Messi Who Is Small Like Us
Once he felt clean enough he wrote her an email to which she never replied. He wrote:
I couldn’t get it up because my father, who isn’t a doctor and didn’t play rugby, still holds on to the covers when he sleeps at night like a man holding on to the edge of a cliff. He used to share a bed with two of his brothers so any loosening of his grip would leave him exposed to the cold midlands air. My mother, who wasn’t an air hostess and didn’t study French in Paris (she went to secretarial college and is suspicious of foreigners), slept just across the river from him, a thick army overcoat thrown over her bed as an extra barrier against that same cold.
I couldn’t get it up because growing up I didn’t listen to my parents debate art and books and films. I couldn’t get it up because they argued about the immersion (“Did you turn that off again?” “It shouldn’t take you that long it only takes me five minutes”, “I have longer hair than you for Christ sake”) and they argued about when to turn on the heat (“It’s 15 degrees outside”, “I don’t care what temperature it is I know if I’m freezing or not.”, “Here put on my jumper.”, “I’m not putting on that mouldy thing.”) and they argued about the fridge.
Tonight after we watched Messi slip past three defenders and score a goal so great it changed our lives, my father went to the fridge at a quarter to twelve like he always does, to see if any of the food there was going out of date at midnight. My mother, like she always does, came down in her bathrobe: “Throw that out now that rasher is green it’ll run the guts out of you”.
He ate it quickly like he usually eats like he’s worried someone (one of his brothers probably) is about to run in and take it off his plate. “Slow down you’ll give yourself a stroke and if you do you can go out and stay in the home with your mother and watch TV with the rest of them because I won’t be looking after you”.
“Messi”, he said to me on his way to bed, “Messi… you did that yourself a few times”. Grace I don’t know if you’re a follower of Irish football gossip but it’s true what they’re saying, the day you dressed up in your old hockey kit and I couldn’t get it up, I quit playing for Bohs and came home to get clean and watch the Champion’s League semi-finals with my father. My parents agreed that I should stick to working in the bank, since, despite what I told you and everyone else, my money doesn’t come from football. It comes from that boring job (and overdrafts and credit cards too of course). I couldn’t get it up because I spent everything on a three day mad one after I got paid, and went broke pretending I wasn’t broke.
I couldn’t get it up because I’m probably in the top five percent of footballers in the world, but you need to be exceptional to make the money it takes to get from where I started to what you were born into, from Stuart Fagan to Grace Ducasse Fitzgerald. My father still believes in the power of education, in the degrees and the diplomas he never got the chance to get. I thought football was my chance, and it nearly was, which is worse in a way.
I couldn’t get it up because I was just trying to fit in when I said I grew up playing rugby and going to rugby matches. When you were all doing that, we were watching football, at home, in pain, or at the stadium, in pain. Football was a place where we could burst life open like a blister. Rugby for your crowd was a place to make contacts and build relationships and celebrate how great your lives were. And if like you you’re a daughter of the elite, it was a great place too I hear to meet tall well-educated well-built young men.
When I was nine and ten and eleven me and my father used to go every second Friday night to see our team lose in the rain. We’d come in late, the winter would be moving and alive under the floodlights like it wasn’t anywhere else in town and we’d walk through the smell of men’s coats and the echoes of “well” to the two-thirds empty terrace. You could see in my father’s hands, the way he rubbed them together, that he was happy to be among his own at last. Our team would usually have conceded before we even got there, we would have heard the moans bouncing off the puddles on the streets outside the stadium, and they would usually let in a few more before we left, just before the end, knocking on the back door of the closed chip van to get an almost warm bag of chips for half price, which would be enough of a bargain to keep my father happy (and me happy because he was) as we walked home under the wet trees and streetlights.
On Saturdays when I was that age, my mother didn’t play tennis and my sister didn’t play hockey either. We spent our late Saturday afternoons in the car, parked down an alley off the main street, waiting to collect my mother from her job at the shoe shop. We would wait, and watch the winter being charmed out of its basket by the tune of the final scores from England being called out on the radio.
I couldn’t get it up because despite what I said, I didn’t later have a girlfriend on the hockey team who watched me play rugby (they didn’t play rugby at my school, they had enough mindless violence as it was). The most beautiful things I remember from those teenage years are a ball zipping along a drying road after a day of rain or knocking a beat with that ball for hours against our cobblestoned wall, just my breath and the smoke from our chimney for company, my mind and body dreaming the same dream, commentating in an English accent in my head on me scoring and grabbing some respect for us and everyone like us with a goal in the last minute and a win for Ireland.
Not for the country though. For the football men like my father, who were always beaten the same way the Irish team were beaten, (unlike the rugby team, like their supporters they can’t stop winning, even when they lose), they were beaten by force or beaten by skill or beaten by a lack of confidence or beaten by money or beaten because they expected to be beaten or beaten after being ahead or beaten from the beginning or beaten by betrayal or beaten by incompetence or beaten by history or beaten by fate. And if they ever did win, they turned on each other and beat themselves so they couldn’t win again for years.
I couldn’t get it up because everything I did in football before I quit, all that dreaming, was for my father, so he could have a proper victory in a life of good draws and narrow defeats. “You should stick with college and never mind football”, he said, when the Dublin teams came in for me. His dream was of a good job, the professions that were closed off to him, and since I spent my best years in football trying to save him and his people, I wasn’t able to do the one thing he wanted me to do and it’s nearly too late now in a way, for both of us.
But I nearly saved him. You should have seen me when I first came to Dublin in 2006 (you were only starting secondary school I suppose), a boy wonder at nineteen, moving from the team me and my father used to watch to Shels at a time when football there like everything else was wired to the moon with money. You could go out any night of the week in Dublin and end up in an apartment as it got bright doing lines or pills with a foreign girl. And I did. Imagine how that felt when before the most exotic girls I could imagine were hockey playing Protestants. (You’re still exotic to me.)
Everyone was saying that my big move to England was coming. They kept mentioning me on TV as the kind of creative playmaker who could save the failing Irish team. They were still saying it in 2008 when the league fell apart with the rest of the world and I fell apart with them, going home to get clean and coming back up a year later to a part-time contract with Bohs and an entry-level job in the bank. A player diminished, they called me then if they mentioned me at all.
I couldn’t get it up because I could never get back to how good I was before even though I played on until last week, when I went on a three day mad one and told you at the end of it that I wouldn’t call over unless you dressed up in your old hockey kit. We’d been up all night in Gav’s apartment, taking 2C-Bs and speed with his girlfriend Steph and her army of one syllable rich girls (Liv and Roe and Fifs and Claz and Jen and Leigh and Dee and Lo and Elle and Lou and Shell and Luce).
As usual they were all really sound and really inclusive as long as you’re willing to pretend to be one of them, which I’ve been doing since I met your brother and Gav and Rob and Ste and Dan in 2006 and started chewing my jaw off three or four nights a week with them. I pretended to be Stu Fagan (not the Stewie the football crowd call me or the Stuart I am when I’m talking to myself), the rugby fan who only plays football for the money.
That was nearly ten years ago and by this age I’d have thought I wouldn’t need to pretend anymore. I thought I’d be in, but it turns out the real friendships were made before I even moved to Dublin, before they were born, when their parents put them down on the list for the kind of school where you join the rugby team and make the kind of friends you get rich destroying the country with (while telling everyone you’re saving it).
I wanted to destroy the country too but I’ll never get the chance now. I wanted to tell everyone else to take the pain. I wanted to make the hard choices and play the only game in town. I wanted to be rich, because the secret you all keep so well is that your lives are actually much better than everyone else’s. You’re better looking, you have better sex, you go on better holidays, you go to better schools, you live in better houses, you take better drugs, you eat better food, you have better parents, you raise better children, you grow old better (but you don’t play a better sport).
That morning I was sitting on a bed in Gav’s with four or five others who were as wired as me. Lines were still being passed around on a N.W.A vinyl and Ash’s boyfriend Ben was saying to me: “No seriously Stu like rugby is just a better game, I mean the difference in crowds is just… the rugby crowd are like so sound and the football crowd are just like…” And I said, in the pretend posh voice I’ve been using for years: “Yeah it is literally just like a better class of people”.
And after that I text you back and told you to dress up in the uniform of those better people and to leave the door of your apartment unlocked and to wait for me on all fours. I was going to fuck you from behind holding on to the ponytail I told you to have, to make it up to my father.
The night you watched me in Dalymount in the rain I imagined him watching you watching me playing. That was one of those nights on the pitch under the lights where it felt like I was back at home kicking the ball against the wall, carrying the whole game around with me in my head. It takes an hour or two after a game like that of lying in bed to remember every great pass I played or how perfectly the ball fitted into the corner of the net to make it 2-1.
For my biggest games at least I can look back now at the youtube clips—that pass in the cup final that’s always used in promos for the league or that time I hit the bar from 30 yards in the Champion’s League qualifiers and nearly put us through to the group stage, “the sound of the bar rattling was heard all around Europe, but it in the end it wasn’t enough”, was how The Guardian started their match report.
When it goes for me like those nights I try to keep everything good that happened in my head, so I can think back over them when I’m getting into the shower or coming up or just after being with you, and commentate again as I relive them, imagining them happening somewhere else.
It’s like when you met me after that game that night and walked towards me in slow motion through the rain. I was just getting to know you when we kissed in the shelter of the stadium—the textile artist girl wonder with the tattoo of ‘So It Goes’ on your thigh, your hair too blond for the weather like you’d never been rained on before. It was early in our time together and you stayed in mine that night after, since we hadn’t made the no sleeping over rule, and I imagined you were my girlfriend instead of a fuck buddy when you woke up still asleep in the morning.
My father is upstairs now as I type this, no doubt hanging on for his life to the covers even though his grip is getting looser. Earlier we watched Messi score a goal that left us on our feet in the living room long after the replays stopped. Out the window I could see the polka dot pattern I made with years and a wet ball on the cobblestoned wall. Beside me my father was saying “Messi… Messi” like he was trying to hang on to the moment. He’s right too — how many more Messi goals will we watch together before one of them, my father or Messi, bows out? Probably five. How many more Champion’s Leagues will he be alive for? Six or seven maybe. How many more World Cups will he see? Two at most, one, they reckon, where he’ll still be able to remember the names.
And in the gaps between his “Messi”s I was standing beside him shouting in my head: Messi for anyone who was ever told they were too small or too weak, Messi for all the times I was scagging and cried in front of the Sunday morning Match of the Day repeat, talking to my father through the pills and back through time through the TV, Messi who tonight sent huge men to the ground with a flick of his eyes and walked past them as they lay there, their world and ours turned upside down by his feet, Messi who is underfed and ours, Messi who is not tall like your rugby playing exes, Messi who did what I couldn’t, Messi who is small like us, Messi who lifted me up out of whatever I was in…
So what about another go at it?