- Peachtree Publishers, Ltd.
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 6.00(w) x 8.60(h) x 0.90(d)
- Age Range:
- 10 - 12 Years
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By Kristin Wolden Nitz
Peachtree PublishersCopyright © 2004 Kristin Wolden Nitz
All rights reserved.
I should have known something was wrong when the woman's eyes moved quickly past me to my five-year-old brother, Max. The wrinkles around her eyes deepened as she smiled and ruffled his hair. "So, you want to enroll yourself in soccer?" she asked.
Max bounced on his toes and nodded.
The woman turned to my mother and handed her a white piece of paper. "His group finished five minutes ago, but they'll meet again tomorrow."
From the way Mom's lips twitched, I could tell she wanted to say something but couldn't find the words. I stepped forward.
"We're also here to enroll me on your girls' team," I announced.
The woman blinked. "There isn't one."
What she actually said — I suppose I should mention — was "Non c'e," which in Italian means about the same thing. If this conversation had taken place back in the States, in English, my mother probably would have launched into a speech on equal opportunity for girls. But now we were in Merano, a small city in the Italian Alps, so all she could do was stand there and look horrified.
And to tell you the truth, even though I am almost fluent in Italian, that's about all I could do, too.
The woman studied me for a moment, from my tight, businesslike French braids down to my black cleats. "How long have you played soccer, cara?"
"Eight years," I replied.
"And what grade do you frequent?"
"The second year of middle school."
"One moment, please. I must speak with someone." She nodded and walked briskly around the corner of the yellow stucco clubhouse.
I stared after her in disbelief. "When Dad and I made a search on Yahoo Italia, there were lots of girls' teams," I said to Mom.
"Near Milan and Turin, maybe," Mom said. "This isn't the big city, Irene. Here in Merano, things might be a little more — conservative."
Mom could read, write, and understand Italian. But sometimes, especially when the conversation took an unexpected turn, she couldn't always speak it very well. She says it's much harder to pull a word up out of your brain than to hear it spoken or to read it on a page.
I wouldn't know. My dad's first words to me were "Ciao, bimba. Come stai?" Hi, baby girl. How are you? And from that moment on, he had spoken to me almost exclusively in Italian. Somehow, a baby can easily separate languages into different boxes. It's a lot harder for grown-ups.
"Don't worry," Mom said. "You'll play. I'll make that clear to whoever's in charge."
"But Mom, if the teams here are all boys ..."
"That never stopped you back home," Mom reminded me.
"Yeah, but that was just around the neighborhood. Half those guys don't play competitively. What if ..." I bit my lip.
"Yes?" Mom prompted.
I rubbed my palms against my shorts. "What if I can't keep up?"
"You will, honey," Mom assured me. "But maybe you'll have to work even harder this season. It'll be good for you."
Sure, I thought. Just like having a cavity filled.
A man wearing dark blue pants and a white polo shirt rounded the corner. "Buona sera," he said, greeting us. He must have overheard us talking because he switched to English. "I am the manager, Giacomo Corona. You are Americans, no?"
"Yes," my mother said.
"Signora Martelli tells me your daughter wants to play at calcio with us?"
He smiled. "We are glad. And she speaks a little Italian?"
"She speaks a lot of Italian," Mom said. "My husband was born in Milan, er, Milano."
"Ah. Molto bene. Very good. I must tell you that there are no other girls of her age in our program, but we are happy she is here. Very happy." He turned to me. "What is your name?"
Unlike every coach I'd ever had in America, he did not ask me to repeat my first name, "ee-RAY-nay." There's no such thing as a silent e in Italian.
"A pleasure, Irene. You meet with your squad at four o'clock, Monday and Thursday. September to November and March to May. Six months, yes? It is a hundred euro to the year. That is not too much?" He glanced at my mother.
The corners of her mouth turned down. She was probably trying not to smile. The outrageous fee she'd had to pay for my select team last winter was more than four times that.
"No. It is not too much at all," Mom said and reached for her purse.
Signor Corona waved his hand. "No, no. Not today. Next week."
Next week? For all his smiles and pleasure at meeting me, maybe he was hoping that I wouldn't be around next week — that if they didn't take our money it would be easier to get rid of the girl. But no, a smiling Signora Martelli appeared a few seconds later. She was carrying a white T-shirt, navy blue shorts, matching sweats, and an official backpack. I took the pile she handed me, fighting the urge to shove it back at her and make a terrified break for the parking lot. Did I really want to do this?
"Her team already begins five minutes ago," Signor Corona said, pointing in the direction of the soccer field.
My fingers tightened around the clothing. "Five minutes ago?" I asked, switching to Italian.
"Sí," Signora Martelli said. "You can change clothes in the bathroom around the corner. Take a left and then another left. I will tell the mister that you are here."
Late to practice on my first day? My new coach, or the mister as they called him here, would not be impressed.
My hands shook as I locked myself into the bathroom. I changed into my uniform, trying to tell myself there was no reason to be nervous.
No reason at all, a voice inside me mocked. After all, these boys only practiced six months out of the year from first grade on up. They only watched soccer on TV every chance they got. Soccer was only Italy's national pastime, its national passion.
I leaned heavily on the sink, my fingers clutching its porcelain sides. I rocked back and forth with my eyes closed. What could I do?
Dad had passed his passion for soccer along to me. I loved it. I loved the sound and feel of the ball exploding off my foot for a shot on goal. And I certainly didn't want to fall behind in my training during my family's yearlong stay in Italy. But to go from being one of the top players on the squad to the last substitute lingering on the bench ... How could I stand it?
A fist thudded against the door.
"Die, Irene! Die!"CHAPTER 2
"Irene, die!" Signora Martelli's voice repeated. "Die" is what the word would have sounded like to American ears. And since I had been thinking in English right then, I didn't recognize the Italian word, dai. She was telling me to "Come on," or "Hurry up!"
"I'm almost ready." I stuffed my shorts and T-shirt into the equipment bag, snapped it shut, and opened the door.
"I told Marco Fornaio, the mister, that you were here," Signora Martelli said. "Give me your backpack. I'll put it in the room with the others." Her smile was encouraging, but it still made me nervous.
"Thanks," I said.
"It's nothing. Dai."
I ran down to the field of powdery brown dirt. The mister was leading the players in a slow trot around the chalked boundary. The line was straight and the spaces between the players were all the same. They were even jogging in time. Right. Left. Right. Left. I fell in behind the last boy.
He wore black shorts and a long-sleeved gray shirt instead of the white and blue uniform. The goalie, I guessed. He must have heard my footsteps because he glanced over his shoulder.
"Madonna!" he exclaimed in surprise. Then, without stopping his forward motion, he spun around to get a good look at me. In the process, he nicked the heel of the player in front of him.
"Hey, watch out, Luigi," the second player called. Then he saw me and made the same spinning move as his teammate. The news of my arrival kept drifting up the line, destroying its organization and rhythm.
Only the mister did not turn to look at me. "No talking!" he snapped. "Follow me." He switched from a jog to a sideways gallop.
Another team slowly circled the other half of the field. I kept my eyes fixed on the six-thousand-foot-high mountain peaks rising sharply behind them, but my peripheral vision told me that they were staring at me too. I hadn't had so much attention paid to me since ... well, never.
Boys did not make a habit of falling at my feet — not unless I tripped them during a pickup game after school. My hair is either dark blonde or light brown, depending on whom you ask. My curves are small. My long, thin face boasts a complexion that has its good days and bad days. My smile shows slow and painful improvement with every visit to the orthodontist.
The mister blew his whistle and changed from the sideways gallop to an exaggerated skipping motion. His arms swung in large arcs. He drove his knees high into the air.
"Maybe the mister skips for the girl," the goalie joked.
Snorts and suppressed laughter followed that remark.
"Nothing to laugh at!" the mister snapped.
And so we skipped. This sight took the attention away from me. The other team grinned, pointed, and chuckled until their mister made them start skipping too.
The muscles in my calves and thighs began to tighten. I carefully controlled my breathing so no one would catch me sucking air during the warm-ups. I was relieved when the coach stopped and arranged us in three lines for the stretches.
We started with our necks and worked our way down to the Achilles tendons. The slight tugs on my triceps, quads, and hamstrings all felt familiar and reassuring.
When we finished, the mister emptied a mesh bag full of black and white soccer balls onto the ground. All the other players surged forward to get one. I hung back until the end.
"Irene?" the mister asked as I stepped up. A deep dent appeared between his black eyebrows.
"Watch well the others. Do that which they do. Pay attention. Dai!"
I took the ball the mister handed me and joined the team in what my coach in the U.S. called the dribbling drill. Each of my teammates dribbled the ball at his own speed, choosing his own direction. They moved faster than a jog but slower than a run. There was one exception.
A boy with curly black hair, surprisingly blue eyes, and a determined chin was dribbling at top speed. He dashed at players head-on and then cut left or right. I heard boys call out his name in protest: "Matteo!" He was as graceful and gorgeous as Bernini's statue of David, but he could move like a racehorse.
My new teammates, with the exception of Matteo, continued to check me out, undoubtedly wondering whether the girl knew how to handle the ball. And so I found myself focusing on the ball and the way it made the dirt puff up behind it.
"Don't look at the ball! Don't look at the ball!" the mister roared. I flinched. Undoubtedly, the mister's bad first impression of me had only gotten worse. Then he blew the whistle. Everyone stopped for a ball-handling drill. We each bounced our ball off of our thighs, ankles, and feet, keeping it in the air for as long as possible. I counted my touches: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight ...
Another whistle blast and we were off again. My thighs felt as though someone had strapped sandbags to them. It was tough to get my breath. After five minutes of this, even Matteo had slowed to a steady jog. But again, the familiarity reassured me. My American coaches had stressed conditioning at the earliest practices.
Finally, the mister told us to form two lines near the center circle and sent Luigi to the goal. Matteo stood at the front of the line with his right foot resting on the ball, waiting for the signal.
Matteo kicked the ball to the mister and bounded forward a few steps. He bounced on his toes until the mister returned the ball. Matteo dashed to intercept it. With a one-touch pass, he sent it directly back to the mister, who tapped it toward the goal.
Matteo sprinted toward the ball again. The tilt of his body, his angle of approach, the way he held his head — each promised that he would kick it to the right. Instead he buried the ball in the far left corner of the goal.
"Bravo, Matteo!" the mister said.
Matteo retrieved his ball and dribbled it to the end of a line — my line. Even though I was taller than he was, he still managed to stare down his nose at me. Every inch of his body seemed to ask: "How dare you set foot on the same soccer field as ME?" But all he settled for was a contemptuous "How do you call yourself?"
"Irene," I told him.
"From where do you come?"
"The United States. Near St. Louis."
His eyes widened. "You're an Americana? Really?"
His upper lip curled. "Girls really play soccer over there?"
I clenched my jaw. Matteo probably did not know or would not care that the American women's national team was one of the top three in the world, so I merely said, "I do."
His lip curled in silent disapproval, but before he could say anything, the mister called: "Stop talking! Stay attentive!"
Soccer was obviously serious here, not a social event. Matteo took a step back.
I faced forward and studied the goalkeeper, Luigi, as he caught, kicked, or batted away almost every shot. His moves had a grace of their own, a living, full-color illustration in a book on how to defend the goal.
My turn came. I had done this thousands of times before, and I could do it now. Why was I more nervous today than I had been at any game back home — even the tournaments?
I kicked my ball toward the mister. He returned it to me. Instead of a fancy one-touch pass, I controlled the ball and booted it back to him. After a few more passes, he sent the ball spinning toward the goal with a "Dai, Irene."
The ball rolled across the chalk line and into the penalty area faster than any other pass during the entire drill. Was this a gift for the girl? I wondered. But that didn't matter. I charged forward.
Instead of coming out to challenge me, Luigi stayed in the goal. Something about his stance reminded me of Matteo. He obviously didn't expect much from me.
I decided to change his mind.CHAPTER 3
The ball exploded off the instep of my left foot with a satisfying thud. It sailed a few inches past Luigi's outstretched fingertips and hit the net.
"Brava, Irene!" the mister called. "Luigi, don't fall asleep in the goal!"
Yes! I thought triumphantly, but I showed no outward signs of celebration. Maybe the mister had used me to give a wake-up call to the goalkeeper. I didn't care. At least Luigi would have to take me seriously now.
I only scored on him one more time, but that was okay. He didn't relax when my turn came. I could tell. And that was the important thing.
After a few more drills, the mister sent us to the clubhouse for a short break. I had yet to see a water fountain in Italy. They didn't seem to believe in them here. Fortunately, Dad had warned me, so I took a long drink out of my water bottle and then ducked my head under the enormous sink in the hallway to cool off. As I straightened and brushed the water out of my eyes, I saw that someone was waiting for me.
I remembered from the mister's shouts that the boy's name was Emi. The top of his head reached the bottom of my nose. Thin, dark, and fast, he could control the ball almost as well as Matteo, but he lacked the other boy's King-of-the-Field attitude.
"What do you call yourself?" he asked.
"I'm Emi," he volunteered. "From where do you come?"
"The United States."
"Really? Wow!" He actually did say "wow," or at least the Italian variation. It's spelled differently and you can hear a lot more "oooh" at the beginning and the end. "Uaou!" he repeated. "You live here?"
"Sí. My dad is working here for a year."
I hoped Emi's "Beautiful!" meant he was glad I was staying an entire year, rather than happy I would be leaving so soon.
I heard a growing buzz behind him. Fifteen players from both our team and the other one had gathered there. Even though they seemed more curious than hostile, I felt trapped.
"What is your phone number?" Emi continued.
"Oooh!" said a fifteen-member chorus.
"Emi plus Irene!" someone called out. His left hand hovered palm-down at waist level while his right hand shot up above his head to exaggerate the difference in our heights.
If my face hadn't already been red from running, I would have blushed.
The goalie, Luigi, dropped to his knees, clasped his hands and looked up at me. In an almost perfect imitation of Emi's voice, he said, "How bella you are, Irene! How tall! I love you!"
Emi only grinned and shook his head. "No. No. I ask this for my twin sister, Giulia. It would please her to meet you, Irene."
"Ma dai!" someone complained. "What if Giulia comes back?"
"Two girls on the team? How gross!"
Emi crossed his arms. "Don't worry. Giulia will not return." He looked back at me expectantly.
"I don't know my number yet. We just moved in."
"Then I will tell you ours. It is very simple: twenty-one, twenty-one, twenty-one. Please call her. It would please her very much. Really."
Excerpted from Defending Irene by Kristin Wolden Nitz. Copyright © 2004 Kristin Wolden Nitz. Excerpted by permission of Peachtree Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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