Fifth Two

A few days ago, while I was walking down the street, I came across a tall, fat man, very fat, with a wide forehead and a frowning face, who did not take his eyes off me. His face was familiar to me, but I looked away in an impulse of prudence, a little forewarned because in this crazy world of today, it may be that staring at someone becomes a sentence of death or something else; who knows who walks the streets wanting to die, but not before bumping off a few.

I walked with my head down, in a harmless attitude, hoping that my gawking would make me seem insignificant and the inquisitive gaze with which that fat monument focused on me, would be directed towards someone with a more courageous, perhaps bellicose disposition, maybe worthier of receiving the psychopathic discharge that he harbored in some corner of his damaged soul, I thought. By dint of resisting an uncontrollable urge to run, I kept pace with my walk and an icy drop of sweat ran down my back; I longed to get to the corner that was barely five meters away and turn around to take shelter from the treacherous attack that I sensed was imminent.

The big man stopped, I passed him, he followed me with his eyes and only two meters from the longed-for corner, a strident, guttural exclamation, ordinary as his appearance, stopped me in my tracks: “Are you going to pass me by and pretend you didn’t notice me?” he said with his hands crossed and his body slightly bent forward. I was petrified, I looked at him, I looked around me and with a broken voice and a tear in the corner of my right eye I said:

“Sorry, is it with me?”

“Of course it’s with you! Don’t you remember me?” He replied with a smile that gave him the appearance of a determined madman.

“No, I really don’t remember you, sir.”

“I’m Alejandro Flórez,” he replied.

 -Can’t be! Alejandro, my classmate! But, how do you think I would recognize you? You are covered with fat! My spontaneity wiped the smile from his face; I, calmer,  displaying all the sarcasm of which I am capable, threw a question that put an end to the greeting of two former classmates who met again after more than forty years without seeing each other. –And… ¿do you still play soccer?

Alejandro Flórez was the prototype of the athlete in our student days: tall, stocky and agile. He performed outstandingly well in any sport, but in football he was a star; he was the immovable captain of the school team. An excellent midfielder, he sweated blood, organized the team and made impressive goals. He was a celebrity and he enjoyed it, he was a good person, but at times the fame went to his head and made him somewhat arrogant and to those less gifted with sports skills, like me, he made us feel almost worthless.

When we were in our fifth year of vocational secondary education, the enthusiasm of all the students, well, almost all of them, close to the soccer championship season was enormous; it was felt in the atmosphere. Each course organized its team, enrolled it and prepared to face the contest for the coveted trophy.

That year our class, which until the previous year had been divided into two classrooms, A and B, was merged into one for budget reasons. In addition to the overcrowding problems, there was an oversupply of players to join the team. The union of courses caused that the number of registered teams was odd; one was missing, so it was decided to organize a second team, the flaming FIFTH TWO. It was just a padding, to make the tournament viable, so that its members were all those who would never be part of a competitive soccer team, it was the baddies’ club and I was chosen to carry the dignity of captain of that squad.

Sport has been something that neither then nor now nor ever has caught my attention, football even less; I clarify, as every child, I played ball more to burn the excess of vitality of age than for hobby, it has always seemed a bit strange to see twenty-two people running after a ball, not to mention the arguments between fans. I have no capacity to understand that obsessive love for a jersey, which enriches some players and their employers, while supporters of rival teams hate each other, to the point of committing acts of true irrationality.

Fifth Two started badly with me at the helm; I was good in disorder, I can say that the best; of the rest of the members, some stood out in trigonometry, others in geography, others in philosophy, but none of them in sports. We were just bad, terrible, none of us looked even remotely athletic, we all looked like rachitic and hungry castaways and as footballers we were all gifted with two left feet, except Guarín, he was left-handed, but he had two right feet.

However, the opportunity to participate in the school championship filled us with enthusiasm, although in principle it took some work to convince some of them to be part of the new team; Fifth Two was the team of ordinary students, those who were not very showy or perhaps fond of less flashy and unpopular activities; my glorious team was integrated, among others, by a chess promise, a classmate who since childhood dreamed of having a beauty salon, me, who spent time writing poetry and dancing to the music of the soundtrack of Saturday Night Fever, and a legion of bookworms who never had sport among their closest interests. We were the antithesis of footballers.

Even in uniform we did not look like a team, we saw ourselves as honorary members of a foundation for malnourished children; but we assumed the role and when we finally went into the court, the gaze of all the attendees turned towards us. We walked in a row, one meter apart from each other marching to the beat, I was leading, proudly carrying the ball under my left arm with the firm intention of highlighting the captain’s tape, we formed in the center of the court, like professionals who wait for the anthem of their countries to sound, we brought our right hands to our hearts and a collective burst of laughter -with which I have nightmares even today- was heard.

We knew that our first match was going to be difficult, we did not have much hope, but we decided that we were going to fight to the death. I ran frantically, we all ran like possessed, without direction or order after the ball, I screamed in desperation trying to organize my lines on the field, of course no one paid any attention to me, in the stands the spectators were happy watching the match, their laughter denoted it. In the second half, I noticed that the few parents who came to support us and the fellow cheerleaders withdrew from the rostrum; in the end, we lost with a score of sixteen goals to zero. It was thunderous, but our physical education teacher, Oscar Rodríguez, who is no longer with us, kind, just as he was, a good trainer and a great person, told us: Courage boys, you did well to be the first!

Despite the spectacular result, we did not feel so bad, it was strange, but for us, to be part of that competition was already a triumph; I was blissful, sweating, my face was dirty and my hair was messy. I took off my football boots, hung them on my shoulders and walked the five blocks that separated the school from my happy house, I felt like a sports figure. The jokes we were subjected to the next day at school, placed me in the reality of the disaster.

Our second match was as terrible as the first; the difference was only one goal. At school everyone was talking about Fifth Two; the sheer size of the results gave us a surprising notoriety, so for our third game, the stands were packed; who would have thought, we were celebrities. No other match had as many spectators as those of Fifth Two; at the rate we were going we would not play more than four games, we were annihilated and our elimination was prophesied, but the attendance was massive. Bets were even agreed, not on which team would win, that was known, but on how many goals the massacre would be.

In spite of that, each meeting of the four that we play, we face it with the soul and Professor Oscar always there with his wise advice. In all the games, we only scored one goal, against Fifth One and that was because they gave it to us, but we celebrated it like lunatics as if we had qualified for the World Cup. I took the ball out of the net and ran screaming “goal” at the top or my lungs and my teammates were behind me until they caught me up and carried me as if I were a hero; people were bursting with laughter, among them my teammate Alejandro Flórez, whose laughter was especially uproarious. That year, his team was the champion and we were the buffoons of the entire academic community.

That experience with the ball convinced me of several things, among others, that sports was not for my teammates or me and that was not bad because from then on I knew that I should focus on what I am good at, what I really like. But also, and that part was not very funny, I discovered that it is very difficult for people to understand the differences of others and above all to respect them, it is easier to ridicule. Today, many years after that experience, I confess that deep down people’s mockery hurt me. The truth is that after the first game I wanted to retire, my dignity was affected, but just thinking about it made me feel like a coward; I could not leave my teammates alone, especially after I was the one who convinced them to participate. Laughter was not pleasant at all every time we missed the ball or fell from exhaustion. We were harshly mocked from the beginning without compassion and shame plagued us for the rest of that year. Those of Fifth Two ended up being good friends, the jokes made us somehow strong and we learned to accept that we were different, not inferior, that brought us together.

Since then, because I lived it, I knew what the heart of the helpless feels, the soul of one who is in difficult or at least different conditions. My afternoons of soccer with Fifth Two taught me how ugly the cruelty of the trickster feels and the indelible wounds left by ridicule; but I was also able to know the value of those who are different, the pride of those who struggle at a disadvantage, the illusion and dreams that the unpopular also have, and who sometimes try to break the boastful. In the twilight of the bulging goals that buried the player, a firm decision was born to fight the rest of my life to ensure respect for the dignity of those who have fewer opportunities, to raise the arms of the tired, calm the hunger of the hungry, satisfy the thirsty, comfort the downcast and bandage, in some way, the wounds that cannot be seen; that has given my life meaning.

From time to time, I inquire for the lives of the members of the glorious Fifth Two; I am glad to know that they are good people, workers, outstanding professionals and home-loving family people. Almost all of us are grandparents and in more than forty years I have not seen most of them, but the good memories keep them alive in my mind.

On the street, Flórez, the former teammate and athlete said goodbye with an answer that sounded melancholic to me: No, Jorge, I no longer play soccer, I am not even good as a ball, being overweight has affected my heart. Then he turned and I saw him trudging away. I knew that time and misfortune made him part of the unpopular and I was ashamed to have asked that question.

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