Dr. Arturo Frondizi and I were both tall and skinny. At the time he was starting his second year as president of the Argentine nation. I was a senior in the school located on El Salvador and Humboldt Streets in the city of Buenos Aires.
More than once, through the strange workings of the human mind, I had the following thought: "I know the existence of Frondizi, but he doesn't know mine."
The district the school was in was also my district so I was quite familiar with it.
Near the end of Costa Rica Street — I mean just a few yards before you get to Dorrego — there was an automotive repair shop. I used to see the mechanic that worked there standing outside the shop on the sidewalk. Sometimes I saw him lying down under a car. He was always wearing grease-stained blue overalls. Whatever he was wearing you couldn't fail to notice him. He was over six feet tall, and, judging from his husky build, he must have weighed over 250 pounds. He also had a ruddy round face with light blue eyes and blond hair, so blond that it was almost white. He must have been about thirty.
Costa Rica Street, as it crossed Dorrego, turned into Cramer, and you were now in the Colegiales neighborhood. In those days, in another hundred yards or so, there was an enormous empty lot called the Campito (Little Field), which crossed Alvarez Thomas and Zapata Streets and went lengthwise down as far as Jorge Newbery Street. On this lot there was room for several soccer fields, which were the scene of informal games between teams made up of local amateur soccer players. There wasn't a single blade of grass on this huge lot, just hard dry dirt.
To get to the Campito it was necessary to cross a depression where every now and then, at the bottom of the slope, and on a single round trip, a freight train, not running much anymore for more than a half century, used to go regularly on a line which connected the Mitre Colegiales station with the San Martín Chacarita station. So there wasn't the slightest threat of danger from passing trains. But when the only train with a black steam engine on that line blew its long, sharp, sad whistle, it was a bit spooky. All locomotives in those days, just like boats, had a name. This one, in white letters, was the GAUCHITA.
So on one Sunday morning in July I went down a 45° slope onto the railroad bed. I heard no whistles, but just in case I looked right and left and crossed the tracks and started up the other slope. I was going to join my buddies on a team called the Rayo Azul (Blue Flash). We were going to play an informal "friendly" game against an unknown team from a nearby area called Amanecer de Bollini (Bollini's Dawn).
These games were run by a man named Azzimonti, I never knew his first name. He was a gruff guy with an ever-present cigarette hanging from his mouth. When he was young, according to what he told us more than once, he had played on a second-level team as an "insider". That authorized him to function for us as sort of a coach. He had an assistant they called Tijerita (Little Scissors), I suppose because he had once been a barber.
There were no dressing rooms or anything like that. On the sidelines before the game we put on our soccer uniforms, and after the game we put our street clothes back on. About 300 yards away on the edges of the slope, there was a tap, about three feet high, with running water. There, squatting down, we could cool off, take a drink, wash up a little, although most of us, exhausted after the game, were too lazy to travel such a distance and preferred to head home thirsty and sweaty.
Azzimonti, once again, had invited me to play, and I smugly agreed.
The position of left forward was still open. Sometimes I played first team there — Hugo Martínez was the sub — and sometimes vice versa. This time, however, I started the game at that position.
To tell the truth, my soccer skill wasn't too great.
But I was pretty good at faking a shot with my left foot — or "stick" as we called it. I was pretty fast; in fact they called me "The Greyhound". I was "right-footed," but I could still also shoot with my left foot, my "idle" leg," or "other leg" the "stick, " as long as the ball was in motion. My left-footed shot, I don't know why, was harder than my right-footed shot, but unfortunately not as accurate.
I had no other good moves. I was incapable of dribbling very far unless I had wide open space. And, to make things worse, in spite of my height, I wasn't very good at the passing game. I was a poor "header" — I could only hit with the left side of my head. As I played on the left wing, as I said, this was actually more advantageous.
Although I am right-handed, I played left wing. This actually was more of an advantage than a disadvantage. I ran down the left side of the field, and my shot with the left foot was weak. On the other hand, my right-footed shot could beat the other guy, who was used to facing left-footed shooters.
I was pretty skinny, not very strong, long-legged, and scarcely weighing 130 pounds. You could count my ribs. My speed and ability to accelerate made me seem even more fragile and tempted the guy guarding me to try to send me flying. For my age I still wasn't fully developed. Almost all my teammates and also the opponents were husky men in their 20s, some even older.
The players on Amanecer de Bollini wore jerseys with red-and-blue vertical stripes, white shorts, and blue socks. To tell the truth, our jerseys were actually pretty "crummy". From the left shoulder to the last point on the right side, they sort of stood out in a conspicuous way, with its brilliant blue stripe, and our white shorts and socks.
The referee called us to start the game. We spread out, each one in his position on the playing field.
I wore no. 11. On the other side of the midfield line, wearing no. 4 on his jersey, was a guy I knew from having seen him before. And this huge guy with a ruddy face was none other than the owner of the repair shop on Costa Rica St. I could hear his name being called out by his teammates: Tadeo.
And just as happened to me before with Arturo Frondizi, I had the same absurd thought: "I know who he is, but he has no idea who I am."
So the game started.
For the first minutes of play, Amanecer de Bollini covered us so close that we couldn't get the ball out of our zone or even out of our penalty area. You could say I became just sort of a spectator — not really in the game. I barely took a couple short back–and–forth passes; I was just unable to control the ball.
We must have been twenty minutes or so into the game. And it was a miracle that we were still scoreless. Actually according to our "rules" we should have been at least three goals behind.
In the midst of the constant attack of this red–and–blue "army" our left-side full back, usually not very noticeable and covering his man like a blanket, kicked the ball sky high.
As the ball started to come down, I watched it come toward me. I could barely move out a little to stop it with my chest. Since I am pretty slow the ball bounced against my chest and flew two yards away. I stopped the ball with my right foot.
This all lasted about a second. And just a few feet from me was the gigantic figure of Tadeo, his legs spread wide, his arms spread out, and his blue eyes fixed on my feet.
I leaned over a bit and faked that I was going to head inside to pass Tadeo's left flank. He really bit on this maneuver and jumped to where neither I nor the ball was.
This all took a split second, and at the same time he stumbled and continued moving away with his back to his own goal.
That was more than enough time for me, the "Greyhound," and my legs to stop the ball with the inside of my right foot, and it shot right past number 4.
The Greyhound, now in enemy territory, and with so much open field ahead there was no point in carrying the ball with my foot. I kicked it long and ran after it toward the goal at top speed. In those few seconds Tadeo was left a couple yards behind me, and I was about to take a shot at the goal.
But in the middle of the field, no. 2, running diagonally, got there, not seeing me there and being unable to stop without being controlled it was very easy for the Greyhound, against such a clumsy ox, to suck him in again with his free foot from right to left. But now he was practically out of bounds and couldn't shoot at the goal. So the only thing he could do would be to kick the ball with his left foot, hoping that Lady Luck would do the rest. So he kicked hard with his left foot, not very accurately. Anything could happen now.
Lady Luck determined that among the four or five players in the penalty area, the ball would go with the right foot of the Blue Flash's center forward, who, unguarded, scored the first goal of the game.
So we now lined up to resume the game.
I'm almost too happy. I'm very satisfied with myself because of the excellent play I had made that got us our first score. And this goal, although I didn't make it, was really made possible by my physical ability and by my mental quickness.
This self-congratulatory state of mind caused me to make two errors.
The first was mental and actually pretty slight. I underestimated the opponent and thought he was a pushover. It was so easy for me to get by him into the opponents' area that I was sure that he was going to get really annoyed and stay that way until the very end of the game.
And that's when I made the second mistake — not at all trivial, but serious — in fact, catastrophic.
When Tadeo and I glanced at each other, I couldn't resist the temptation to form a circle with my right index finger and thumb, holding it up to my forehead, winking and smacking my lips in the famous "Look at me" pose used by the comic actor Carlos Balá.
But Tadeo didn't think it a bit funny. He glared at me with a murderous look in those beautiful blue eyes, and he cursed me, and I could read his lips so I got his insult.
The game continued and began to unfold in the very same way as before. Once again the defense was bunched up in the same area, and once again our goalie was stumbling around.
The ball got to me just like the one that had scored the goal. With the hint of a gratuitous smile I faced Tadeo and successfully repeated the same play — where I faked going inside but instead went outside.
But this time I couldn't get him to move four or five yards back. He didn't fall for it, and I couldn't break free for even an inch, let alone four or five yards.
Tadeo, turning quickly around with surprising speed, kicked me square in the back. My own inertia caused me to fall flat on my face. My nose, chest, elbows, knees and legs all scraped against the hard, rough playing field, especially unforgiving because of the July cold. I tried to get up and kick Tadeo in the stomach or anywhere I could.
But I couldn't get up. I was bleeding, in pain, covered with dirt. The referee called a foul in our favor, and my teammates jumped all over Tadeo, shouting at him for having made such a dirty play. A fight broke out — with pushing and shoving, shouting and cursing. Tadeo was warned by the referee — although he did nothing.
My nose, elbows, knees were bleeding profusely. I left the field to catch my breath, full of hatred: I muttered "Son of a bitch", thinking of Tadeo, "I'd like to kick him in the head and send him right to the hospital."
"Take it easy, boy, take it easy," Azzimonti warned me. "Don't lose it! That'll just make things worse. Stay cool! Take it easy, control yourself!"
I went back out on the field. My clothes, just rubbing against me, hurt. I tried to cool down, but I didn't feel at all like I did after we scored. Now I felt like a coward.
I noticed that Tadeo changed tactics. He covered me so close that I was unable to get the ball. "If they'll just give me a few feet of space, that's all I need to control the ball to then this big lug will just be a piece of cake."
Yes, definitely, but the fact is that that big lug didn't back off. He stuck to me like glue and beat me to the ball. I could see his advantage, and it pissed me off.
I could see his shortcomings and that really pissed me off. He is a dirty player, totally without skill. In spite of his physical limitations, he makes his headers, he makes his shots: with his instep, with his knee, with his shin. He gasps for breath, but he keeps trying, giving his all for the good of the team.
I am technically far superior to Tadeo, but I just couldn't get anywhere with him. Besides keeping me out of play, he pulled my hair, faked kicking and slapping me. He banged me against the head, he pinched me, he spit on me, he shouted at me out of breath, "You dirty son of a bitch, you'll learn not to screw around with me. Asshole, I'm going to kick the shit out of you. You think you can dribble on through me, you stupid bastard!"
That's what Tadeo had to say to me, and he not only said it, but while he was saying it he was kneeing me and punching me and spitting on me. Naturally I was getting tired of being the victim and trying to defend myself. So I started attacking him. But I was just not as strong as Tadeo. I can still feel his painful blows.
The first half ended. But far from providing me with a welcome respite, it gave Azzimonti a chance to bawl me out. He was furious at my playing. He didn't seem to care that I really was not physically able to keep up with those guys.
"Come on, kid, take any one of them and cover him! That blond guy made you look like a pussy!"
I tried to explain to Azzimonti that, the more that blond son of a bitch covered me, he seemed to care less about the outcome of the game and more to pursuing me all over the field. It seemed that all he wanted to do was insult ME, spit on ME, not win the game.
Azzimonti shouted, "You have to stick up for yourself! If you can't handle that, you can't play soccer!"
This was correct advice, of course, but when you are scared, there's really nothing you can do. I felt like telling Azzimonti to put Hugo Martínez in for me in the second half. But I kept my mouth shut because that would really set him off. Nothing angered Azzimonti more than a player who wasn't hurt asking to be substituted for. He would just consider that unspeakable cowardice — and he would be right.
I was intimidated by all this and wanted to be anywhere else at the moment. But I went back onto the field, and the very same thing happened in the second half as did in the first half. Tadeo continued to harass me. So much so that I had to agree with Azzimonti. I had no stomach for playing soccer anymore.
Fortunately for me, Azzimonti agreed with my suggestion to have me to sit it out, and he put Hugo Martínez for me with 25 minutes left to play. During the second half Amanecer de Bollini scored three goals. On the sidelines I had to suffer the torment of all those insults that Azzimonti and Tijerita hurled at me.
I was doubly humiliated by Tadeo's hold over us and the bawling out by both the head coach and the associate coach. But at the same time I was angry at myself. Sooner or later I would be morally obligated to wreak vengeance on Tadeo.
After a while all the players began straggling off the field. But, dejected, I stayed sitting on the sideline until everyone else was gone. I was now dressed in my street clothes and had on my regular leather shoes. My athletic clothes were in my bag.
Finally I stood up with the idea of cooling off so I headed for the faucet, which was right at the top of the hill leading down to the railroad bed.
Then, oh oh.
I saw the huge figure of Tadeo, who squatted down with his back to me, was splashing off his head and drinking water.
I ran up behind him, trying to kick him with my good foot, my right foot, a tremendous kick in the back that would cause his face to hit the cement base of the water faucet. Then I would run off at top speed. It was not without good reason that they called me the "Greyhound." Tadeo would never catch me.
But in a second Tadeo heard something and turned his blond head and ruddy face toward me with an ironic and insulting smirk. He stayed squatted down, so his blond head would be my soccer ball. But now, even though the ball was in motion, it was very easy to kick him so hard with my left foot that he stumbled, lurched forward. and fell down the slope to the railroad bed.
He rolled over several times and landed all the way at the bottom of the slope. I could hear the loud crack that his skull made when it hit one of the hard railroad ties. And there he was, lying across the gravel and the rails.
He wasn't dead; I could see him move, somewhat spasmodically. I felt it best not to hang around to see how he was, if he had recovered from the blows and left the tracks.
Now I was really a greyhound, racing across the ties and trying to get out of there as fast as I could and get away from Tadeo and his physical "situation".
A hundred yards, 300, 500.
And then I heard it, not too far off, the long mournful eerie whistle of the approaching engine — the Gauchita.
That day was the very last day I ever played soccer, but not really because of my cowardice, a feature that Azzimonti pointed out.
I just never wanted to see myself in that situation — kicking with my "other" foot, that is, my left foot. I could kick hard with this foot, but not accurately. And when the shot isn't accurate — well, anything can happen
And I never went by that last block of Costa Rica Street because I was haunted by two fears.
On the one hand, the fear that, standing outside the auto repair shop, Tadeo, in his grease-stained overalls, would see me. But on the other hand, I was plagued by a much more anguished fear — that I would never again see Tadeo, standing in his grease-stained overalls, outside the repair shop.