The Players

(from A Season with Verona)

By age 10 their skills are evident. Their mothers are shrieking on the sidelines. Talent scouts are offering advice. By age 15 they are in a football college. They survive one selection after another. They see other boys leave, hanging their heads. Sensing they are destined for glory, they go to bed early, dreaming of the turf at San Siro, at the Olimpico. On the telephone Mamma and Papà urge them on. Their few old friends urge them on. They don’t drink and they don’t smoke. Their diet is controlled. The training is exhausting. By 17 or 18 they are playing in Serie C, or sitting on the bench in Serie B. Solemn men in heavy coats gamble on their future. They are bought and sold. A billion Lire this year, five billion next. They are shunted up and down the length of the bel paese, Treviso, Taranto, Palermo, Turin. They know no-one outside the world of football now. They hardly know what to say to a person who is not a player or a manager or a journalist. Or at least a fan. Is there anybody who is not a football fan? They are simultaneously proud of what they have achieved and afraid of seeming stupid. They haven’t studied. They haven’t had time for a social life. Always supervised, they haven’t had time to develop a character. Before each game their bags are prepared for them, three shirts with name and number stitched on the back, three undershirts, three pairs of shorts, three pairs of socks, three pairs of shoes, the club tracksuit, the spare all-white kit just in case. Their travel is booked for them, their meals are prepared for them, their days are planned out for them. Five days a week they train, one day, if they are lucky, they play, and one day they are free to read the papers about how they played. Before and after each training session they are weighed. They are told their optimum weight and must maintain it. They mustn’t have sex before a game. They are fined if they are late for training. They are fined if their telefonino rings when the coach is speaking. They are fined if they don’t wear the club uniform when travelling with the team. Yearning to be picked for the game, what can they do but agree with everything the coach says? What can they do but try to carry out his every wish? Picked, they are proud and relieved; left out, they suffer all kinds of anguish. Dreading injury, they become hypersensitive and hypo¬chondriac. They have a twitch in the calf, a tingle in the wrist, a swelling in the neck. What is it? The team doctor examines them, the team masseur revives them. Surgeons of international renown perform the most routine orthopaedic operations. Yearning to be adored, they are afraid people want their company only because they are famous. They watch pornography in anonymous hotels. When they win they are worshipped. Standing arms raised beneath the curva, they are drenched in glory, their faces resplendent. Their clothes have become sacred objects. People seek to touch them in crowds. When they lose they are spat on. The whistles are deafening. They make for the tunnel with head down. Lonely, they marry young. An old girlfriend perhaps. Perhaps a young model, lost and vain as themselves. Or in the claustrophobic autism that reigns in this world, they turn to team-mates for sex. It’s a men’s world and the men are young and attractive. Waking with a headache in the middle of the night, they have to call the team doctor before they can take anything. There are dope tests. They cannot put drops in a stuffy nose. They cannot inhale Vicks. They cannot think about anything but the game. The next game is crucial. The next game is always crucial. The night before the game they are too tense to sleep. The night after the game they are too excited, too furious. The whole body is inflamed. The muscles are swollen, the joints are stiff. They cannot sleep. With amazement they read about players in other countries who drink heavily and smoke and smash up restaurants and aeroplanes. How can this be? What would the Gazzetta say? Italy is a Catholic country. They read that English players check the horse-racing results at half time. They do not believe it. It can’t be so. Like Spartan soldiers, they are truly themselves only on the field of battle. Only when they run out through the players’ tunnel into the big green stadium can they unleash all their pent-up emotion. Only here can they show their genius. Only before a huge crowd can they at last behave appallingly. They clutch their opponent’s shirt. They crash into his legs before he reaches a scoring position. The crowd applaud. Pull him down! They constantly pretend that they themselves have been fouled. They fall over when they haven’t been touched. They deny the most evident truths, insisting they didn’t touch a ball when everybody has seen that they did, claiming a ball didn’t go out, when everybody has seen that it has. Winning, they toss the ball away to waste time. They clutch it and refuse to hand it over. Fouled, they writhe in pain when they feel no pain at all. Substituted, they cross the turf as slowly as possible, despite the whistles of the opposing crowd. They are simultane¬ous¬ly infantile and mature, petulant and coura¬geous. When they score they lose all sense of control. They tear off their shirts, they go wild. When their opponents score they collapse on the ground in dismay. They protest vigorous¬ly. They kick the goalposts. After the game they phone their mothers. Interviewed by the television, they are cautious and conformist: we did our best, our compliments to the other side, we must work hard to improve, we must be humble. Next day they check their marks in all the papers. They check their hypothetical value in the fantasy transfer market. Will I still be here next year? Will I be playing, will I be on the bench? Immensely privileged, they are hopelessly deprived. They have no ordinary life. Above all, they are paid huge salaries. And right now I am waiting to meet them, or some of them, in the foyer to the Marco Polo airport, Venezia.
It is January 5th, 3 p.m., and I am sitting in the departure lounge of Venice airport waiting to meet the Hellas Verona team. I am going to fly with players and coach first to Rome, then Brindisi, way down on the heel of the Italian boot. Then a car to Lecce where I will stay with them in the hotel on Friday and Saturday nights. On Sunday I will watch the game with the owner, Giambattista Pastorello and the Sports Director Rino Foschi. I am beside myself with excitement. When I saw Her Majesty the Queen, it occurs to me, a couple of months back now, I was completely offhand. It meant nothing to me. The only thing I was curious about was how far Her Majesty did or did not resemble my mother. Now I am like a little boy on his birthday, or at an important exam. Why?