Wednesday, 2 April 2014


A Writer’s Notebook

No. 48, April 2014


James Watson

Friends and contributors




‘What we must avoid at all costs,’ team supervisor Mr. Boychuk announces, ‘is any sense of…revenge against Russia and the Russians. Sport is all too often used to repay old scores.’

     Team coach Vera Sorokin dares to interrupt. ‘I think my girls understand that, Mr. Boychuk. They will play hard and fair, fair and hard, whoever the opposition is.’

 ‘Thank you, Miss Sorokin. However, it has to be admitted that the Russian squad may prove to be out of our league in terms of skill and experience. We must not resort to tactics that will bring the national side into disrepute. We must prove ourselves.’ He pauses, stares from face to face. ‘And that means we must, if necessary, prove ourselves good losers.’

   This is more than Natasha can stand, as it is for a few others in the team, including the captain, Galina. The voice of a Kaltsov rises above the rest: ‘We don’t intend to lose, Mr. Boychuk. We’re on home territory, and the people of Ukraine are right behind us.’

Sensing their strength in unity, the whole team shout their support, driving Boychuk into an apologetic silence. ‘Of course, naturally…we pray for victory.’…


The Russians are big, most of them as tense as the Ukys, and unsmiling.

 ‘If they call you names,’ Vera Sorokin had warned, ‘ignore them. Self-control is everything. Lose your rag and you’ll lose the match.’

The lines break; captains meet at the centre-spot. The referee tosses a coin. We are playing into the wind. Ten minutes into the game and Natasha has done a lot of running but has scarcely added to her first touch of the ball. The Rus are good. Their passing suggests a team that has played together often. For the last two minutes, none of the Ukys has managed to hold on to the ball.

Squad captain Galina is calling: ‘Hold on to it, control it!’ To Natasha, who has strayed well in to her own half, she commands: ‘Stay up!’

In the crowd, Grandma Kaltsov has risen to her feet and is waving her umbrella and fuming as she sees her granddaughter hacked down from behind. ‘Damned Rus, treacherous dogs – they deserve a thrashing, the lot of them!’

As Natasha skids on to her chest, the packed crowd in the Odessa stadium leaps up and down in a war dance of rage: ‘Red card, red card!’

The kick went straight into the back of Natasha’s knee. And here it comes, the sledging, the verbal tactic that seeks to drain away a player’s self-confidence. ‘How’s it feel? – pigtail! Khokhol!’

Natasha gets up, with a helping hand from centre-back Svetlana, who is about to worsen the situation with a swift denunciation of this Rusky in particular and Rus in general, until Natasha pleads, ‘Don’t!’

It’s been a bad enough knock for Vera to call for Valentina the physio to come on to the pitch, but Natasha shakes her head. No need for treatment. She limps a few paces, feels better. It’s agony, but she nods, waves away Valentina.

‘You’re a hero as well as a star, eh?’ comes the same voice.

The referee steps in. ‘One more word from you,’ she warns the Rus defender, ‘and you’ll be back down the tunnel.’

The Russian defender who brought Natasha to ground takes a few paces towards her own goal. Loud enough for those around her to hear, but just out of earshot of the referee, she declaims, ‘Bunch of Nazis!’

It is a chilling accusation because there is no reason in it. Natasha is as curious to know why this young Russian, her own age, in the 21st century, chooses a term of insult so inappropriate; yet employs it with such passion.

There is a skirmish, the attackers and defenders so close together that the ball becomes invisible. One defender falls, one attacker falls. A poor shot, spinning wide of the goal, hits a defender. The Ukraine goalie goes one way, the ball the other, trickling between the posts.

Ukraine nil, Russia one.

Some divine justice! Natasha stares wildly at the heavens. I’m fouled from behind. We’re called Nazis and now fate makes things worse with a sloppy goal.

Sensing the imminent crash of morale, Galina races into the goal, picks the ball out of the net and sprints back to the centre spot. She turns on the team, but stays calm: ‘Don’t bunch, we lost formation there, letting them push us out of midfield. So remember Vera’s game plan.’

The crowd is roaring for the Ukys to get a grip; roaring and cheering, chanting and chorusing. Their Mexican wave out-does the Black Sea in an autumn storm. Their cheers seem to be coming from beyond the ground, from the city; sweeping across the great Steppe, thundering down from the Carpathians, foaming along Ukraine’s mighty rivers.

Stand still, Natasha has told herself, and they’ll get you. Big Mouth wants my scalp. So keep moving: weaving, thrusting, seeking out space. The tactic pays off. Natasha has latched on to a pass from Galina that has split the Russian defence.

This is the moment: it may never return. She has steadied herself. Defenders encircle her on three sides, blocking off a route to goal; so she swivels on one heel, dragging the ball around with her. She steps on it, stops. The defenders lunge, but this is the best back-heel in the history of soccer.

The ball shoots through the legs of the advancing goalie. Natasha is in the air, and the ball is in the net. She flies, she soars, and the team is piling on her in the goalmouth with screams of triumph.

   How did I do it? Easy. Just put it down to sheer genius; and by eating my fruit and veg like a good girl.

There are appeals for off-side and protestations by the Rus when the referee blows for a goal. It’s official: Ukraine 1, Russia 1.

Not a second to lose: emulating her captain, Natasha sprints back with the ball to the centre-spot, plonks it down, challenges the Rus: ‘Bring it on, Comrades!’

With Natasha’s goal, matters at least on this pitch have become equal. It has become a level playing ground between two peoples; Ukraine, historically the perpetual victim, Russia the perpetual oppressor.

Never again!

Corners are where shirts get tugged and torn. Natasha sees the ball hovering above the penalty area. Three bodies leap, including hers, and one arm, in the melee, drags her back so forcefully her shirt sleeve tears at the shoulder. True, the gesture neutralises Natasha. Keeps her on the ground as it was intended to do, but the attention she is getting is so focused that it is too focused. No one has been covering Masha who darts in behind the ruck. It is the sweetest of headers.

This is no miracle, but it is treated as such by the crowd: Ukraine 2, Russia 1.

All at once there is fighting. Masha’s leap has carried her over the shoulders of two defenders, forcing both of them off balance, one to measure her length on the scuffed mud of the goalmouth, the other to twist her knee.

The sight of the ball drifting into the back of the Russian net turns normal, sensible, highly trained athletes into warriors surprised by a night attack and desperate to make up for their negligence.

Arms raised and swinging, hands thrusting, bodies colliding, accompanied by yell and screech, bluster and threat, create such a confusion that it is impossible for the referee or her assistants on the touchlines to figure out who started the war, who decided to escalate it and who is perpetuating it.

Vera Sorokin is bellowing from the manager’s dugout. The manager of the Russian team is also bellowing, first at the referee and then at her players, then at Vera, who bellows back.

It is with relief all round, and not a moment too soon, that the referee separates the combatants. She gives them an ear-stinging rebuke. No one is booked, no one dismissed. But the teams are left in little doubt that if tempers flare up again the result will not be one red card or several but banishment of both teams to the changing-room.

Natasha emerges from the incident with a shiner. Her right eye is already puffing up, and throbbing. She has no idea who tore her shirt. No idea who elbowed her in the eye.

Less than five minutes later, the whistle goes for half time. As she walks off, feeling numb and just slightly groggy, Natasha is joined by Big Mouth, who seems in a jovial mood. ‘Sorry about that.’ She puts a friendly arm around Natasha’s shoulder. ‘Fair game, eh, Tasha?’

At least she remembers my name. Funny old world. Natasha returns the compliment, rests her hand on Big Mouth’s shoulder.  ‘The game’s not perfect,’ she says, ‘but it’s got to be fairer than life – right?’

‘Fairer? I don’t know. But it’s better!’


Edited extract from FAIR GAME: THE STEPS OF ODESSA (Spire Publications paperback; and Kindle edition).


Editor’s note:

For the second issue in a row we have to apologise for the absence of Ned Baslow’s amazingly popular correspondence. His sojourn in Fuengirola has resulted in an extended stay in order to recruit what he refers to as ‘fandango dancers’ for the Wickerstaff-cum-Fernhaven late summer festival, a perfect complement he believes to the top show, ‘The Spectacles of Don Quixote’.