as they came off the field. It was not merely fireworks. In the confusion of the wild celebrations on the high mesa of Azteca Stadium, few saw that Rogelio staggered and fell. Those who did see it thought, perhaps understandably, that it was grief and frustration at bearing a loss in which he had made a still-unbroken record of thirty-six saves. The truth was that he was mortally wounded. Because of his strange alien anatomy, the ball did burn the vessels that fed his heart. When he was transported to hospital, the Mexican doctors looked at one another over their mustaches in a state of knowing unknowing: they could not tell what ministrations to apply to this creature. The wonder among these highly educated physicians was the very same that had befuddled the provincial police captain twenty years earlier. No se. No se.
Rogelio lingered on in hospital for five weeks, during which time Piso and his teammates secured the ultimate victory, crowning his brilliant career. Piso did not come to visit Rogelio, even after the newspapers reported the gravity of Rogelio’s condition. Piso was a great sportsman only on the pitch, after all. Oddly, Juan Carlos, whose team had also been knocked out of the tournament, did visit with his wife and children. They were elaborately kind, empathetic and gracious to Maritza and Rogelio, both parting with promises of prayer and assurances of recovery.
I was permitted to attend and co-celebrate the funeral mass in the national cathedral, sung by the Cardinal. Never did the redemptive words of rebirth and heavenly joy sound more hollow. As the cardinal handed me the censer to carry off to the sacristy, I could feel the tears running down my face. I was tempted to grab the burning coals and plunge them into my eyes, so deeply did I rage about how Rogelio’s life had ended, how poor a part I had played in it in his last years. Far from glorious communion in the afterlife with the one true God, I wanted only the burned-out, blind darkness of grief. I knew that Rogelio was not in the afterlife of Christ. He was in some pre-Colon, quecha cavern, a deep jungle in which he lives out the undead life he was supposed to lead, sitting mutely on a branch, staring with black eyes at the acolytes as they climb the temple steps to their own demise.