One of the things that bugs me most about popular culture is the lack of quality fictional moves about soccer. Bend It Like Beckham may have been the last good fictional account where soccer played a prominent role, and even that is not that wonderful of a movie. Arguably The Damned United is fictional (and there is no argument about how good it is) but heavily based on real life events. For an escape into fiction and soccer, books are still the safest bet and Papers in the Wind, to be released May 20th in the U.S., is an excellent addition to this collection.
Set in Argentina, Papers in the Wind is a story not only about a love of soccer, but how one central figure can unite different people. The story begins with the death of the main character, Alejandro or, as he is affectionately known, “Mono”. Mono’s brother Ferdinando (teacher) and his friends Mauricio (lawyer) and Ruso (failed small businessman) leave the wake and are confronted with the obligation to financially care for the deceased’s young daughter. They quickly discover a problem – Mono’s large severance he received from the multinational tech firm he quit was swallowed up in a most unusual business venture. Mono had bought a soccer player. Specifically, he bought the rights to a young forward named Pittilanga who had featured on the U-17 national squad but was now toiling on loan in the lower divisions of Argentine football. Mono had been a failed professional soccer player and always regretted the fact he could not be involved in the game, thus he bought the player’s rights to remain engaged.
The three friends figure they can arrange a transfer for Pittilanga, recoup the money invested (originally $300,000) and give the money to the daughter. One problem – the forward cannot score. He is slow with poor reflexes and is rumored to be released soon, wiping out any chance of a transfer fee. In a narrative that weaves in stories from their time with Mono to the current struggle to recoup the money, Papers in the Wind outlines how far dedication to one friend can take three people who at this point should outright hate each other.
Why is this book worth reading? Two main reasons. The first is that it illustrates a practice that seems odd in American sports, but is more common in international soccer. People essentially invest in a player’s direct future and in exchange receive a portion of the transfer fee when that player is transferred. We hear about this primarily when a high-profile player leaves South America to play in a bigger league and negotiations are snagged due to an agent wanting to get a huge cut of a check. This arrangement is fairly common in some parts of the world, and the book illustrates the perils of such an arrangement if your player does not pan out as expected. Eventually Pittilanga is convinced to train as a defender and the writing is such that we are unsure of the success of this scheme (one of many) until the very end of the book.
The other reason this book is worth reading is the beautiful prose. The author – Eduardo Sacheri – was the author of the book The Secret in their Eyes, which later was made into a movie and won the 2009 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Sacheri successfully weaves two story lines together to illustrate why these three friends love this soccer-obsessed guy so much, and towards the end (both of Mono’s life and the book) we feel an intimacy with Mono’s thought process that has us afraid the transfer will not go through and his daughter will be left to the mercy of her negligent mother. One of the dangers of a translated novel is that the original flow of the book gets lost, but Mara Faye Lethem does an excellent job of seemingly losing nothing in translation. The characters are memorable, the plot understandable, and the action interesting.
This is not a deep book or one that will make you feel like an amateur philosopher as you debate the rights and wrongs of death, soccer management, player ownership, or business practices. Rather, it is a good read if you want to lose yourself in another culture and learn more about the quirks of Argentine soccer and the impact it has on those who enjoy it.