If the answer is ”the scissor kick”, the question of course is, ”What do Chilean strawberries, a Spanish Spy, the Aztecs and Peter Crouch have in common?”
I found your name in an old book, Chilena. I am writing this for you.
You are vivacious-verbosity condensed into a swoop of movement. Some people can see sound — the condition is called synesthesia. They see colours and patterns morph from music. To see you for who you truly are, they must be able to follow the story of movement. This is a perspective Professor Joseph Campbell was prescient to when he wrote Dance and Mythology. Football is, when one thinks about it, a tributary of both.
Chilena, did you know, that in Indian mythology, they say a river spouted from Shiva’s head? And when the river broke into many, it took up characteristics and persona from the region’s varied folklore? Now, if you imagine mythology and dance being two separate rivers, two distinct entities, then football will be the silty delta formed at their confluence.
But, then, how were you conceived? Where was your conception?
At your source, there is more hearsay than history, folklore than actual fact. Were two knickerbocker-wearing gentlemen sitting in a bar, in the early 20th century – the era of daredevilry and Amelia Earhart – putting money on the most ridiculously way to score a goal? Or were you manifested by instinct?
Now, historians will be quick to tell me that it was the Chilean Ramon Unzaga who was the first to dispatch a scissor kick, a Chilena. The name Chilena stuck because like hanging, wild, white-purple strawberries, they believe you are from Chile. And that the snap of the foot striking the ball sounded like the snap of a scissor in the Mapuche plantations.
Both were exported to Spain, and from there to the rest of the world. First, in 1622 by a young Spanish soldier, Francisco Núñez de Pineda y Bascuñána when he was set free by the Mapuche tribe and then by the Chilean footballer/acrobat David Arellano in 1927 when his team Colo Colo travelled to Europe.
And then others will tell me, Chilena, that there’s evidence that the Ancient Chinese played a version of football, while the ancient Greek a played version of theirs. This makes Unzaga being your progenitor rather improbable.
It is then presumptuous to believe that no one before him tried to catch you like lightning in a jar. I call you lightning because you struck David Arellano down in a stadium in Valladolid, Spain for trying to summon you too often for the cameras. He died on the spot, colliding with a left-back. You remember?
But there is a connection here that, like a murder mystery, I must circle back to. I believe you are indeed Chilean to a degree and the clue is in the strawberries.
“…they brought me a plate of good size of fresh cultivated strawberries, and without exaggeration some were so large they could not be finished in two bites. They devote even more care to their strawberry beds than we give to vineyards because they dry great quantities of them for their chicha.”
– Feasting with the Enemy, Francisco Núñez de Pineda y Bascuñán, 1622
Chili, the strawberry, is a Mesoamerican pleasure from time immemorial. It grows in wild spontaneity and was domesticated around 1300 AD by the ancestors of the Mapuche, south-central Chile’s indigenous people, the Aztecs. And there, another version of football’s origin story tells me that the Aztecs played it first. And I’m likely to believe that.
The Aztecs and the Mesoamericans looked at craggy mountains and thought – we’ll just carve ourselves a city in there. They have a culture of literally living on the edge. And I believe daily routine incubates innovation. No one suffering from vertigo can chart those lands or execute the scissor kick, which is to say that the Aztecs could.
The Aztecs played a sport which resembled football. They would behead the winning team’s captain as an honour sacrifice, so that the fields may remain fertile and the heavens, timely. This can be seen as an equivalent of ritualistic dance before sacrifices in many cultures. The wall paintings of Teotihuacan and Chichen-Itza dated 1500 BC from Mesoamerica also show Danny Trejo’s ancestors kicking a ball around with hips, shins and the sole of the foot, in ceremonial clothing; an hounour reserved for dead poets and war generals, with colours of their tribes. Red, or golden or white or green.
– Deconstructing Football Superstitions, Symbolism, Myth of Ajax
Let me tell you a bit about myself. I live on the corner of an uphill street. I will leave this letter here like I left a coin on the lid of a 1970s power switch. Down by the switch is the seller of the crunchiest fritters in Parel, Mumbai. Because of this distraction, most will not notice the coin altogether. Some who do spot it will eye it with helpful doses of suspicion, while someone will take it for what it’s worth.
I confess, I haven’t played the game anywhere as well as it deserved to be – but I was afforded a scissor-kick goal for whatever reason, playing in a school championship, many years ago. And I still hold it dear like quotes from a favourite movie that I use as a totem. If that makes sense.
Chilena, I have finally managed to accept myself for who I am: a beggar, a borrower, and the occasional mender of stories. I live with my eyes outstretched for warm food, bouncy bedding, and a good book. I enjoy cuddles.
And it’s like being in love for the first time. Awkward, fumbling, and wondering if the story enjoyed itself being written – constantly, like a doting lover. I confess to not being a writer, but the embarrassing poet you become when you’re smitten. I’m writing to you as the latter.
To try to write love is to confront the muck of language. I want to be at the same time a child and an adult. Thereby I gamble, I take a risk: for it is always possible that the other will simply ask no question; that the other will see no signs.
– Roland Barthes, philosopher, deconstructionist
As far as I can discern, there are two kinds of pleasure. One you can derive from the simple tasks, such as a washing a cup or writing a letter well. Or washing a letter and writing to a cup. I mean, whatever pleases one. The other type is something you may derive from activities relating to skydiving or performing the perfectly-timed scissor kick. The latter is more popular because it means more to many people.
For dancer Rudi van Dantzig the beauty was in the football itself – and especially in Cruyff. “Normally, footballers are boring, but with Cruyff and the others it was like fireworks. Or like Maria Callas singing. Cruyff was a Callas on the field. Callas was the first to bring fire to a role in opera, and you felt the same passion in Cruyff and the others. There was something very dramatic in him, like a Greek drama – life or death.”
– Brilliant Orange, David Winner
The function of the scissor kick is manifolds, but it is essentially an exercise in sending sweet love letters into the net. It is dispatched with unconditional hope. It has every chance of making the sender look an ass.
In a way, you are an act of surrender too. You are football’s most anti-fatalist maneuver. You put the cats among the pigeons. But the question of ‘who is behind the setting of the cat among the pigeons’ is rarely ever remembered than the actual incident; who scored the goal isn’t as important as the act is.
You are the swirl of smoke caught in the open moonlight in the backdrop of the drop-dead-dredge of a big city. The scissor kick shows me that there is a scope for beauty and miracles in this barren, cynical, neon-lit, pay-per-view landscape of modern football. You bring the love back and fend the disillusionment away.
Like the sea who refuses no river, football could never refuse us of our propensity for madness and miracles. You have accepted the prayers from Zlatan, Hugo Sanchez, Trevor Sinclair, Moussa Sow, Xherdan Shaqiri, and Mauro Bressan to Peter Crouch. You are a lesson in not refusing the muse. In the dust patches of Kinshasa, in the rooftops of Taiwan, in the concrete wire-mesh lots of Brooklyn, in the shanty streets of Copacabana, you endow your gift to those who dare. You do not discriminate. And for this magnanimity, I love you.
I remember the day I fell in love with you again. I remember hearing you being described in Italian (by Italian commentators) when French defender Phil Mexes scored for AS Roma vs Anderlecht. Mario Yepes was one of Mexes’s AC Milan team-mates. Yepes lived through Pablo Escobar’s Colombia. In fact, he did more than survive. He made his debut in 1993-94 the season when Colombia plunged into anarchy and chaos after Escobar’s death. He had seen everything, but he didn’t see Mexes’s goal coming.
Yepes was seen leaping around in boyish joy hugging Mexes, in utter disbelief. The ellipse shot up like a shooting star on a trampoline. The arc was so fulfilling that it was almost gleeful. From the sky, the ball fell into the net with the prim poise of an autumn leaf falling on still water. The lower-left corner of the net rippled in slow motion. The ball bounced thrice before the crowd had the chance to express surprise. It was pristine.
It was as gorgeous to hear you described as you were to look at. Little surprise why the most poetic of sportswriters, Giovanni Luigi Brera wrote in Italian (well, apart from the fact of him being Italian to start with). Little surprise that the Godfather of English Football Journalism, Brian Glanville went to work for the Gazzetta. Little surprise that David Winner stayed in Rome. All of them had to learn how to write love letters to you first. Italian, the most romantic of the romance languages, can truly encapsulate you.
This journey to finding your name has been both a treasure hunt and an education. This obsession is the sum-total sincerity of absent-minded admiration. But I promise I’ll write more often.
They do say familiarity breeds contempt. One of my favourite writers (should be yours too) wrote a book in Italian. It was one of those books which had stories within stories, within stories. He stated, “There’s a boundary line: on one side there are those who make books, on the other those who read them.” Which is to say, if the reader becomes a pedant, ‘’the unsullied pleasure of reading ends.”
I disagree. I do not see you as a subject, nor view you with the narrowed eyes of a scholar. But I will have to borrow the words of one David Byrne to explain how I feel – “Does seeing how the machine works spoil the enjoyment? Knowing how the body works doesn’t take away from the pleasure of living. Trying to see it from a wider and deeper perspective only makes it clear that the river itself, our source of inspiration, is wider and deeper than we thought.”
If anything, over the years, the wide-eyed infatuation for you has matured into a sense of understanding for myth, for movement, and for miracles. I look forward to seeing you now with the same fondness I save for a quiet Sunday evening stroll on the Coney Island piers or the stretch on Marine Drive when the sky is blue and everything is clear.
Chilena, every time I’m out, you pull me in.
If I acknowledge my dependency (on writing), I do so because for me it is a means of signifying my demands. In the realm of love, futility is not a “weakness” or an “absurdity”: it is a strong sign: the more futile, the more it signifies and the more it asserts itself as strength.
– Roland Barthes