translated into English by Stéphanie Benson
Night was falling over the old Lamberville stadium. Five kids
were moving in the twilight, their eyes fixed on a brand new football, a present
from the woman at the Social Aid office. Two of them were nigh on perfect. They
were the less talkative ones, round rolling music was in their head. The round
ball rolled on, stuck to their trainers.
They lined up close control after close control, short lofted
kicks, and dodges, not forgetting the famous scissor kick, which gets the
goalkeeper flying to tackle the goal post. They were fifteen years old, their
brains full of dreams of Nou Camp, drunken images of a block-full Stade de
France stadium. The ball ran between the children who, wilting with fatigue,
still found the strength to try body dodges, double contacts, feinting, diving
in the centre and lobbing plummeting balls at the goalie, a Portuguese kid of
sixteen who measured four feet five and wouldn’t get any taller.
The wind started blowing, a new chill wore through their
shirts. One of them gave the end of play sign.
The most elegant player - a playground dancer - was a
coloured boy with dark eyes and a timid smile. Last to leave the ground, he
climbed onto an old bike and pedalled leisurely back to the aptly named Vale of
Hell council estate, which bordered just on the edge of the national road to the
West and an Auchan hypermarket to the East. The sort of refuge you wouldn’t
wish for your worst enemy.
As he got up to the André Malraux block, Roger Songo -
that was his name - braked and went into building number five. He lifted his
bike and ran down to his cellar space near the laundry block. He was about to go
up to his mother’s flat when a nearby voice called to him.
"That you, Roger?"
"Come and see."
There were three of them set up like princes in the laundry
block. Pablo, Felix and Mouloud, Roger’s classmates. They were sucking like
hell on a piece of pipe stuck into a condensed milk can. The can, full of crack,
was leaking acrid smoke, which they breathed in to help put up with their shit
"Wanna smoke, Roger?"
"The thing is the Paris coach is coming to Auguste
"So what? This ain’t drugs, it’s just smoke."
Grudgingly, but not wanting a conflict, the young footballer
took place on the rotting ripped-out car seats and inhaled the crystal fog which
hit his brain like a fast train.
The Paris team coach was a fat guy without a cigar but with
bad teeth, and you could guess that it hurt him a lot to wade round this
stinking suburb. He leant towards a pockmarked man squeezed into an Adidas
training suit and murmured:
"Well, Lortie, where is your Cameroon marvel?"
"French-Cameroon. He was born in France. He’s the one
sitting to the right of the goal.
"Yeah. Set me up quick a seven against seven on half of
Bob Lortie got the kids of the Lamberville Football Club
quickly together and, whistle in mouth, gave the kick-off, not taking his eyes
from Roger Songo whose absent stare meant nothing good.
After twenty-five minutes of skirmishing, Roger woke up from
a nightmare. He knew he’d just let go the chance of his life. He could see it
in Bob Lortie’s eyes and, worse still, in the coach’s indifferent
expression. The coach shrugged his shoulders and moved off towards his metal
finish BMW. Lortie, who’d seen the official back to his car, moved towards
"You ill, kid?"
"No... I just don’t feel too good."
"Sure. A healthy mind in a healthy body, remember,
"Yes sir. It’s my fault."
The coach, tired and disappointed, took his eyes from the boy
to encompass the estate, his hands solidly placed on his hips.
"This rotten council estate will eat you all up one
after the other. Get out of here, Roger, it stinks of death."
The boy looked up at Lortie, brushed away a tear and scuffed
his feet off the grass, which lay yellowing in the cold sun.
For six months, Roger Songo chewed on Bob Lortie’s words.
He could no longer stand up to the hurt look in the coach’s eyes, which spoke
to him of fault and defeat. He thought gloomy thoughts. Sometimes, he would go
down to the cellar and, between two crack pipes, try to forget the triumphant
gestures of winners the TV screen delighted in slowing down on European Cup
He presented himself, humble and disillusioned, at one of
Lamberville’s neighbouring clubs that played in regional division. He was soon
upped into the team and at 16, a number ten on his back, fought every Sunday
against red-skinned terrors who murmured whitey at him in one to ones,
tackling him from behind and ploughing into his slim legs which gave magic balls
to the feet of attackers.
Roger took it all without complaint. He knew that the few
supporters only really got excited for his opening decisive passes and his free
kicks that stroked past the defence wall to finish snugly at the back of the
Today, he had put two into the left corner of the Calville
goal. At the 75th minute, the home trainer brought in a shaven headed colossus
the others called Rodriguez. Rodriguez moved in close to the teenager and hissed:
"I’m going to kill you, man. This is your last
He followed theses words with two vicious tackles that left
Roger bent double in pain. He asked to be replaced, went back to the changing
rooms without a look for the sad soap opera going on behind him. Then he got on
his motorcycle and rode back to the André Malraux block.
His heart beating, blood rushing, Roger took a carpet cutter
from his brother’s room and ran down the stairs to the damp cellar. A pipe of
crack, his head burning, the young man drove the knife into the veins of his
He felt overwhelmed by sudden laziness. Enough of all this
horror. He felt himself losing contact and, in one last flash, fast replayed one
of Maradona’s best passes.
The doctor looking after Roger at the psychiatric hospital
wasn’t a fan of systematic chemotherapy. The sort of man who enjoyed talking
in the sunshine. Cool guy.
"Your wrists better?"
"They’re still a bit sore."
"We’re stopping the moclobemide today, you seem better
to me. Have you thought about the future?"
"No... A bit. Lortie told me about a club in second
division that’s looking for a number ten.
"Yes. And apart from football?"
"What do you mean?"
"Do you want a definite discharge?"
"I’d like that. My Mum’s willing to take me back,
she’s giving me three months to see how it goes."
"Okay, but you come back here once a week."
There were expressions that Roger Songo hadn’t heard before.
Playing with the reserves, for example. Not second division reserves,
national reserves. Knife-fight duels on scrubby fields, metal studs to mark the
territory, but above all a total lack of ambition and thus boredom, depression.
Roger, his mind full of anger - for minimum wages - set
himself to deciphering his opponents’ tactics. The last few yards dribbler
became a strategic commander. His muscles knotted. For a whole year, Roger Songo
waded through that hell of swampy fields without the slightest pom-pom girl
behind the goal to soften his cactus spiked heart.
Then came that Sunday, under a heavy drizzle.
It was Robertet, the middle defender, who murmured in his ear
on the way out of the changing rooms:
"Look over to the rails. That’s Jurgovic.
Jurgo. Ten national team selections when a country called
Yugoslavia didn’t just look like a minefield. Three years at Marseilles,
number nine on the back and a cup quarterfinal against Bordeaux. Then that
fucking tackle, the tibia cracking, end of an era.
Today, recycled with the help of a faithful sponsor, Jurgo
coached a second division club whose avowed ambition was to finish in the middle
of the results table. The guy talking to Jurgo had a hood up over his head, he
stooped a bit more every year, but you still called him Bob.
Bob Lortie. Who moved away and left the Yugoslavian on the
soaked field to watch a young Black man who couldn’t take any more of dying
every godforsaken Sunday.
Ninety minutes later, Songo had given three winning passes
and sent a free kick whirling to the back of the net guarded by a lobotomised
Showers and jokes. Roger grabbed his bag and fled out to the
sun since the rain had stopped. A rainbow swept over a still dark sky.
Then the Jurgo guy approached him.
"You don’t know me, son, but..."
"Yes I do, I recognised you, Mr. Jurgovic."
"Right. Let’s walk a bit."
The two men moved slowly over to the parking lot.
"Well. I need a number ten and you have the ideal
profile. You know the club; we’re just trying to avoid relegation. I can offer
you twelve thousand a month plus the premiums, but there’s one thing you
should know: you’ll never play against Barcelona or the Real; you’ll never
see your face on TV. Girls won’t go mad in nightclubs; you can forget the
Mercedes with options. Sometimes, the job will be difficult. Some days you might
however feel vaguely happy. Do you want the job or not?
The two men, one White, one Black, were facing each other,
mutually deciphering the layers of defeat on one another’s face. In a few
words, all had been said; everything except death was already on the agenda.
A ball, sent too deep by a kid, landed at Jurgovic’s feet.
He lifted the leather with his foot and, whistling, started juggling just for
the pleasure of the two damp-eyed Arabs.
Strangely, Roger Songo guessed that this man would not betray
him. It would take him a few years to trample down his dreams and confront the
reality of a football pitch. A second-level battle zone. So he looked up to
Jurgo and said the word the other guy was waiting for.
And, saying it, he even managed to smile.