Issue 54: July - August 2006 

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Ideal Goalie
Josip Novakovich

Davor traveled from Frankfurt to Eindhoven, by train. He was exhausted from the long hours of work on construction sites, as a Gastarbeiter from Croatia. There was not much he could look forward to in his work. He cursed himself for not studying more at school and not becoming a doctor. But how could he study? There was soccer everywhere, there were games whenever he had a chance to study, and he played pick-up soccer with his friends. At least he knew what passion and tribal love was. Unless you are a soccer fan, how would you know such a thing in the alienated society of cars and privacy? Despite Yugoslavia’s being a poor country, which couldn’t retain its players for very long since they emigrated abroad, where they usually played better than they did at home, now one of its clubs was in the final round of 16.
      It was his favorite club, Hajduk. He blushed a little to think that he had collected the signatures to gather votes for the Hajduk goalie as the most handsome player of the league. He was eleven when he did that, and the Belgrade newspaper, Tempo, published the votes that he’d mailed in from his hometown, Omis, near Split. He had forged half of the votes, and Vuckovic came in third. Bjekovic from Partizan was first, but that simply had to do with the fact that Partizan had more fans than Hajduk. Now he laughed at himself for such childhood naivite, and such a terrible waste of time.
      He watched the plains through the window. It rained, and the rain made the train glass look like old glass, distorting the soggy landscape of hops plantations and stuccoed houses, each one of which displayed a row of red or yellow aspidistras in the windows. He longed for his native rocky beaches and fig trees. Fresh figs, green on the outside but purple and brown on the inside, tasting heavenly, slippery and sweet, in the sun. Lizards crawling under the stones.
      The train was crowded, and outside his compartment sat a Kosovo man on a huge disk of cheese, which he must have brought along from home; this was his capital to deliver to a restaurant. It looked better and more reliable than currency, and probably was pretty elastic to sit on.
      At the Dutch border, the man was ordered off the train, and the police interrogated him about his cheese, alongside Davor.
      Because he had long hair, Davor was harassed at the border, and even his toothpaste was squeezed out, in search of illegal drugs.
      Why is it that the only two people ordered off the train are from Yugoslavia? Davor asked in German.
      It’s just a coincidence.
      Why don’t you bother Germans and Englishmen?
      We don’t bother anybody, we are simply doing our job, was the reply.
      Davor made it to Eindhoven, and walked into a bar to fortify himself before the game with some Grolsch. He popped the patented beer cap, porcelain edged with rubber on balanced hinges, and drank from the green glass.

At the stadium, he was surprised to see some of the old players in the Hajduk team: Jerkovic, Vuckovic, Holcer. There were new some new ones, such as Buljan, a tall, bony thuggish player who could stop anyone, and who could run through a defense in a straight line without needing to dribble. Davor drank whiskey and shouted, Hajduk, Hajduk, samo naprijed! Forward outlaws!
      The wind was powerful, and it blew away his Hajduk cap, which he’d had for years. Newspapers, umbrellas, flowers, they all flew across the stadium, carried by violent gusts, which stopped your breath. Davor felt a bit asthmatic. That damned cement dust was probably turning his lungs into a wall, and any change in oxygen availability affected him.
      His idols ran out into the field. What tall and powerful lads! Raised in Split, in the sun, eating small fish with the bones, they grew up to be bony, strong, and there was an aura of vigor around them. Vuckovic came out last, and he was a bit pale and greenish in the face as though he was not feeling quite well. Davor imagined what must have been going on in the man’s head—maybe Vuckovic had enjoyed himself too much the night before?
      Vuckovic stood unsteadily in front of his goal. The night before the team had stayed up a little too late, excited by the Dutch hospitality. He’d made love without a condom to a boisterous girl, and now he had an itch, and wondered whether it came from too much rubbing or some disease. How will I go back to my wife? I’ll have to use condoms at home if I don’t abroad. Why did I do it? he wondered. Sure, it was nice, somehow very slippery, more so than he was used to at home when such things happened.
      The whole trip was exciting. Just as one would imagine, the wind was blowing all the time. There were picturesque windmills in the country outside of Eindhoven. And downtown, the mini-skirt fashion combined with the wind was quite an erotic experience. After taking a walk, he’d had a hard-on like an adolescent. The skirts shook in the wind like an invitation, and a girl, astride a bicycle, chatted him up. I’ve seen your picture, she said. I hope you won’t defend your goal too well.
      She lifted one of her legs and planted the other on the pavement. Her thigh was long and graceful and it glistened.
      I hope you won’t defend yours, he said.
      Mine, what?
      Your . . . well.
      Is that like a proposition?
      If you are going to answer yes, it is.
      She went to his hotel room.
      Now he wondered whether she had been sent in by the Dutch soccer fans, or even the club managers. It would be a pretty good strategy—get the goalie wasted, keep him up all night, get him to smoke hashish and drink wine and beer, and then send him into the field.
      He fought a gagging reflex, and burped, and the wind beat back his burp, and filled him with air. He felt bloated and weak; the wind could pick him up and he’d fly out of the stadium like a balloon.
      He stood some ten paces in front of the goal, and the wind carried the ball, totally unpredictably, from a midfield kick from the opponent team; luckily, it missed the goal by a few feet. That would have been totally embarrassing if the opponents had scored.
      He kicked the ball out as hard as he could, high in the air, but the wind brought it back to him like a boomerang, and the Dutch, who seemed to understand playing in the wind, were all in Hajduk’s half. A ball, which didn’t look like a hard kick, accelerated and suddenly changed direction. Instead of his catching it with his hands, it hit him on the head and he fell on the ground, with a bit of concussion. He regained consciousness and stood up like a boxer after a knock-out. What happened? he asked, then requested to be replaced because he didn’t feel well, but the masseur who came out to attend to him didn’t seem to understand him.
      The Dutch were quick and at one moment Buljan knocked down a player who had passed all the Hajduk defense in the penalty zone. An 11-meter kick was assessed. That would certainly be a score for the Dutch. Vuckovic tried to read where the ball would go by the angle of the striker’s feet. It looked like it would be a low shot to the right. Instead of flying to catch the ball, as he’d usually do, he stood in the same spot. The ball went straight at him and hit him in the chest, bounced, and he jumped forward and caught it, while the player jumped over him to avoid hitting him.
      The stadium burst into screams. It looked as though the goalie was brilliant, in not letting himself be faked. Every goalie took a chance to fly based upon a read and if a fake was even a bit decent, it was sometimes easiest to strike in the middle of the goal, and most experienced and self-confident penalty kickers occasionally chose to do that. Thanks to total inertia, he’d made a save.
      That was that—now he couldn’t ask to be replaced. He was treated like a hero by his players and fans. The hard ball hitting his rib cage had knocked the air out of him and he was even dizzier than before.
      Luckily, a couple of balls flew by him and by the goal post, and it looked simply as though he was a good reader of shots.
      Then, there was another penalty kick. He had no time to move and the ball was in the net, in the very top corner. A minute later, another ball somehow landed in the net. He hadn’t noticed how that had happened but it clearly had. Still, it wasn’t all that bad because Hajduk had scored as well.
      It was the 90th minute. Hajduk had won 1-0 in Split and if the score stayed 2-1 for Eindhoven PSV, Hajduk would go on because scoring on the opponent’s turf counted for more than scoring at home. So, Hajduk had basically won. The players were kissing and hugging each other, and Vuckovic was biding the time, placing the ball on the 16-meter line to kick out, then changing his mind, he rolled the ball, put it down again, and picked it up. The referee warned him that the game would be extended if he kept it up.
      Vuckovic put the ball down and wanted to run at it but slipped and almost fell. His gag reflex came back. Had he indulged in oral sex as well? If his penis was infected, what would happen to his gums? The wrong moment to think about that.
      Now the referee extended the game for one more minute and gave Vuckovic a yellow card for avoiding active play.
      He’d managed to burn at least 20 more seconds anyway, and if he kicked the ball far enough, into the jungle of players, everything would be all right. Hajduk had lots of thugs for defensive players, the types that were known as razbijaci, the smahers. He tossed the ball in the air and kicked as hard as he could. The wind dislocated the ball a little, so that instead of hitting it with the tip of his shoe, he connected with the top of his foot.
      Nevertheless, it was a fine and strong kick and the ball went high up.
      He had an incredible itch, and so he scratched his groin and didn’t follow the path of the ball. When he lifted his gaze he was amazed to see that the ball was flying back above him. Another gust of the wind brought it down, right under the goal post.
      What the hell was that?
      The crowd exploded with screams. The Dutch jumped for joy, and the Croatian players sank to their knees. The score was 3-1 for PSV. The goalie had scored against his own team, or more precisely, the wind did it, but since he was the last one to touch the ball, he was the human agent of destruction or self-destruction.
      He apologized to his teammates, but none would talk to him.
      There was a long line of Dutch fans, mostly blond women, wanting his autograph. Auto-goal was enough, he would not autograph. Their faces blurred in his mind, and they all looked like the woman from the night before. He tried to spit, but his mouth was dry.
      Outside the stadium, as he walked to the bus, he heard Croatian Gastarbeiter screaming obscenities at him.
      Yes, it was terrible that he’d let them down like that. But he did save a penalty kick. Sure, these workers lived miserably abroad and wanted a little bit of joy. But was t it his fault that they were such losers, that they had nothing else to live for? The world was a big place, full of opportunities, and if you couldn’t find any other source of hope than a stupid game, you deserved no pity, he thought. Or you deserved pity, but wouldn’t get any of his sympathy.
      He showed the international do-it-to-yourself sign and turned his back.

Davor saw Vuckovic showing the fuck you sign. So, there. After all those trips, hard earned tickets, to see his idol behave like that, a fallen idol, so arrogantly. Well, how could Vuckovic behave? He certainly couldn’t be proud of what happened.
      Still, he would have to talk to the man, to straighten him out.
      Two weeks later, Davor took a night train to Split for a brief vacation, unpaid leave. He had been drinking steadily since Hajduk’s loss. At one point, he twisted his ankle, and now that ankle was swollen. He wrapped it up in a shirt, which he kept soaking up in cold and salty water. Once he got home and soaked the foot in the Adriatic, he would recover fast, his foot anyway, but he would still grieve for what had happened to his soccer club, and even more, for all those years he had followed soccer, eagerly awaiting games, listening to the radio, Edo Peci, and all those mornings and evenings he spent discussing with his friends the soccer games already played, and the games to be played. He had remembered all the games, all the moves, all the players. . . what a waste! Who would compensate him for all that garbage in his head? He could have learned the names of all the trees and medicinal plants and mushrooms instead, and even all the fucking stars in the heavens, but now he had a head full of soccer stats. In a few years nobody would remember these arrogant boys who had made the nation breathless, nervous, always waiting for victories, which rarely came. There is no greater unhappiness than that of a fan of a relatively good, extremely talented, club, who somehow never makes it to the top.
      He was in a compartment with a German tourist going on vacation. When she leaned to pick up her bottle of water in the backpack, her breasts wobbled, unfettered by bras.
      For a while, he couldn’t fall asleep.
      The train conductor came and made love to the tourist. Davor pretended to sleep but the noises made him too excited.
      When the conducter left, the tourist still lay there with her skirt pulled up.
      Davor came over and touched her knee.
      She slapped him, hard.
      What’s that for? He asked. Don’t you want to do it?
      Get lost or else. . .
      He went back to his side of the compartment and stretched out.
      He couldn’t sleep all night.

In the morning, in Split, he drank some coffee in the first café he could find along the walls of the Diocletian Palace. He certainly didn’t miss the flavor, but he drank the espresso, which must have been the dregs, a second or third run through the same grind. Suddenly he noticed Vuckovic several tables away drinking with a model. So, you bastard, he thought, you can still be happy. You give us heart attacks when we watch your games, and here you are, relaxing, happy.
      He even had the gall to emanate charisma. He looked very well, somewhat plump, his black hair shining, with strong eyebrows, and a twinkle in his eyes, as though he’d just come up with a clever joke.
      Davor noticed there was a souvenir shop, and he walked over to it. There were some hunting knives, with plastic handles, imitations of ivory. He bought one and casually strolled toward Vuckovic. He visualized lifting the knife and shouting, For Eindhoven! The knife hit the shoulder blade and went through it, partly, but stopped. Davor left the knife sticking in the bone, and turned to run. He’d forgotten about his ankle. It twisted again, turning outwards, and he fell.
      The part here that was not imagined was that he fell with the knife in his hand just as he was shouting For Eindhoven, but the knife was still in his hand, and clearly, he hadn’t stabbed Vuckovic, although he did have a momentary blackout during his fall. He wasn’t sure whether it was before the fall or after that his mind blanked out.
      A couple of young men got to him and lifted him to his feet.
      You wanted to stab Vucko?
      He lost the game for us.
      Come on, you can’t take it that seriously. You can’t go killing the players now! We’re taking you to the police station.
      But three other guys came by and said, Let him go! He had the right idea. We should go and get them all, those lazy motherfuckers. Give me that knife, I’ll stab the bum!
      A brawl ensued and pretty soon there were several dozen citizens fighting.
      Davor looked down the block, and saw Vuckovic running away.
      He wished he could see a knife sticking out of the man’s back, with red streaks of blood running down the white shirt, but there was only a bright white shirt, glaring in the sun, beyond the several dozen young men who fought over the idea to kill the players or not to, to protect a would-be soccer assassin, or not to. The young men were so absorbed in their fight that they ignored Davor, who limped to the train station.

© Josip Novakovich 2006

See also Night Guests from issue 53

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author bio
josip.jpg (3756 bytes)
Jeanette Novakovich

Josip Novakovich is the author of April Fool's Day (2004) as well as three short-fiction collections, most recently Infidelities: Stories of War and Lust (2005). He is the winner of a Whiting Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts grant, and an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation. A resident of central Pennsylvania, he teaches at Penn State University.

Contact the author.


Issue 54: July - August 2006 

f i c t i o n

Josip Novakovich: Ideal Goalie
Julian Daragiati: World Cup
Nickolay Todorov: Penalty in Injury Time
Rob McClure Smith: Easterhouse
Alex Mitchell: The Society for Recreating the Hachiko Statue
Kathryn Simmonds: A Quiet Drink

picks from back issues
     football stories:
Irvine Welsh: A Fault on the Line
Suhayl Saadi: Sufisticated Football

q u i z

Sports in Literature
answers to last issue's quiz, Animals in Literature

b o o k   r e v i e w s

The Dead Yard by Adrian McKinty
Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

r e g u l ar  f e a t u r e s

Book Reviews (all issues)
TBR Archives (authors listed alphabetically)
TBR Archives  (by issue)

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