The sun beat down on the uncultivated grass of the park. A few white clouds dragged the muggy sky to the corners of the skyline. The light was dazzling and every leaf dripped the last drops of its sap. From the square stone where I sat enjoying the shade of one of the big mulberry trees, I saw them arriving.
The first group came around the big bend in the street far away, much further than the end of the field. The four boys carried on their shoulders two big bags made of coloured cloth; most probably, they contained their team’s tee-shirts. When the first party had advanced into the meadow, the other Togolese boys appeared behind. They were still far away, but I recognized their smooth swinging silhouettes, the tee-shirts they wore, and their way of walking.
As they got closer, I could also recognize their faces: Darius, little Iris’s father, Honoré, the biggest one, and Bernard, who never spoke. I could not tell if I knew the ones at the back of the group. Maybe they were new, had just arrived because somebody had passed on the word to them or maybe they were simply too far away. When this second group was also crossing the field, the last ones, and the greatest in number, appeared.
I smiled, stood up and left my position when they came near.
“Hallo Sara, already here?” one of them asked me.
“Yes, we are already here”. And I pointed to the eleven Egyptian boys who were sitting nearby on the ground. They all said hallo in their quiet lazy way, shaking hands. If we had not come expressly for the purpose, it might look as though nobody had the least intention of playing.
The group grew bigger and bigger as the others arrived. The afternoon was floating in the lazy summer heat. Sing-song voices rose up around me: Ewe, Cotocolì, Egyptian dialect. African languages were like a song around me.
As I went over to Michel, the coach, to talk to him, I lit a cigarette. We had been playing together until late on Saturday evenings for many weeks now. “So, Michel, are all the boys here?”
“Look at them”. He smiled at me from under his moustache. His smile was encouraging. “They are all here. There’s Chris, the midfielder you like”. I turned round and looked at the young boy who was pulling up bright red socks. “Very well, so the whole group is here”.
I turned my eyes to the players who were changing their clothes. Tee-shirts, socks and shoes whirled around me like a crazy Catherine-wheel. No one stood still and everybody looked happy.
I went back to the shade of the tree, waiting for everyone to be ready. For years my voluntary work with the immigrants had been bringing me to football grounds such as this and, as time went by, my passion for the sport grew at the same rate as my work with foreign communities. I was a woman in a man’s world, but nobody seemed to mind. When there was need, there was always someone who went behind the bushes for a pee or freely undressed to get changed. Sometimes I thought I had become transparent.
At a certain moment, one of the youngest Togolese said to me: “Coach, we are ready”.
“Ok”, I answered, “I will look for a referee”.
I wandered among the multicoloured gathering of friends and spectators, trying to understand from their glances if someone wanted to take part. I went up to a boy who looked dishevelled and rough; he was looking at me as if he wanted to ask me something. “Do you want to be the referee?” I asked him.
“I don’t know how”, he answered hesitating.
“It does not matter, it’s easy! You will see that you can manage. Otherwise, the others cannot play…”. He awkwardly stood up and I asked him: “What’s your name? Where do you come from?”
“Jean-Louis. I come from Cameroon”.
“Perfect”, I declared and I encouraged him by giving him a slap on the back: I handed him the whistle. “Go and run”. I pushed him to the centre of the field. “Remember: run and whistle from time to time”.
The boy hurried towards the others who were looking at him as is he came from an unknown planet. I felt as if their amazement were mostly due to the fact that there was actually a referee rather than the way he looked.
I went back to Michel”. “Everything is all right, there’s even a referee”.
“Wonderful. But does he know what to do?”
“Of course. He is good, you will see”.
“Bon, let’s start, then”.
The two teams were out in full force. The Togolese wore red tee-shirts and shorts that they most probably picked up here and there, and that varied from spotted boxers to white bermudas; on the other hand, the Egyptians were sporting sparkling cornflower blue uniforms from the Galbiati cement factory in Cernusco Lombardone. I wondered how they had managed to get them.
With a great deal of effort, Michel finally succeeded in getting the four extra footballs, with which some unruly players were having fun on their own, thrown off the field. I nervously moved about to try and catch the referee’s attention. Even so, he was hesitating and uncertain. In the end, after some players had explained the situation to him, he gave the long-awaited starting whistle.
Oblivious of the summer sun, the boys began to run around under our watchful eye. The Egyptians were very serious about the game: in spite of their previous tricks, the beginning of the match had turned them into potential bloodthirsty wild beasts. The last defender gave instructions to those in front of him. Mohammed, the goalkeeper, a shy and gentle guy, was the shortest of all the players and, from time to time, he jumped up in order to see what was going on further down the field, beyond his team-mates’ shoulders. In spite of his height he had always managed to be a good goalkeeper. All the others shouted and moved about telling their team-mates what they were supposed to do. They put more energy into explaining the others’ tasks to them than doing their own. However, at least they showed character.
The Togolese ran smoothly and fast, even if sometimes they seemed not to know exactly what to do with the football when they were near the goal. They easily covered the field with long strides but, afterwards, they got nervous and lost possession of the ball. You could say that each one had his own style.
After a quarter of an hour of thirsty spectating, I was happy to notice that the women and the children were arriving. They appeared at the edge of the field carrying buckets of cool water and beers. “Sara, how are you?” asked Marie, little Iris’s mother, and kissed me.
“Well, thanks. How are you, Iris?”
The little girl kissed me without answering. She was only two years old and was not a great talker. She looked at me from behind her little plaits, with her usual frowning expression, and ran away.
The women laid their coloured cloths out under the trees and set out the food. I stayed beside Michel a little longer and casually commented on the game. The match seemed to go on in much the same way: everybody was running and shouting; only the goalkeeper kept silent and jumped around from time to time.
I moved away from Michel on a pretext and I made my way to the trees. I smiled and sat down on one of the cloths. The women were sitting in a circle, chatting, passing the children to each other and holding them. “Drink something”. They handed me an ice-cold can of coke. I thanked them and lay down to have a rest in the cool shade.
The women’s words were floating in the air. In that improvised corner of Africa, I observed the sky. At that moment, the world was full of life; I surrendered and breathed the scent of the meadow: after so many afternoons spent in that place, I was able to recognize each blade of grass that had changed colour, the scattered clovers and the lower branches of the trees which I had the habit of leaning against. I knew the light and the changes of the sky and the white running of the seasons’ clouds. Since my relationship had come to a sudden end, leaving me full of pain, I had thrown myself into that job: I felt the need for warmth and a sense of belonging growing inside of me, since now I did not belong to anyone any more.
I wondered why destinies cross and grow apart, why buildings that look strong and solidly constructed fall down in a few seconds. I wondered why life often seems to be a blind dance made to confuse us.
I tried to rouse myself from my melancholy and, since the women were still chatting, I turned my attention to their voices. I felt their presence to be reassuring, like when I was a child and woke up surrounded by my mother’s and my grandmother’s whispers. I felt as if here too someone was watching over my rest.
I sat up straight to see what was going on on the field. The players were still running energetically in the sun, even though any other human being would have risked melting after a few minutes in such heat.
The match went on tirelessly, without any goals being scored. On the path running around the edge of the field I saw Babak, the Iranian former coach who had been removed from the job by the players, who considered him insufferable. Today he was wearing khaki bermudas, sneakers and a big Texas Ranger hat, a mysterious souvenir of a trip to Rome.
As usual, he was enraged. He came up to me and threw his ragged football bag on the ground. “Beh” he said in his condescending way, “but are they already playing?”
“Yes, Babak. The appointment was more than one hour ago”.
“I had things to do at that time, what do you expect?”
“Nothing, Babak. You are the one who asked me to get the boys to come earlier”.
“Ok, it does not matter. Now I will go and talk to Michel”, he huffed, while he walked off, flip-flops flapping. It was not so difficult to understand why none of the players could stand him.
All of a sudden, a shout from the playground told me that a goal had been scored. One of the Egyptians, exulting, ran and hugged the others, while Aziz, the full back, dropped down and kissed the ground. The Galbiati cement factory pharaohs were exulting while the Togolese stood on their side of the field looking disconsolate.
After a moment’s hesitation, the pandemonium started over again.
I looked at Michel and I saw that Babak had started to wave his arms about and shout at his “bench”. Michel was scratching his head while the others stared at the Iranian as if he were an exotic and unknown animal.
I moved toward them and tried to prevent the situation from getting worse. “So, Michel, how much time do we have left?” He was only too happy to escape Babak’s attentions. “But what’s wrong with that guy?”
“Never mind. Not even he knows”. And I added: “I think the first half is over”.
“Let’s call the referee”.
I peered around the field looking for the boy from Cameroon and I saw him in the only empty area, wandering around with his whistle held tightly in his hands. I imagined that he had not yet understood much of the philosophy and rules of football. I attracted his attention once more and, in some way, I succeeded in getting him to whistle the end of the first half.
The players, dripping with sweat, went over to the women, who gave them cool water and some beers too. The Egyptians were purple-faced and everyone collapsed on the grass.
The referee came over to me and I clapped him on his back. “Well done, Jean-Louis. You did a good job. Remember to whistle from time to time”.
The boy smiled and nodded. I went back to the group: some were eating, some drinking, some chatting. I realized I was an ethnic minority: in that part of the field there was nobody from my country
Half time ended and the second half started. The Egyptians ran toward the centre of the field kicking their legs and the Togolese set off resolutely, determined to rally.
After a couple of minutes, the referee also appeared, pushed forward by someone among the spectators.
The sun finally took on a golden light. The heat was no longer as furious as at the beginning of the afternoon. I yawned and rubbed my face. I was tired and was relaxing.
I always remember that summer as the one in which I was adopted by the Togolese, in Milan. I did not know if I really did anything for them; they certainly did something for me. Maybe they had seen how rootless I was or they had perceived in my glance the feeling of helpless loneliness with which I was struggling; I don’t know but, in opening their arms to me, they made me feel at home.
Little Iris came up behind me and touched my back: “ber, ber”, she tried hard to pronounce the word and handed me a can.
“Thank you, Iris”. I smiled at her. “Do you want some?” The little girl nodded in her sulky way and then ran away. I turned to her mother: “Did you see? Your daughter cannot say water but she knows what beer is”.
“She will become like her father”, the woman smiled.
I went on watching the match. The players continued without a break. In that match, they were looking for personal success in life, in their whole world, even if it was only an illusion. I went back to Michel. He was still standing at the side of the field and kept on giving suggestions to his players. “Chris, slow down! Let the ball run! You must control the game”.
A breath of wind rose up and, in the light that was softening, it was agreeable to look at the effort and at the disconnected grace of those men who were pursuing a dream.
At that moment, they were no longer builders, labourers or illegal immigrants, but only athletes searching for some greatness. All together we were a big tableau vivant. The burnt-out surface of the grass was the background, and life was the game being played on it. In their intense running, someone told of the desert that he had crossed, or of being on a boat adrift for many days, without water or food. Someone told of the family that he had left behind, someone else of the journey with no return. I symbolized their arrival, in spite of my long and lonely nights in Milan, during which I could not tell if there would be an exit from the labyrinth. Our painting represented our hope, the harmony of being together in that place, at the same moment.
I took a long breath. By now, the sun was a soft sphere that caressed our shoulders and hair, releasing the scent of the late roses. Behind my back, Babak was still complaining to a boy who was lying on the grass and staring at him with detached curiosity.
“Because these people don’t even know what football is! They are amateur players! In Iran, I was a player in the national under eighteen team. Do you think I don’t know what I’m talking about?” The boy nodded, tickling his teeth with a blade of grass: he looked as if he was enjoying a theatrical performance.
Near me, Michel was anxiously following the game. “Come on…!” A frightening shriek pierced my brain once more. The Togolese had succeeded in scoring a goal. Chris, the midfielder, jumped for joy and ran laughing down the whole field. Michel hugged me, smothering me in his big arms. “Bravo, well done, boys! You have done it!” I managed to say, while freeing myself from Michel’s mortal embrace. I waited for the situation to calm down. The players regained control and started running again. “Michel, let’s finish the match here. Now the score is even. Everybody has played, so they are satisfied. What do you say?”
Michel looked at his watch: “You are right, five more minutes and we stop.”
I looked at the time: it was almost eight o’clock. The match had lasted for ages and the afternoon had dripped away, long and intense up to the end. “Bon”, Michel said. “Let’s call the referee”.
We started waving our arms about again and shouting to him until Jean-Louis, suddenly inspired, whistled loudly. The players stood hesitating, as if they were stunned, looked at each other and, finally, set out for the shadowy end of the field. They all collapsed on the ground and, for a few minutes, the park was in a total peace.
“Wonderful, Michel! It was a great match”.
“They played well”.
The boys started to get changed. Once again, tee-shirts, shoes and shorts whirled around until everything was back in the bags. The women stood up and refolded the cloths. Then they gathered up the small buckets with the remaining bottles and the garbage bags. Iris was, miraculously, smiling and following another little girl who was running. One by one, the players stood up and set out toward the exit of the park.
Babak was the first to leave: all by himself, he quickly flip-flopped away, looking clearly vexed. The group moved slowly, like a small caravan rolling across the grass. The sun was brushing the tops of the trees and shadows were lengthening. In the middle of the field, Darius said: “Wait, let’s have one last drink before leaving”.
The women took out beers and drinks, handed out plastic glasses and some flat breads that they had kept hidden up to that moment.
“Let’s drink a toast to my wife, Marie, because today is her birthday”.
We drank in the light that was dying down and the field no longer looked the way it had just a few moments before, but like a dream that was fading away to make way for the evening. I realized that the world we see is held in a fragile balance that can be upset and cause it to fall at any moment. We are only wayfarers leaning over a void: there is always the possibility that we will fall into the emptiness, but the important thing is not to be afraid before it happens.
“Let’s go, boys. In a while it will be getting dark”.
The caravan slowly set off again like a sphere tumbling over the grass, like a spot spinning in space. Further back, Jean-Louis, the last, followed along: he kicked the football and trotted, absorbed in his own thoughts, behind the others.
Translation by Paola Roveda (edited by Roma O’Flaherty)