The skinny kid in the loose-fitting red shirt stretched his arms out, palms raised upwards as if in an act of penitence. He caught the ball gratefully, clasped it tightly to his chest, and set off down the field, pursued by a stocky, lumbering brute who tried desperately to grab hold of any part of him; shorts, legs, ankles. He was left cursing as the kid slipped between his fingers and headed for the try line with a grin on his face. He reached the line, gave the ball a kiss, and abandoned it nonchalantly on the ground, as if to say it had served its purpose.
Another four points to round off a merciless result, with six tries the difference between the teams. Cowed, the Corrientes boys would have a lot to think about on their way home. They’d been taught a lesson in how rugby was played in La Plata—drop goals that were destined to split the posts from the moment they left the boot, flying straight and true like darts, a backline capable of tearing holes through any defence, and you in the middle of it all, the ball close to your chest, running straight, like a bullet, unwavering, like a train, like a…
The clip round the back of the head took him by surprise.
“Raulito! Wake up!”
The boss had limped onto the pitch, dragging his bad leg behind him, his hand already raised to deliver the next blow. Raul instinctively raised his arms to protect his face.
“Stop messing about, there’s still five minutes to go!”
“You don’t know shit! Do you want to watch the next game from the stands?!”
Raul shook his head. He wanted nothing else in life but to play—the next game, the one after it…all of them. It was the reason he’d left home before he’d even turned sixteen—to be able to play rugby every Saturday, every Sunday, every day God gave him. Every time he looked down at his hands, it felt strange to see them just hanging there, empty and irrelevant without a rugby ball to hold, without the feeling of fingernails biting into leather and without the celebratory kiss after every try. It was the kiss of a life Raul had not yet begun to live—twenty was an unhappy age, and he found himself caught in the middle of too many decisions, when the only decisions he wanted to take were on the pitch and regarded the faded leather ball. Here, the world around was unable to intrude.
“Go on, focus…” the boss jerked his thumb back towards Raul’s position, his tone softening a touch.
The truth was, he liked this kid. Raul Barandiaran Tombolini—an elongated name with a physique to match, stick-thin but stubborn as a child when he set his mind to something. Had he grown up elsewhere, his fast feet, long reach and absence of any excess weight would have seen him make an excellent fencer or boxer. He had grown up in San Telmo, however, the oldest barrio in Buenos Aires. There were no boxing gyms in such places—where even a sport like boxing was seen as a bourgeoisie pursuit. There was only a rough pitch made of firm, unyielding sand, with two goalposts at either end. There were only two sports in San Telmo; football and rugby. Raul had chosen rugby because he preferred to use his hands and not his boots.
When he first started playing, the ‘oldies’ on the team—eighteen year olds who spent their Saturday evenings drinking Quilmes on the Avenida Costanera, the avenue that ran the length of the Buenos Aires coast—taught him to imagine that the mud-spattered ball was an inseparable extension of his own body. “Treat it like a piece of your heart. If an opponent comes to take it, he’ll have to stab you if he wants to prise it off you. Understand, niño?”
Raul understood all too well, and that was exactly what he had grown up to become: tall, lanky, and uncompromising. He had left school because he was physically incapable of staying put for four hours behind a rickety desk that left him feeling trapped on all sides. Every so often, he would ask for permission to go to the bathroom, and once he was out of the classroom, he would turn to leave the school and go running down the street, elbows tucked in to minimise wind resistance, head hunched down and eyes fixed forwards, all the way until the first row of brightly coloured houses that marked the start of La Boca, then down to the waterside, with the stench of petroleum and stagnant water rising off it. He would stand there for a while, observing the prostitutes in their floral print dresses and weary faces, before turning and running back again, counting his paces to ward off the boredom, clearing his head of superfluous thoughts, the sounds of a country he had learned nothing of, and the sight of the graffiti scrawled over the walls and carrying increasingly furious slogans: volvió Perón, que viva Perón, murió Perón…
His introduction to the La Plata club was organised by his PE teacher, who told him: forget about school—it won’t make you rich or clever. He had seen Raulito playing once on the neighborhood pitch, his shovel-like hands sending opponents spinning away into the dirt like skittles. It had seemed like a waste for him to pursue a career as a pen-pusher or an accountant—besides, who would entrust their money to a gangly accountant like him? His teacher introduced him to rugby on an afternoon with the kind of relentless drizzle that Raul’s granddad used to reminisce about when he was a child growing up in Sicily. It was known as assuppaviddani, a ‘souper’, in the local dialect. It was the kind of rain that would soak the farmers to the bone and leave them quietly decaying from the damp, day after day. That was the reason why his grandfather had moved to Argentina at the age of seventeen. He had worked as a herdsman on the estates in the vast expanses of Rìo Negro, in northern Patagonia. Here, the grasslands extended all the way to the horizon, and the sky dipped to meet a landscape so flat and constant as to be disorientating. Some time later, Raul’s father was born. He too grew up looking after the cows, and he too made his escape at exactly the same age as his father had. He jumped on a bus one day and went to look for a job in Buenos Aires, or Baires, as the locals called it. He found a job as a cobbler down an alley in San Telmo, where there were so many second-generation Italians that there was no imperative to learn Spanish.
Raul was born in San Telmo, and it was there that he grew up, until the day when his PE teacher put him on an Estrella del Este bus and accompanied him down to see the coast—the real kind—down in Mar del Plata. The coach is a friend of mine—his teacher told him—we used to play together back in the day. Maybe they’ll take you on, and maybe they’ll even pay for your bus fare to go home once a week. Raul had no real desire to go back home, but he said nothing—he was too entranced by what he was seeing from the window of the bus, none of which seemed real. The houses had disappeared behind him and the ocean lay ahead, its waters encroaching into the land wherever it found channels and filling them with water that appeared like a hallucination. The scene resembled a postcard his father had once sent home when he was a young child and which Raul had later found at the bottom of a drawer, the writing a distinct, barely legible scribble, with those dots at the top of the “i” that were visibly darker than the rest of the writing, as if he was trying to puncture the paper with his pencil. Up ahead, however, there was only the sea opening out in front of him, a shade of blue he had never seen before, intense and flawless. The sight of it had unnerved him, although he never said as much to his teammates.
That afternoon, on the pitch for the first time, they put a ball in his hands and told him to run.
“Wherever you want. Through the middle, down the line. Just run.”
So he ran. He tucked the ball under his arm and set off, head down, shoulders hunched, nothing in front of his eyes except the ground under his feet, like the bulls his father used to tell him about which, driven to fury by melancholy or old age, would lose their minds and start charging across the fields, their hooves eating up the ground, and the only thing you could do was to keep your distance because in those moments they couldn’t tell friend from foe and not even fences, rivers, or escarpments could hold them, the cowherd’s voice held no authority over them, they charged and that was it and that was exactly what Raul did on that first time on the rugby pitch. It took five players to eventually bring him down; a pile of bodies with Raul crushed underneath, while his teacher watched on with a smile.
Two weeks later, he was in the first team. He won his first championship at the age of eighteen. He used the money he was given to buy a motorbike—an old Guzzi model—and started telling people it was the same one used by Che Guevara himself, la Poderosa, the one he had ridden around Argentina on before he had set off around the world. Nobody believed him, of course, but he didn’t care. It was the same as the rugby: it helped him believe that things would always turn out alright in the end, even for the son of a cobbler and the grandson of a cowherd.
The changing room was bare, save for a line of hooks hanging on the wall and the pungent odour of muscle relief that assaulted the nostrils of anyone who entered. Beneath the showerheads, the boys of Club La Plata were celebrating the joys of youth—the match and the victory already forgotten. Saturday night lay ahead of them, and that was the true cause for excitement, even though money was too tight for anything extravagant. Still, there would be a few beers and a platter of grilled pork chops down in Puerto Madero, at one of the tables facing the waterfront that was neither river nor really anything else, just a strip of ocean that had wandered in one day, forgotten the way out and had been left propped up, lifeless, against the masonry of the port. Despite that, it was cooler there, with a sea breeze and time that passed quickly and that allowed the boys to move on from the verbal assault they were currently taking from the coach, who was standing upright, all the weight on his good leg.
“You can forget about the title! Play like you did today and you can forget about all of it, you can forget what the ball even looks like!”
Hugo Passarella had uneven features bisected by narrow lips, set in place by a lifetime of reflection. He too had played rugby, once upon a time. He had broken his leg in a league match, and he had been dragging it behind him like a petulant child ever since. Get yourself a walking stick, his friends had told him. To which he replied: No. It would feel like surrendering, like he had given up. An old man with a gammy leg and hesitation in his voice, what sort of coach was that? Besides, he knew he’d only end up using the stick to smack some sense into people. Better off without. Better a cripple.
He had recruited his players when they were still young and he had taught them how to play rugby one step at a time, spoon-feeding them everything they needed to know, explaining how to keep their elbows up and their chest low in the scrum to gain the edge over the opposing pack, drawing an outline of the pitch on a piece of cardboard and showing each player where they should and shouldn’t be, and what they should and shouldn’t expect, because the ball was an unfaithful partner; it was unreliable, going where it pleased and never doing what it promised. By simply standing there and waiting for it, you were letting it cuckold you! And you are not to be cuckolded, you are the Club La Plata first team and you have a title to win. Understand, you bastards?
The bastards in question nodded silently. Good boys, on the whole, with a touch of arrogance about them. Passarella knew that. But if he were to allow them to convince themselves of their own greatness, they would immediately lose focus. That was why he would give them both barrels after every training session. There were some university students among them, a few others who were not yet out of school, one postman, one baker, and a couple who worked in a local factory. Raul, with his working knowledge of studs and fabrics, could have become a cobbler like his father. Instead, he had opened a small garage, working as a mechanic when he felt like it—when he wasn’t too tired from training. Once a week felt about right—residents of Baires tended to use the bus anyway, and the few cars that could be found on the roads were old, beaten up American models with cardboard seat covers covering the torn original leather, and there were no spare parts anyway because it cost too much to import them from the other side of the world. When they did eventually break down to the extent where they could no longer be driven, their owners would abandon them in a car park somewhere, like an old pair of worn-out shoes on top of a dumpster.
(To set the scene: the year is 1978, and the military has held power in Argentina for the past two years. They command, threaten and kill: in their own way, they seem to be enjoying themselves. They are also busy preparing for the upcoming FIFA World Cup, an unparalleled spectacle that will see the eyes of the world focused on the host nation. After all, what do the Italians or the Germans care about the dark and putrid undercurrents sweeping Argentina? Why should the Brazilians or Russians give a damn that Jorge Rafael Videla has proclaimed himself president for life and is busy dismantling the country? What fault is it of the French and the Hungarians if he and his fellow admirals and generals have decided that this is how Argentina is to be managed from here on in: cleaned up at the point of a bayonet, dealing with hotheads and revolutionaries, anarchists, paedophiles, scruffy men, men who look like homosexuals, communists, socialists, vagabonds, Peronists, radicals, nuns, trade unionists, prostitutes, students, members of the montoneros, junior public university professors, those fucking pacifists, the mentally ill, slackers, heathens, what on earth do you expect the government to do, just let them take over the country, filling the heads of our sons and daughters with the nonsense put out by the third-worldists, let them become communists? What do you expect us to do, tell me, honestly, what would you do if you saw them pissing on the homeland, the flag, the uniform, the cross, on the sacraments…
His Excellency Videla and his friends knew all too well what needed to be done—he had pronounced his verdict in no uncertain terms on the day he ascended to the throne: first we eliminate the subversive elements, then their friends, and finally those who are undecided. Why the long faces? What do you have to whine about? Think about the celebration, carajo, think about the World Cup, and our Albiceleste holding the trophy aloft, which you can bet they will—and don’t worry, betting on such things is neither crime nor sin—bet on our boys, all of them pure of heart and pure of mind, not one of them with long hair, not one of them raised among communists. No, betting on Argentina to go all the way is an act of patriotism…)
“You need a ride, Mono?”
Raul paused at the entrance to the ground, his hand resting lightly on the accelerator of his Guzzi, twisting it slightly and hearing the growl from the engine as it responded. Javier was always the last one out of the showers. He was lean and quick, baby-faced and without so much as a wisp of facial hair. They called him Mono—the monkey—because of the long, gangly arms which he used to propel himself into the air at every lineout. At first glance, he appeared to be a gentle sort who had wandered into the pack by accident, but in truth he was as hard-headed as they came, and he was not shy about it when clearing out rucks, smashing through anything that stood between him and the ball.
“So? You coming or not?”
Mono cast a loving gaze over the Guzzi. Then he cocked his head to the side and examined Raul with confusion.
“You’re not going for a beer with the others?” He asked.
No, that evening Raul was going nowhere. He had promised as much to Teresa. Give me one Saturday, she had pleaded, and how could Raul say no? While he played at being a mechanic, Teresa was the one who brought in the money, working in a greasy spoon in La Boca all day every day, because that was what her boss demanded, for her to wash dishes and make omelettes and huevos revueltos from nine o’clock every morning, returning home when it was already dark outside. That was how it had started—you’re letting it take over your life Teresita mía, slaving over the frying pan all day for two hundred pesos, no, what’s taking over my life is the fear of losing this job, otherwise how else will we get by, and how will we support a child, and when will we have a child and become a real family, but we are a real family Teresita, you and I are a family, you and me and the guys from Mar del Plata, I can’t give up on the rugby, who’s asking you to give up on the rugby, I’m just asking you for one Saturday, just one Saturday a month, for Christ’s sake Raul, can you not give up one Saturday a month, we can have a beer at home together and have sex, Saturday evening would be depressing Teresita, that’s when the old people do it, well we’ll do it too because on Sunday I don’t have to set an alarm for seven, so I’ll wait for you tonight after the game, I’ll be waiting for you Raul, OK? She had given him that unmistakable look, the one she had used when they were still at school, when she would call him Raulito and stare him down with those bewitching eyes, waiting for him to lower his gaze and nod.
“I’m going home, Mono. Otherwise I might get back later to find Teresa gone. Do you want a ride or not?”
Mono was still in school, too young to join his teammates for the post-match beer. He lived with his mother in San Telmo, the barrio where the Italians had first made land a hundred years before and then never left. He lived in one of the casas chorizos, housing estates that, over time, had become part of the landscape, as if they had always been there, with the plaster peeling off the walls and the wooden shutters over the windows, the rust-covered railings, the bathroom at the end of the walkway and an old mulberry tree in the courtyard between the buildings. Javier had long stopped wondering how that mulberry tree had made it to San Telmo in the first place—it was there and that was enough for the families living in the building. They would defend that tree with more fervour than they would themselves, more than they would their country, their homeland, you could take it all but not that mulberry, the mulberry is ours, it has lived alongside us through all these years, keeping us cool in the summer with its dense foliage overhead and giving us a festive feeling over Christmas with the baubles hanging off it, not to mention that without it all we’d see from our windows would be other windows, other casas chorizos awkwardly divided up by Perón’s surveyors with the residents all partners in the same sad existence and feeling the same constant pangs. At least with Perón there had been someone there—on Sundays he would address the people from the balcony of the Casa Rosada, and you would wear your Sunday best and go and hear him and when you returned you would feel as if you had been on a real journey and done something worthwhile. Now all that remained were those old houses with the rusty railings and the shutters with the faded colours. And the mulberry. And Javier, Mono, who had grown up alright despite it all.
“In which case, Raulito, take me home!”
“You call that dump you live in a home?”
“Says the person who calls this wreck a motorbike.”
Raul leaned over and gripped Mono’s ear tightly between his thumb and forefinger. “Climb on, dumbass, it’s getting late.”
Late for what, Mono wondered? Where he lived there was only his mother, who had raised him alone since birth. He hauled himself onto the back of the Guzzi and held on firmly to the steel chassis. He had found himself left hanging in midair once already when Raul gunned his motorbike like it was a Japanese racing bike, and he had no desire to repeat the experience. He had fallen on his backside and immediately jumped back up, but Raul had told everyone about it in the showers after the following match, and they hadn’t let Mono forget it for the rest of the season.
It felt hard to believe that it had been only a year earlier—to Javier it seemed like another lifetime. Once in a while, he felt as though he had finally managed to get a grip on time, to bring it down by the ankles and slow it even for a few moments, only to find that it had slipped from his grasp and was once more running away with him.
“Reckon we’ll win the league?”
“You heard the boss—says we’re not winning shit this year.”
“And you believe him?”
And he didn’t. It was just how the boss was—negative, quick to anger, with a dark streak inside and out. Raul looked up to him like a father, but he had never seen him laugh. Of course they would win the league again. They always did. And that was as it should be—they were the strongest and the toughest.
“We’re here, bro…”
Raul pulled over to a halt, leaving the Guzzi idling, with the four-stroke engine continuing to drum its marching tune.
“If we do win, maybe we’ll go and play in Italy,” said Mono.
“And what exactly what would we do in Italy?”
“I’ve heard they play rugby there in stadiums the size of Boca’s. We’ll win the title and get ourselves invited to a tournament there. What do you say, Raulito?”
“Think about your exams, that’s what I say. They’re less than two months away.”
Raul kicked the Guzzi into gear and rode off.
He left without turning his head—otherwise he would have noticed the black Volkswagen parked across the street. He would also have noticed the two men who stepped out of the car and quickly made their way to the open door to Mono’s building, a few paces behind him. One of them was thin as a rake and tilted forwards slightly, like an apostrophe, while the other was smaller and appeared jumpy, taking long paces, like a boxer heading into the ring.
Javier failed to notice them too. He climbed the stairs, his bag with the damp and muddy kit slung over one shoulder…
“Mum!” He called out, still two floors below, “…we destroyed them…Mum!”
There was no answer. The door was slightly ajar. Javier pushed it open and froze. His mother was standing in front of him, stiff and upright, an expression on her face that he had never seen before.
The question hung unfinished in mid-air. Two silhouettes stepped out from the dark corner of the room and shoved Javier into the wall, pressing his head into the plaster. He felt the unmistakable cold press of a muzzle into his cheek. He heard footsteps approaching up the stairwell.
“Is this him?” He heard a voice ask. There was a rough, clipped edge to it.
“Let’s find out…” replied one of the others.
He could feel the breath on his ear.
“Javier Moretti, right?”
He didn’t reply. The man brought his face even closer and lowered his voice to a whisper.
“Final year at Liceo Bolívar…that’s you, right…Mono?”
The boy’s head dipped slightly in acknowledgement.
A scream from behind him cut through the air. Javier turned and saw his mother being held fast between two of the assailants. One of them silenced her with a hand across her mouth: that cry—of a wounded animal facing the slaughterhouse—it had come from her. Javier tried to say something, but as he opened his mouth, a burlap sack was placed over his head and tightened. And then—nothing.
Interview with Raul Barandiaràn
Raul Barandiaràn has a name that tells a story of its own. One grandfather is Italian, the other Basque, from a small village near San Sebastiàn. “When I go back there I feel like a separatist—he says with the hint of a warm smile, or perhaps it’s a wry grin—and I feel loved.”
Raul is the sole survivor of the original 1975 squad of Club La Plata, an Argentinean rugby team. Nineteen of his teammates were murdered: gunned down, assassinated, ‘disappeared’. Nineteen in four years; an attempt to tear a generation—and an entire squad—out by its roots, leaving them with no way to rebuild. But Raul lived. Part Italian, part Basque, part survivor. The smile stretches further across his face, his distinctive jaw line intercepted with faint scars—heirlooms from years spent on the rugby pitch. On one occasion, a stray elbow resulted in part of his tongue being sliced off: it was reattached with needle and thread, and two weeks later he was back out on the pitch.
Raul was always a difficult man to keep down, even during those cursed years, when Jorge Rafael Videla and his brutal henchmen slaughtered more than thirty thousand Argentineans. Among them nineteen of Raul’s teammates, brothers on and off the pitch, muchachos who grew up together on the town’s rugby pitches. If you ask him to revive the memories, he’ll tell you: “It’s bad for me.” Followed by: “Then again, it’s also good. For others. Those whose memories could use a jolt. Those who weren’t there. Those who think that thirty thousand dead and disappeared are no more than a historical footnote, rather than a piece of raw flesh that was torn to shreds by this country.”
I meet him at his home in La Plata, a few steps away from the rugby team’s home ground. He shows me match-day pictures of the team—stick-thin, all flowing locks and fierce facial expressions. They were a good group of boys, he tells me.
“The best. We were unbeatable at sevens. But we never got called up to the national side. Rugby is a right-wing sport, and we were on the left.”
The left. During the years of the military junta, operatives driving Ford Falcons without number plates would show up to drag ‘subversives’ from their beds in the middle of the night and take them to be interrogated, tortured and murdered. It didn’t take much to be considered a subversive. Belonging to the wrong political group. Saying the wrong things. Holding your silence at the wrong time.
“Like Hernan Roja, the first one they assassinated. They followed him home from training one night. They stopped him en route, and they murdered him right there on the Pan-American Highway. They put nineteen bullets in him.”
Nineteen bullets: one for him, one for each of the other players in the squad.
“Then it was Otilio’s turn. They came to his door on Christmas Eve, but he wasn’t home. He was out celebrating with me. Otilio found out that they had come looking for him and went underground.” It wouldn’t last long. “His body was found floating in the La Plata River, bloated beyond recognition by the water, arms bound tightly, hands chopped off, a bullet in his head.”
He had been thrown out of an aeroplane, as had thousands of other people during those years. They were known as desaparecidos, ‘the disappeared’, and it was easier for the regime if they stayed that way after death: there were fewer problems if there was no body to mourn over.
Then it was the turn of the others. Mariano, the captain. Santiago. Pablo. For three years the list grew longer and longer. And what did he, Raul, do?
“I played. My political grouping, a diminutive Trotskyite faction, decided that would be the right thing for me to do: keep heading out onto the pitch—keep pretending nothing was wrong while my friends continued to fall around me.”
Every death opened another wound, a fresh horror, another laceration of his soul. And still Raul continued to play; it was the only way to rise above it and keep living. To not let them win. His way of honouring his fallen teammates.
“A long tour to Europe with the team saved my life. For a whole month, I was able to see things from a distance. When I returned, I understood that the fear would have killed me. But rugby teaches you to overcome your fear; otherwise you’ll never go near the ball…”
Talking about it now, his voice is soft, as if he’s narrating a children’s fairy-tale. It wasn’t like that at the time. Nor afterwards, when Videla’s regime collapsed like a deflated ball.
“After the dictatorship was brought down, I went through twelve years of therapy. It was very little use, nothing more than a cooling balm on my soul. Healing is something else entirely.”
It was love that saved him, says Raul.
“Her name was Silvia. I was 27 years old. I was in love, I wanted to get married. Besides, my whole body was battered and bruised from playing…a shoulder, a knee, my ribs. It felt like I’d been hit by a train.”
His playing career ended. So too did the dictatorship. And so too the romance. His chosen career path as an architect remained. And so did the memories, still fresh in his mind.
“These days, the club’s board are all right-wing—supporters of former President Macri. Whenever a journalist gets in touch and asks to hear about the team’s history, they send them to me. ‘That’s why we have Raul’, they say.”
Raul is there to remember and remind others. Matter-of-fact and without a trace of melancholy, in the familiar manner of those who bear the survivor’s cross; those who are called upon to speak on behalf of those who are no longer able. Occasionally finding strength in a smile, just like they would have wanted it.