For twelve-year-old Arcady, soccer is more than just a game. Sent to live in a children's home after his parents are declared enemies of the state, it is a means of survival, securing extra rations, respect, and protection. Ultimately, it proves to be his chance to leave. But in Soviet Russia, second chances are few and far between. Will Arcady seize his opportunity and achieve his goal? Or will he miss his shot?
This title has Common Core connections.
“Yelchin's b&w drawings, interspersed throughout the text as both spots and spreads, add emotional depth and amplify the plot; ample soccer detail makes this a winner for fans of the sport.” Publishers Weekly
“Two survivors of Stalinist oppression attempt to form a family in this companion to the 2012 Newbery Honor-winning Breaking Stalin's Nose . . . An uplifting, believable ending makes this companion lighter - but no less affecting - than its laurelled predecessor.” Kirkus Reviews
Related collections and offers
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
I’M A RISK TAKER. That’s why I score like crazy. I score on the go, with the ball in the air, with my back to the goal. I score in all weather. Dirt, mud, or ice, I score. Today it’s pelting rain. The ball is heavy, caked with mud. I beat Dimka on the dribble and push the ball through the puddles. He splashes after me, grabbing at my coat. Grabbing is against the rules in soccer, but here no one plays by the rules.
We play in a yard with a fence on all sides, the stakes of the fence are sharpened to knifepoints. The barbed wire above the stakes keeps us from climbing. Penned in like that, every kick has rebound potential. Half the goals I score on the rebound, me passing to myself. Who else would I pass to? Our soccer is strictly one on one. The guards won’t let us team up.
Huffing and puffing, Dimka is knocking himself out to keep me from scoring into his goal. It’s not really a goal, it’s just an old potato crate on its side. Potato crates are easy to find, but not the potatoes.
I’m about to kick the ball in when Dimka grabs me by the coat and spins me around. Whoosh. The fence flickers by. I lose sight of his goal, but that doesn’t stop me. I back-heel the ball through his legs. The ball slams into the crate, planks shooting out in splinters.
My pals are watching the game from under the sagging tarp. No one cheers. Why would they? I’ve beaten every one of them by now.
Dimka reaches deep inside his wet sweater, digs around awhile then pulls out a package wrapped in soggy newspaper.
“Here,” he wheezes. “Pig out, champion.”
He hands the package over, but when I try to take it, he doesn’t let go. Our hands are in a tug of war. I look up to see his eyes shiny from hunger. He can’t hold my stare and lets the thing go.
He slogs away while I unwrap the package. An eighth of bread, our daily ration.
Under the tarp, my pals rise up to watch me eat my bread. I feel sorry for them, but what can I do? It’s not my fault I’m that good at soccer.
He turns just in time to catch the bread I toss.
“Keep it,” I say. “I’ll win it next time.”
JUST THEN someone hollers into my ear, “Got you, criminal!”
It’s Butterball, our wisecracking director. A guard is by his side, one of the rougher ones. Butterball never shows up in the yard without a guard, sometimes two. The guard grabs me.
“Setting up illegal soccer games, Arcady?” Butterball bellows. “Cheating poor orphans out of their bread rations?”
“Hold your tongue, boy! Ready to go back to solitary? No kicking the ball there.”
The guard gives my arm a squeeze. Right then, I spot the ball flying our way. Dimka must have kicked it. I duck and the ball thuds against the guard’s overcoat, smearing it with mud. My pals take off shrieking from under the tarp, splashing through the puddles. The guard cusses, lets go the scruff of my neck, and charges at them, shouting “Disperse!” and “No assembling in groups!”
The moment the guard lets me go, I make a move, but Butterball is ready for it. He is fat but able.
“Not too fast,” he says, reeling me in.
“What do you want?”
He glances over his shoulder then looks back at me and squints his itty-bitty eyes. “Not much. Just show off your soccer skills for some important people tomorrow.”
He’s a sly one, that director, you can’t trust him. He wants me to show off my soccer skills, but it was he who outlawed soccer when someone snitched we were playing for food rations. Strictly forbidden, he said, but it’s his fault there’s never enough food to fill our bellies. We have to pull through somehow.
“The government inspectors are here tomorrow to check on us. Any small thing that’s not to their liking, heads will roll,” Butterball whispers, leaning in close. “I know for a fact, the inspectors are all soccer fans. We show you beating one kid after the next, they’ll forget all about their inspecting.” His itty-bitty eyes dart around. “Just in case, Arcady, I’ll line up some mama’s boys against you.”
Butterball is waiting for me to agree. Let him wait.
He leans in even closer, brushing his clammy nose against my forehead. “I heard of cases,” he whispers, “where some inspectors only pretend to be inspectors. They are soccer coaches searching children’s homes for new talent. Soccer is big, son. The important thing is to be in the right place at the right time.” He shuts one eye and fixes me with the other, this must be a wink. “Trust me, Arcady, you are in the right place.”
Butterball would say anything. He’s a liar. But catch him telling a lie, what does he care? I’ve never seen him blush once. I know for definite that if a soccer coach sees me score, nothing will happen. Butterball told us a million times that children like us are not allowed to be team players.
While he keeps on blabbering, I stare at his mouth moving but can’t hear a thing. From his mouth a delicious smell flows into my nostrils. Sausage, fried onions, and something else I don’t have a name for, goose liver maybe. I go numb from smelling such foods.
Everyone knows Butterball is stealing our food. Take a look at his gut and smell his goose-liver breath. But the truth is, he needs more food than most. Besides us, he has to feed nine in his family, and one still in diapers. Everyone has to get by somehow, but it’s harder for him. Tomorrow the inspectors might get wise to his stealing and ship him off to hard labor or worse. Who’d feed his little kids then?
“I’ll do it on one condition,” I say.
“What is it?”
“Two bread rations for each game I play,” I say. “One for me and one for the loser.”
Butterball’s bald head shines in the rain, a raindrop hangs off the tip of his nose. He grins. “You got yourself a deal, son.”
Copyright © 2014 by Eugene Yelchin