You would think the boy is alone, but he is not. Facing him is the Brazilian defense. That plastic beer crate is Michel. The little heap of stones is Luisao, who today is holding the center. The almost-leafless sapling that grows magically out of nothing is the magisterial Cafu. The ancient bicycle frame propped up with bricks is Maicon, whose ferocious tackling is legendary. Beyond them, between the two thin timbers the boy has somehow uprighted in the hard earth, lurks the goalkeeper, Rubinho. He will be substituted for Cesar at halftime, but that will make no difference. The boy knows he can beat them both. He can drive the ball in a powerful curve that will take it a finger’s breadth inside the post. He can send in a long-distance shot that seems destined to fly over the invisible bar but that will dip horribly at the last possible moment. He can do these things, and more, but often does not bother. He is less interested in the final shot than in the move that leads up to it. In the beauty of the move, in its speed and complexity.
And the boy is not alone, because — as always — his head is full of spirits with whom he talks and in whom he confides.
Nor is he lonely. He practices in solitude because the other boys are not as good as he is. Their failure to understand what he intends to do frustrates him. They are slow to read the game. They fail to predict what the Brazilians will do. And they are not serious. They want only to score goals so that they can celebrate with their ridiculous gymnastics, reveling in the silent roar of eighty thousand imaginary spectators.
The ball the boy bounces from knee to knee is old, cheap, and scuffed. In places the plastic coating is peeling away. He knows that soon, somehow, he will have to get another one. But in the meantime, the sad condition of the ball makes the game a little more unpredictable, and he likes that.
The boy’s field is a large patch of bare, uneven ground where once, long ago, a church stood. He has set up the goal where the altar used to be, although he does not know this. Since the destruction of the church, nothing has been built here because the place is considered unlucky. He is aware of this, feels the wrongness that lingers in the air, but he welcomes it because bad luck is part of any game. It is something else to test himself against.
He catches the ball on his instep, holds it there for five seconds, and begins another attack. After a burst of extremely sudden acceleration that takes Michel by surprise, he plays a one-two with a low chunk of broken masonry, the stump of a wall. The return pass is perfectly weighted; it evades Luisao’s desperate attempt at interception, and the ball drops into a space that Michel will not reach in time. The boy takes it on the outside of his right foot and sets off on a direct run toward the center of the penalty area, and, as he had intended, the Brazilians funnel in toward the goal, their eyes on the ball. But he does not continue the run. Instead he brakes, comes to a dead stop. The ball is, tantalizingly, a pace in front of his right foot; it tempts Maicon, who closes in, his face almost blank with determination. And the boy, with outrageous insolence, plays it through the defender’s legs. There is only just enough room between the V of the bicycle frame and its crossbar for the ball to pass through — but it does pass through and runs out wide to where the boy’s fullback is making an overlapping run. When the pass comes in, it is sweetly hit, with some inswing, and the boy meets it with his head.
Or he would have.
His name is Ricardo Gomes de Barros, and he is fourteen years old. His aunt, with whom he lives — he has no parents, although he sometimes hears their voices in his head — calls him Rico. So does his sister. The other kids, the ones who call him anything at all, call him El Brujito. The Little Magician. The Little Sorcerer. Because he can do impossible things, such as disappear. Turn the wrong way onto a ball, fake you out, and be gone. A minute later, he will reappear in a place where he cannot possibly be. He can take the ball on his chest with his back to you, and even if you charge into him and knock him down, you will not find the ball. You will look around for it only to discover that it has somehow found its way to another forward who has outflanked your entire defense. There is perhaps something supernatural about Brujito’s ability to do these things. And he himself would not deny it. Not out of arrogance, but out of modesty.
He is wearing a Deportivo San Juan soccer jersey. Its red and black quarters have faded, and it is ripped at the seam below both armpits. One of his imitation Adidas sneakers is splitting along the seam of the upper and the sole, and the lace of the other has been replaced by green nylon string. The sky above him is pearl white, already pinkish above the tree line. Soon other boys will drift by, and some will call out to him.
"Hey, Brujito! Chill, man! Come on down to the boat shed!"
"Yeah, c’mon, freak! Jaco’s got some wicked smoke!"
He will lift a thumb and say, "Cool. See you later maybe."
But he won’t go, even though it is rumored that Rafael’s sister will be there tonight and they say she will do anything. And in a vague and troubling way, he is curious to discover what anything is. . . . .
THE PENALTY by Mal Peet. Copyright (c) 2007 by Mal Peet. Published by Candlewick Press, Inc., Cambridge, MA."I can't begin to describe how terrific this book is. . . . A glorious, cartwheeling, magical, frightening story. . . . Peet uses the fact that soccer players are known to be superstitious — and that great soccer players can appear to be supernatural — to explore ideas of faith, luck, and corruption. But in doing that, he has somehow caught more of the magic and atmosphere of soccer than other, more straightforwardly descriptive writers." — Frank Cottrell Boyce, THE GUARDIAN