An experimental story about futebol written in Brazil under military rule, “No último minuto” presents what might have happened had a goalkeeper been the protagonist of Groundhog Day. The invention of video replay may have been the goalkeeper’s nightmare realized. The anxiety-ridden last defender, from that moment forward, was doomed to reexperience match- and life-altering miscues from multiple perspectives, with critical commentary as overlay.
According to critic Cristovão Tezza, the story, by Sérgio Sant’Anna, may be the first creation in Brazilian letters to feature videotape as a structural element (“A narrativa envergonhada,” Revista Cult, Aug 1997)—a characteristic innovation from a member of Brazilian literature’s avant-garde. Sant’Anna’s literary agent describes him as a “master of parody, an incisive polemicist against the publicisation of the private, who, in the role of mischievous onlooker, is well able to entertain his readers when the upper middle-class begins to flounder.”
The story appeared in the collection O moderno conto brasileiro: Antologia escolar (The Modern Brazilian Short Story: A School Anthology) (Rio de Janeiro: Civilização Brasileira, 1978), edited by João Antônio and Antônio Bulhões, and also in Sant’Anna’s Contos e novelas reunidos (Collected Stories and Novellas).
Four times Sant’Anna has won the Prêmio Jabuti (Jabuti Prize), the prestigious Brazilian literary award named for the turtle. Two of his works have become feature films, Bossa Nova and Crime delicado (Delicate Crime). He has been a visiting writer in the Department of Portuguese and Brazilian Studies at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.
The English translation, by Richard McGehee of the Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies (University of Texas, Austin), navigates several of the Brazilian Portuguese idioms that have developed around futebol. Most interesting among these is the derogatory term with which the goalkeeper imagines he will be forever saddled: frangueiro. McGehee explains why it is difficult to translate literally:
Frango is chicken. In soccer a frango is a goal that should have been defended easily. So the goalkeeper can carry a chicken, eat a chicken, let another chicken get by him, etc. It carries the image of somebody ineptly trying to grab a chicken that’s dodging around trying to get away, leaving the unsuccessful grabber disconcerted and humiliated. So a frango is a humiliation for the goalkeeper. A frangueiro then is an unskilled goalkeeper who allows easy goals.
For the semantic range of frango and frangueiro McGehee turned to UT’s Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection and the Dicionário futebolês português: E outras curiosidades da bola (The Portuguese Dictionary of Futebol and Other Curiosities Related to the Ball) by Luiz Cesar Saraiva Feijó, published in 2006. The book includes gnomic sayings and non sequiturs from Lusophone players, demonstrating that while Portuguese may be a lyrical language it is not immune to curious utterance. One example that McGehee provides comes from former FC Porto right back and current assistant coach João Domingos Pinto, known for an earnest style that led Bobby Robson, Porto manager from 1994–96, to say: “He has two hearts and four legs.” Of a critical period in FC Porto history, Pinto says:
O meu clube estava à beira do precipício, mas tentou a decisão correta: deu um passo à frente.
My club was on the brink of the precipice, but it tried to make the right decision and took a step forward.
For Aethlon, the journal of the Sport Literature Association, McGehee has also translated short stories by Sergio Ramírez Mercado, former Nicaraguan vice-president, and Uruguayan novelist Juan Carlos Onetti.
(Photo illustration © 2009 The Global Game)
CHANNEL 5—It’s rejected by their defense. The high ball reaches our midfielder, Breno. He traps it on his chest, drops it to the ground, and then loses control of the ball. But nobody will remember this: that the first error was Breno’s. Now the ball is on the foot of their midfielder, Luiz Henrique. It’s the moment of desperation, the last minute. We’re playing for the tie and they have to win. The scoreboard shows 1–1. Luiz Henrique launches the ball toward the left, a long, very deep pass. It’s one of those wild attempts, in the frustration of the end of a game, just to see what might happen. The ball has too much force, heading for the left corner. But their forward thinks he can get to the ball and outruns our right back. The ball has so much speed—it has to cross the end line, far from the goal. But their forward, Canhotinho, stubbornly keeps running, giving it everything he has. Our right defender is left far behind and Canhotinho is coming at top speed. At this moment I yell at Lula: “Get him, get him.” But my shout can’t be heard in the stands nor in the TV. And Lula is the central defenseman of the national team and, between me and him, they prefer to burn me. “Get him, get him,” I’m shouting, just to be safe. Because nobody can believe one of those kinds of plays can happen. And Lula only covers the situation to guarantee the ball goes out of bounds. He doesn’t enter hard into the play; he doesn’t enter with his heart. Canhotinho arrives completely without legs at the end of that long run, but even so, he strikes the ball with his left foot, exactly when it’s on the end line. And then he falls over the line on top of the photographers.
It’s a low roller, a humdrum centering shot, and I shout, “Leave it.” I close off the straight line of the ball and fall on it. I feel the ball in my arms and against my chest. I know our fans are going to scream and applaud, relieving their nervousness in that last attack of the game. I have the ball securely and firmly against my chest and, suddenly, I feel that emptiness in my body. I’m holding air. The ball is escaping and penetrating softly into the goal. The ball doesn’t even make it to the net; it just lies there slightly over the fatal line. And I grasp desperately to reach it, pulling at the ball there inside. But it’s too late; everybody’s already seen that it was a goal. The stadium explodes and I feel my own head bursting apart. I see and hear all of that: their team hugging each other, the buzz of the crowd, the fireworks, and our team running to confront the referee, in a useless attempt to have the goal disallowed. I hear and see all that, but it’s like everything is very far away, without any relation to me.
IN SLOW MOTION—Their left attacker, Canhotinho, is so far away from the ball that it looks impossible for him to reach it. Tião, our right defenseman, even stops after he gets beat in the race to the ball. He stands looking at it, from far away, with his hands on his hips. And Canhotinho runs. The pass was so deep that even in the video tape, already knowing what’s going to happen, you can’t convince yourself that he’s going to get there in time to touch the ball. Then it comes over me—that absurd feeling that everything can still turn out differently—that I’ll be able to correct my error. I want to yell louder to Lula or even come out of the goal myself, do something, whatever. But Lula waits an eternity to go after Canhotinho. And when he finally does go, he’s weak and lackadaisical. And the shot comes weakly, completely without any angle. The ball passes through a tiny space, between Lula’s foot and the end line. And I fall on it correctly, just like the textbooks diagram it, all my body protecting the ball. A ball that comes softly, in slow motion. I’m not letting that shot through; I can’t let it pass through.
I grab the ball; it’s secure in my arms and against my chest. We’re going to be the champions. They stop the tape just to show this: how calm I am with the ball. In that instant we’re already the champions of Brazil. But they set the tape rolling again, even slower than before. And the ball, as if it had a force of its own, slips through a tiny opening between my chest and arm. And it rolls, so slowly, weeping, and enters the goal. That’s when I give that ridiculous leap and pull in the ball again. The commentator says it looks like I was pulling the feathers from a chicken.
CHANNEL 3—It’s twenty-two minutes into the first period. My wife sits by my side and asks me to cut off the television and forget all about what happened. “Tomorrow is another day,” she says. Tomorrow’s another day, I think. I’m going to go out in the street and see my picture in all the newspapers lying on the benches: me preparing myself to defend against that shot; me with the ball in my hands; me with the ball lost and entering the goal. Me, responsible for the defeat. Me, the chicken plucker, if they don’t say what’s worse: that I had sold out.
At twenty-six minutes we made the first goal. We only need a tie, but even so, we make the first goal. I’m executing good defense and guaranteeing that our lead will hold up during the first period. If we win the championship, they might even put me on the national team. Because goalkeeping is also a matter of luck—to be in the news. You get to be popular, you’re always in the newspapers, and you end up selected for the team. Otherwise you could be catching bricks shot at you and they wouldn’t invite you.
The first period ended. In my interview with the on-field journalist, I say that if God is willing, we’ll hold onto the 1-0 score, and if it depends solely on me, we’re already the winners. Afterward, I descend the dressing room steps to the fans’ applause. I wave discreetly to the fans, who are screaming—a little early—“the champions, the champions.”
When the second half is beginning, my wife squeezes my hand and looks at me out of the corner of her eye. I tell her to go to bed. I don’t want anybody’s pity. Then she quietly leaves the room. A little later it’s the moment of the penalty kick. Mateus dribbles once and enters the area. Lula comes up and tackles from behind. Nobody’s going to argue with this penalty; it was clearly a foul. This is the worst time for me because in the club there won’t be any complaint against the referee, and it’s all put on me, the whole thing.
In a penalty the shooter chooses a corner and hopes he’s lucky. I drive to the right corner and Jair shoots to the right corner, but with great power and just barely under the crossbar. One to one. It’s three minutes into the second period, and I have to keep the goal closed off for 42 minutes. Their team, having to have a victory, are going to do all they can to overcome us. And we use that suicide tactic of falling back to guarantee the tie.
I stick in there, defending the goal for 41 minutes. I’m grabbing everything, that ball I take off Jair’s feet and that other I punch over for a corner that Canhotinho had shot into the top corner of the goal. But they’re not going to remember any of that. It would have been better for me if I had let one of the difficult balls go through. They would comment that the shot had been indefensible. But I was rejecting everything in one of the best performances of my career. But they don’t care about that. If that last ball hadn’t gone in, they would say I was the best goalkeeper in Brazil. But the ball went in—and they’ll say I’m a chicken plucker.
The time passes, minute by minute. I hear all the uproar of the fans, and it’s incredible how happiness can be transformed into sadness so suddenly. I think, also, how one’s life can be decided sometimes in one centimeter of space or in a fraction of a second. And I experience that madness, the sensation of being able to modify a destiny already fulfilled, to do everything differently. Handle that ball in a different manner, punch it for a corner—although it wasn’t necessary. This one is a ball I can grab firmly, but if I deflect it for a corner, nobody’s going to complain later as long as we’re the champions. They’ll say it was nervousness at the end of the championship, justifiable even in a great goalkeeper. To play that ball for a corner kick.
Their midfielder Luiz Henrique takes the ball lost by Breno—his present to them—and launches it deep to the left corner. He didn’t intend it for anyone in particular. Canhotinho is the one stubborn enough to go for it. With that crazy way he runs. Our wingback stayed there behind, with his hands on his hips. He never even thought of fouling him. Canhotinho runs so wildly it looks like he’ll fall down. I yell at Lula, “Go after him—get him.” Lula goes, but the centering shot is made and passes between his body and the base line. It’s a weak shot, without any angle, but I’m going to knock it out anyway for a corner kick. Surely it will die of old age. But I fall on the ball securely with my arms and chest. It slides into the goal.
IN SLOW MOTION—Canhotinho playing the ball from the left, all bent over and off balance, then somersaulting into the photographers. The ball skimming along the end line. I fall, in slow motion, and even with a certain style. Posing for the photographers, as the newspapers put it.
Tape stopped: I have the ball securely hidden in my arms and under my body.
Tape advancing slowly: It’s barely seen at first that the ball has changed shape: it looks like an egg, with the point appearing between my arms. It’s as if the ball swells up and disconnects from my body and oozes gently over the grass. Until it stops, whimsically, a little ways over the fatal line.
BEHIND THE GOAL: In the middle of that total hell, I turn back, with my head down in front of the photographers and filmmakers. I only desire the world around me would disappear. The world doesn’t disappear. I cover my face with my hands, sitting here in front of the television set that shows me covering my face with my hands there on the soccer field.
CHANNEL 8—They activate the microphones and you hear clearly the screams of our fans: “We’re the champions, we’re the champions.” A shout that will echo during the whole night in the city. Only it’s the other team’s fans that will be celebrating. We’re the champions, we’re the champions—the shout just moves from one side of the stands to the other. A shout that is still heard now, here in the room, arriving from the street between explosions of fireworks. Arriving from every part of the city.
It’s a counter from their defense after a useless attack of ours. But nobody will blame our attackers for not making more goals. They’ll blame the goalkeeper.
It’s a counter from their defense. The ball comes high and is received by Breno, who traps it on his chest and drops it to the ground. But he loses control of the ball, which ends up on the feet of Luiz Henrique. It’s the last minute, the last opportunity for them. The pass is executed immediately and without much thought. Just a wild kick, too strong, to the left corner. Canhotinho fights off Tião in the run and penetrates rapidly in our terrain going after that lost ball. Canhotinho is running so hard. After contacting the ball with his left foot, right on the end line, he flies into the photographers.
I scream to Lula: “Get him, get him.” Lula was too far back, and my shout was not heard by anybody else. They’ll never know I tried.
The ball comes low and weak. It’s a defense I’ve practiced many times; every goalkeeper practices it. You fall instinctively on the ball and protect it with your chest and arms just below your head. Because some attacker could show up, trying to shoot it on forward. It’s an easy ball. I’m sure it’s secure—when actually it’s already escaped from my hands and crossed the goal line.
IN SLOW MOTION—The movements of Canhotinho are so uncoordinated in that slow run. He almost falls over his own feet and has already lost his balance when he strikes the ball with his left foot. Lula almost cut off the angle of the shot, but he left that tiny piece of ground between him and the end line. That’s where the ball comes through. That low ball that comes so weakly and softly that it seems to be in slow motion, never to arrive to my hands. That ball that finally arrives and disappears under my body. And afterward, as if obeying a whim of its own, escapes from me and goes gently into the goal.
They repeat showing this part many times. That ball that comes out of the goal and returns to my arms, and from my arms to Canhotinho, and from him back to Luiz Henrique. That ball that leaves Luiz Henrique’s foot again and rolls toward the left corner all the way to the end line, where Canhotino strikes it, all bent over and from the left, and from there to my arms and then into the goal.
They repeat the play many times. It’s an important goal, the goal that wins the championship. As if it had been made dozens of times. As if it were to be repeated forever, like a nightmare.
It’s a counter from their defense. The ball comes high and is received by Breno, our midfielder. He traps it with his chest, puts it on the ground, and then loses control of the ball. It’s left then for their midfielder Luiz Henrique. Luiz Henrique in desperation launches a powerful long pass to the left corner. Canhotinho thinks the play is possible and starts his run …
[Translation copyright © 2009 Richard McGehee. All rights reserved. Used by permission.]