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from the March 2018 issue

Woman Striker Has Killer Left Foot

In this tale of fortune and fame by Réka Mán-Várhegyi, we learn it's never too late to upset the world of competitive sports. But at what personal cost?

One sweltering summer morning I wake up to find I’m Lionel Messi, the FC Barcelona player. The sun’s coming up, everything in the room is orange. My husband and I lie beside one another naked. I climb out of bed and stand in front of the mirror. I’m not shocked, even though his face is staring back at me. My sweaty brown hair is stuck to my forehead, I’ve got a receding chin and a pug-nose. For a minute, I look at myself with my little beady eyes, suspicious, but then, what can I do, I lie back down. I hope my husband will accept me like this, my last thought as I drift off.

The clock says eight when I come around again. My husband groans, he can’t take the heat. Me neither. We go naked to the kitchen and lie down on the cool kitchen tiles. That’s when I remember my experience at dawn. I turn to my husband, the first sentence I utter today is that I dreamed I was that soccer player, Messi, that he was staring back at me and smiling. This makes my husband happy. He feels like I’d dreamed something about him.

Later that day, in the early evening, we stroll to the city park. He’s playing soccer with his pals, I plan to sit on the edge of the pitch reading a book, glancing up every now and again and watching as he dashes about, as he winks at me when he scores a goal. That’s the usual routine. But now when I see the ball, it’s as though I’ve been bewitched, I can’t take my eyes off it. There’s no trying to get into my book, it doesn’t work, all I can think about is the ball. When one of the guys kicks the ball out, I spring up and run after it. In those seconds I imagine picking it up in my hands, I’m even a little worried whether or not I can throw it that far.

But when I catch it up, my feet do the work for me. With a foreign mastery my right foot controls it and my left boots it back. The ball soars in a perfect arc and there’s something elegant about it—I can’t believe it was me who did it. I look on, shocked, at which point my husband and his pals laugh. I’d put it back on the pitch from at least a hundred and fifty feet.

When I sit down beside my book, someone asks why I don’t come play. I shrug my shoulders, I’ve never played  soccer, I’m scared I’ll get hurt. My husband gives a wave of his hand not to worry, they’ll go easy, it’s pretty relaxed, nobody here’s as sprightly as they used to be fifteen years ago, don’t worry.

“I promise I’ll pass,” sniggers one of his pals.

“Come on, a bit of running around will do you good,” says my husband.

So I put down my book and step onto the pitch.

From the very first minute the ball sticks to me. Soon I’m running rings around my own teammates on my way to the goal. The city park crowd has seldom seen goals like these. I’m honestly dancing with the ball, I tap it this way, I tap it that way, and it’s like I have complete peripheral vision, I’m passing backward. Nine out of ten shots go in. It’s unbelievable.

An hour later we pack it in. I feel like I could easily play on, but the boys are already dying for a beer. We laugh our heads off about the stuff I pulled off on the pitch.

“If you’d started ten years ago, you know where you’d be now?” sighs my husband. Soon he starts feeling sorry that I’m a woman. “If you’d been born a boy, you would’ve known at six years old what an incredible gift you have." 

I’m scared that he’s wrong. Up until now, I’d never shown any sign of feeling for any sort of ball. I’ve always been clumsy and timid. Back in the day, school gym classes positively wore me out if we had to play basketball or volleyball. I found team games too fast and nerve-racking. I was kicked out of ballet class at sixteen, and from then on I was suspicious toward all forms of exercise. Ballet was the one thing I had any ability for, and even then it wasn’t enough.

Thank god that’s all in the past, I dealt with failure, I enjoyed university, and settled into public administration. I got married during university and I’ve been doing yoga for years to ready my body for pregnancy. I keep my body in perfect shape, time doesn’t bother me, or only a bit. I long for an air-conditioned, three-bedroom flat with a rooftop terrace, a spacious fitted wardrobe in the hallway, and a dishwasher in the kitchen, and I want a spine-friendly coir mattress.

“This whole soccer thing is obviously something you wanted on some level. Ask yourself why you didn’t dream you had a three-bedroom flat,” my best friend says and shrugs as we sit on a café terrace. We leave it at that.

The next day my husband persuades me to go out and have a kick around. When I get home from work I’m already tired as usual, but him I’ve never seen so enthusiastic. He wants to teach me tricks, but it turns out I already know them all. At home he shows me videos of the best goals in football history, and most of them I feel like I could do myself anytime. We soon get used to my newfound skills. We join others’ games too, and I realize that sometimes it’s better to hold back. Some people take it badly when I crush them. They get aggressive, they boot the ball at me or tell me to get back in the kitchen where I belong.

In the park it’s mostly boys playing on the pitches, there aren’t many girls. When I do meet those few, they tell me they’ve been coming for years and they practice a lot to teach themselves the moves that come so naturally for the boys. Boys have been doing it since they were kids, it’s no wonder the moves have soaked in. I only meet one girl who’s as good as the boys.

We’ve been kicking it about for an hour when she arrives. She’s short, wiry, bull-necked, her hair’s cut short and gelled back. She’s wearing a black T-shirt, black shorts, and black trainers. She expertly spits pumpkin seed shells as she sizes up the game. I’m standing goal, mostly out of sight. After a couple of minutes, she asks with a grin if she can join, after taking a few steps to warm up, she jogs onto the pitch. She’s not just talented, she’s smart, she looks around her while she’s dribbling for someone to pass to, she uses the wall to pass back to herself. She shoots a goal practically from the halfway line. Afterward she cracks her neck and punches the air. She looks like a boxer, too. It’s as though that’s the price for playing well. I feel bad for her, for her illusions, for her sad toughness, so I tie my laces, come out of goal, and show her what I can do. I avoid her gaze at the end of the game, but she comes over and introduces herself. She says I’m pretty good and invites me to come to the club where she plays, maybe they’ll let me in.

It never even crossed my mind to join a club, what a ridiculous idea! My husband persuades me, it seems he has a dream that I’ll be a professional soccer player. You’re crazy, I tell him, no way! The last thing I need after work is to go to practice! Before falling asleep that night, I think about fate, when I close my eyes, all I see is the ball.

After this things happen rapidly. I get accepted into the club, I go to practices and matches, I score a huge number of goals, and a few months later I realize I’m playing for the Hungarian women’s national team. After the Swedish Euros—where we get silver—well-known clubs want to buy me. That’s when I hand in my notice at work. The international press writes about me more and more, I’m considered a genius of my time, my technique is compared to Messi’s.

I’m signed by the Danish team Fortuna Hjørring. My husband and I move into a sunny house where the most amazing spine-friendly mattress is waiting for us. The following year my team wins the Champions League and the experts unanimously attribute the victory to me. They say I play twice as well as the best. That I play like a man. It might be because of this, but I start being attacked more and more, people try to expose me, like I was some sort of fraud. A student in Copenhagen writes a thesis about me. Soon the FIFA leadership is wondering what to make of my situation. In the end, they make a revolutionary decision: the division between men and women’s football disappears. An hour later I get a call from Real Madrid, and they imply they’d be willing to pay a large sum for me.

We’re in Spain by August. Woman plays Cristiano Ronaldo’s position, write the papers. I’m a bit nervous. I honestly don’t want to disappoint the Madrid fans. In my first match, which we play against a Valencia in very good shape, I turn two stunning setups into goals, but they’re playing at their best as well, by the end of the second half it’s two-two. Then in the ninety-third minute I score a beautiful free kick, the crowd goes wild, they cheer me like a hero. Even though the majority of my teammates are a few years younger than me, because of my short height and my youngish looks they treat me like everyone’s little sister. When someone scores a goal, I’m the one they put on their shoulders, whom they run around the pitch with, whom they toss in the air. The following February I dress up as a koala bear for a costume party, it turns out so well they immediately pick a koala to be the team mascot.

Regardless of every goal and win, it bothers a lot of people that despite being a woman I play for Real and earn almost as much as Cristiano did before me. FIFA receives a huge number of complaints, many would like experts to examine what sort of effect my presence at Real Madrid has on football. But thanks to some influential names, nothing comes of this. Adidas approaches me, then Gucci, to promote their shoes. That’s when the fashion industry discovers me. I work for the biggest brands. The only things I’m not willing to advertise are Louis Vuitton bags, I state this several times. When a reporter asks why, all I say is: they’re rank. It’s as though the fashion magazines are released from a decades-long burden, they’re so keen on those two words: they are rank, they write in massive letters about the mopey-brown Louis Vuitton bags. Elle names me Woman of the Decade.

Many are amazed, but my husband feels great in our new life. My parents and gossip magazines both predict that our relationship won’t be able to take the burden, all the attention I’m getting, but luckily they’re wrong. The truth is without him I wouldn’t be able to get up in the morning, never mind go onto the pitch. He’s not just my partner, he’s my manager, too. He sets up a charity in my name for children in the developing world, and after a while he’s making frequent visits to Africa as a UNICEF ambassador.

We play El Clásico against Barcelona and I meet Lionel Messi for the first time. I could have forgotten that dream ages ago, but it’s still clear in my memory. Now, looking at his nose or his chin, his neck or his hands, I feel as though they’re part of my body, they belong to me, I’m controlling them. The match kicks off, the two teams tear into one another and he scores a goal, then I score a goal. It’s impossible to say which of us is better, more unpredictable.

A couple of days later, we meet at a gala where I arrive dressed head to toe in Dior. We present awards and receive awards, we laugh in front of the cameras, but when they disappear, he doesn’t laugh, he just stares at me like a dog. I don’t get what he wants. Maybe he’s in love with me. I swear, I’ll crush him next time.

My husband comes home from one of his UNICEF tours, and I feel horrible seeing the photos with scrawny African children hugging his legs.

“I want to have children,” I burst out crying. “I always did!”

“We will,” my husband consoles me. “It’s just not time yet.”

“But I’m thirty-five!” I howl.

I have to go to practice, I’ve no time to take a break, but I’m not well. I cry, I scream, I swear to my husband, I’ll leave Madrid, I’ll leave everything and I’ll become a professional mom. Of course I can’t do that—after all, my contract in which I promised not to get pregnant doesn’t expire for a while.

We’ve no other choice than adoption. A few months pass and children arrive to our sunny home one after the other. I don’t want a rainbow family like Angelina Jolie, my kids are pale, sour-faced Eastern Europeans. Regardless, people compare our big brood to hers.

For a long time the Hungarian political elite don’t know what to make of me. An album about Hungarian football legends is published with government funding, but I don’t even get a mention. I’m not invited onto the Hungarian national team either, even though on several occasions I state that I’d be happy to join. A few journalists compare my situation to the legendary Ferenc Puskás’s.

I spend another three fantastic years at Real. During the last winter my game gets sloppy, the club hesitates to extend my contract and little birds are chirping about my retirement. They’re sorry I only got a few years. But what years they were! I reckon I’ve still got a bit of spark in me, but I admit that I really wasn’t convincing during the recent stretch. That’s when Manchester United approaches me and I tell them I’m tired but they insist, they say I just need a new challenge. They show me footage that they believe proves I’m in better shape than ever. That’s how I join United.

I play so well, the world has never seen such a second wind. It’s largely thanks to me that we win the Premier League and the Champions League, where in the semifinal we beat Real, but I don’t celebrate my goals against my former team.

I like living in England, initially I enjoy the cooler weather. We have a traditional house and a well-kept garden. By this point I have to commute in a bulletproof car, as do my family. I’m on the cover of the Sun at least once a week, millions follow my posts on the Internet. I’m forty years old, but I don’t even look twenty-eight. I’m asked to advertise anti-wrinkle creams, but I turn down the offers. I plan to write a book on natural beauty care. I’m a legend.

Everything has to come to an end sometime. It doesn’t show on the outside, but I can feel it. I say good-bye to MU and announce my retirement, but I get an irresistible offer from Saudi Arabia and I decide to play one last round. My husband and I joke that with the money I’m earning here I could pay off Hungary’s national debt. My children are school-aged and they study at home with a private tutor. I don’t want to send them to a local school, these Arabs are weird. I’m homesick for Europe, the game’s not enough anymore, I can’t take it for long. After two years I hang up my spikes.

Finished, done, it’s over.

It’s hard to be home. My mind is blank, I just lie about on the couch. There are countless things ahead of me, says my husband, I could be a coach, I could write an autobiography, I could design clothes. I could go back to public administration, I say, and at least that one makes us laugh.

We need to settle down somewhere, but it’s not easy with the fame. What sort of life are we going to live?

“I don’t want my kids to be little Paris Hiltons,” I say.

My husband sits down beside me, he takes my hand. He has to tell me something, he says. It strikes me that I’ve been waiting for this conversation for a long time. He had an affair with the nanny, he says, and tears come into his eyes. It’s OK, I say, I slept with the club manager, but it means nothing, it really means nothing.

“Let’s move home and live like we used to,” he says.

I sigh.

“I never got the Ballon d’Or,” I say.

“You can’t have everything, love,” he answers, “You can’t have everything.”

We look at one another.
 

"A csatárnő bal lába életveszélyes" © Réka Mán-Várhegyi. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 by Owen Good. All rights reserved.

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