This bloke was one of Novak's non-soccer playing heroes in the 1970s. The Johan Cruijff of weightlifting. An indominatable enigma from behind the Iron Curtain.
For the last three days I’ve been reading through my notes and my assistant’s transcripts of the taped Novak interviews. Christ. At one point of acute despair I put on some really loud Wilco on the stereo (the jam segment of “At Least That’s What You Said” from “A Ghost is Born”) to clear my head and return me to something approaching peace, love and understanding.
Kate burst in, looking frayed. “Sweetie, not that I’m not glad that it’s not The Smiths,” she said, “but could you either turn it down please or put on headphones?”
I swiveled in my chair to face the CD shelf, pulled out “Meat is Murder,” then thought better of it and switched over to Nelly Furtado. Something we could agree on.
I think now it was a mistake, or perhaps merely a waste of time, to allow Novak simply to extemporize endlessly about his football upbringing. I blame myself. I suppose my skills as journalistic interrogator were a little rusty.
Or, as Kate says, “You’re not exactly David Frost.”
I had asked him straightaway, “Could you explain how a kid from the American Midwest, born in ’63, became a professional footballer in Europe, the sport’s grandest stage.”
And he did … explain. He “explained,” as I discovered over the weekend, in the shape of approximately 120 pages and upwards of 50,000 words of rambling shite about steel mills and German coaches and Mexicans and Slovaks and alley fights and drainage ditches and Catholic wedding receptions and going to Confession and dreams of Johan Cruijf and Rainer Bonhof and “getting about” and “getting on with it” and “puffing out his chest” and “putting his head down” and “having a go” and “rolling up his sleeves” and “lacing up his boots” and “takin’ it on the chin” and “showin’ em what for.”
Listening to him and chatting while drinking good English beer seemed pleasant and OK and even worthwhile as it was happening. Reading the visual product of those many hours, lost for good, was another thing entirely.
I should have said, “Could you explain in something resembling a nutshell …” Or asked him, “Tell me what it looks like when someone puts his head down while puffing out his chest.” Isn’t that just asking to be knocked over? He kept ‘setting the scene.’ I believe, his being something of a fellow writer, he was trying to be helpful. Or else he just … I don’t know.
“I’ll just set the scene for you, Ben … I should probably set the scene.” And then he would … set the scene. And I quote:
“… The little school ground was located in the concave exterior of an L-shaped, red-brick, one-storied school building built in 1956. Our town possessed an abundance of brick similar to the marble store of Mt. Pentelus in Ancient Athens.”
This is the sort of worthless jive I’ve been drowning in all weekend. Just so much trash I can’t use. Was I not sitting there to stop him, to stop this? I am never doing this again – writing a book about someone. Well, at least someone alive who … speaks. I don’t mean to sound boastful, as though I think I’m better than biographers or anything. I’m not better at all. I’m crap at it.
I must say though, mixed in with his bombast, Novak could display unexpected warmth quite effortlessly or sense of humor and a casual irony. Such as when I asked him the basic, even banal question, “What was the worst moment during your Arsenal career?”
I was expecting something about Wrexham or the defeat to Benfica in the European Cup or when Graham got the sack or Nayim chipping Seaman. Instead he answered, without skipping a beat, completely serious, “The day Freddie Mercury died.”
What is one to make of that?
Well, then, only because I have an evil side, here’s one more little segment of unbearable bloviation from Julius “I Just Hate Talking About Myself” Novak. You wouldn’t know it.
“You could quickly go from the playground for the smaller children (us) to the playground for the upper schoolers by walking through a door, crossing a hallway and going out through an adjacent door. You didn’t do that, however. You might peek through the glass, but you didn’t dare show your face where it didn’t belong. Sometimes kids would grab someone’s personal property – a hat, a notebook – and throw it out that forbidden door onto the upper schoolers’ playground. Then the victim, if he or she wanted their hat back, would have to dart out the door to retrieve it before sprinting back. Of course, the tormenters would lean against the door from the inside preventing the tormented from reentry. It was a risky business for both parties, as you might imagine.”
Not exactly high jinks to make an Old Etonian hide under his bed. I do believe he thought he was writing his own autobiography at that point, and I was just a spittoon with arms and legs holding a micro recorder. Or else he fancies himself the second coming of Harper Lee or J.D. Salinger. Who bloody knows?
I can’t decide whether I’m dismayed, disgusted or merely disillusioned. I think it’s important, though, for people to understand some of what a writer has to endure for the benefit of readers. I’m suffering now, for you, so that you might have an easy time of it as you bask by the pool at your favorite resort, book in hand. I take the time (in this case, an entire weekend) to slash pages and pages of confusing babble from a Word file-cum-manuscript so that you can look up from your reading, poolside, as an attractive person in a swimsuit sits near to you and begins applying tanning oil. Then, when it’s obvious you’re staring, you can take a sip from your fifth slushy, boozy drink with the pineapple chunk and cherry on top and return to your Ben Hampton book at the precise point at which you stopped -- the writing so clear-eyed and compelling and accessible and matey you couldn’t possibly lose your place merely by peeking up at a tanned and toned backside.
I could have spent Friday evening and all of Saturday and Sunday with my children. But, no. I had to sort things for you so you could play the lit-up, tropical-travel perv and ogle someone else’s spouse. All they’re trying to do is enjoy their holiday with a bit of privacy and sunshine. They can hardly help it they happen to be fitter than you. Now my kids have grown up by three whole days that I will never get back. For all I know little Beverly uttered something adorable or extraordinary while tucking into her vindaloo on Saturday evening.
I don’t mean to sound so snippy. Obviously, this transcript’s got me mental. But I had a go earlier this afternoon attempting to put his words right in a way that will lead me to the next level of composition. By ‘next level’ -- inviting you up into the writer’s dusty garret -- I mean what I normally try to do with a book once I feel comfortable with the characters’ voices and have some sort of framework within which the story can take shape. My goal, at the end of the day, is to have accompanied the reader – you lot -- on some sort of authentic emotional journey. And it is authentic. And I do care about you, kidding aside. I would say, if nothing else, I’m in the uppermost echelon of artists who truly care about their audience. Right up there with The Flaming Lips.
So here’s my first take on what Novak was trying to get at as we spoke on one of the terraces of his overwhelming, centuries-old dower’s house with sweeping country views -- as they say in the rental brochures -- and, later, at The Volunteer Inn in nearby Chipping Campden. His home lies at the end of the lane off the High Street, at the foot of the Dovedale Woods, in beyond-picturesque Blockley.
We did indeed share a Ploughman’s Plate.
All right, well. Novak at about age seven used to come home from school and talk with his family round the dinner table about this simple, yet peculiar ball game being contested on the school playground. Two teams of varying sizes each trying to kick a ball into the other’s goal. A real mêlée, this. Football, or soccer, in this case, was not something his family knew much about. St. Louie, the nearby city, had only just been granted a franchise team in the new national league, about to become the NASL. You know, Tampa Bay Rowdies. They played baseball, of course, American-style football and basketball. Soccer was foreign, literally. It wasn’t on telly. It wasn’t in the newspapers. The sport had been growing in popularity across the river in the city, steadier but more slowly in the factory towns on the east side in Illinois. Granite City, Novak’s town, was among the first.
So there was a rudimentary awareness of soccer’s existence. But if it were ever mentioned then it paled in comparison to everything else going on in the world -- meaning, everything else going on in Madison and St. Louis Counties.
And, remember, when I’m speaking of all these weighty matters, I’m generalizing in order for you to see a landscape. I’m not suggesting absolutely everyone felt this way or absolutely everyone did things that way. Right?
Midwesterners in 1970, as today, loved the other sports. The only way that soccer could ever have come into most American homes was via a show that the ABC network presented on the weekends, by all accounts a fantastic program back then called Wide World of Sports. Everyone knew about Wide World of Sports. The name itself connoted an image of athletic competition of the highest order and presented to viewers with state-of-the-art production. As far as icons go, it was just like saying Statue of Liberty or Pearl Harbor or Declaration of Independence. You know how national treasures or iconic moments tend to evolve into being ‘one word’ in the mind of the people, rather than multiple words. My culture has them. Her Majesty the Queen. Battle of Waterloo, Never Mind the Bollocks, 1966 World Cup Finals. That last one especially, wouldn’t you say? Definitely one word, not four. 1966WorldCupFinals.
Wide World of Sports was the venue for the Novaks and the Roths and the Maguranys and the Mendezes to view snippets of the final. Not “The Finals,” that magical rollercoaster month of heartache and triumph, but merely a montage of selected action from the championship match only – a week after the match took place. After all, the USA weren’t competing, so how could it be important? The American broadcast might condense ninety minutes of pulsating joy and unbearable trauma into twenty or thirty minutes of running highlights to give the viewer the illusion of having participated in the world’s preeminent event. The commentator would delight and confuse his fellow countrymen by saying that in many places around the world, normal life actually ceases during the World Cup. Fancy that. And if your country is playing a match, or, manna from heaven, the Final itself, then you’d be able to hear a pin drop in the High Street. A good time for looting.
However, other than football (soccer), the network did an admirable job of informing. Most viewers came away from WideWorldofSports feeling as though they could comment knowledgeably about whatever it was they saw. Who’s that chubby Soviet weightlifter? Oh yeah, Vasily Alexiev. Have you seen that thing like the toboggan where they lie on their backs in Switzerland? You mean the luge? I saw this thing last week; you won’t believe it. It’s like Finland or somewhere. These sons a bitches ski through the fuckin forest for like nine hours with a rifle over their shoulder. Then they lie down on their stomachs and shoot at a target. It’s like Siberian commandoes or something.
The first soccer Novak claims ever to have seen on TV was on that show. It was, of course, the seminal event that transformed the game for millions of people around the world – even some Yanks. Pele and Brazil, in dazzling color, dismantling the Italians in the 1970 Finals. Even though the Novaks didn’t have a color TV, the seven-year-old Novak recalls it as having been in color.
“I would like to be able to say I saw the 1966WorldCupFinals, but I was too young – not yet three years old. That final, your country’s great moment, was seen by a lot of Americans and led pretty directly to the formation of our first professional soccer league.”
Amid this cauldron of bubbling interest, February 1969, Novak’s mother had noticed in the church bulletin, as moms will, that St. Elizabeth of Hungary were having ‘signups’ for their youth soccer teams for the upcoming YMCA league in the spring.
At this point in the interview, Novak went off on what seemed to be another ale-fueled soliloquy. We were now attracting attention from a group of cricket dart throwers.
“I should point out … this just popped into my head; don’t know why. Well maybe I do … that Johan Cruijff, by this time, had been a star in the Dutch League for five years. He was about to play in his first European Cup Final where Ajax would lose to AC Milan. But I had never heard of him. Never heard of any footballers. Not one. In a few years, he would be my soccer idol. I couldn’t really relate to Pele, but I could get my hair to look like Cruijff at least, right? My Mexican friend, Mike, went for Pele and always wore Pumas. I think I’m probably mentioning the Cruijff thing to illustrate just how innocent or how backward I was at the time as far as what was taken for granted by the football world as a whole.”
Thank you for that.
And, while we’re being cynical, none of you could have the slightest idea how many pages I’ve already thrown out. It’s actually somewhat defeating, because I tend to find one useable line buried within a thousand insipid, walking wounded words.
Right. Back to work.
Fact: Joan, the mother, called the coach to see about getting her youngest child hooked in. Fact: Novak did not attend the Catholic school. Fact: He and his brothers before him attended public school. Fact: His father hated Catholics. Fact: Novak was quite happy not to have gone to St. Elizabeth of Hungary School even though it was just a two-minute walk down the street. Opinion: Novak considered the majority of the boys at St. E of H to be, and I quote, “shits.”
Are you still with me?
Fact: When his mum approached him about the soccer team, then, Novak had several reactions, none of which were positive.
For starters, Novak was gun shy about jumping into something unknown. Not the man we know his having become, eh? Second, he assumed the team would consist of these shits. Finally, he had actually been full-on fantasizing about being on a soccer team, tearing down the wing and scoring some impossible game-winner in front of delirious, cheering multitudes. Nowhere in the fantasy could Novak be seen dressed in the royal blue and gold of St. E of H.
No. The future fan favorite of Wüppertal Sport Verein, had imagined himself a bit higher up the food chain. On the school black stuff at playtime, he had acquitted himself well enough among some half-decent and bruising players. Some of the older kids had noticed Novak and began picking him for their teams. Not that there was an abundance of little Kevin Keegans from which to choose. He was no wunderkind by any means, simply useful and bright. He appeared then as the type of player willing to put himself about and get stuck in to some areas not, on the face of things, welcoming to the faint of heart.
The trick to playing on a black-top surface, from my own experience, is to appear unfazed at the prospect of being sent headlong. One would find it impossible to trip or be knocked over and not be injured in some way, whether it’s a scraped elbow or knee or, at worst, a broken bone or concussion. Novak certainly was afraid of falling but was so thrilled that invariably he would lose his head and play like a Norwegian nasty cat.
Again, Novak, waving a pint. He wasn’t really waving it, but in the final edit I might say that he was – for style.
“Well, I don’t need to tell you that when the big boys picked me, I did not look back for a second. I was not loyal in the least to my peers in the first grade, such as begging for them to come along or offering regrets to those who presented me with this longed-for, gilt-edged invitation. None of my customary honor for which I’m sure I’ve become known. I just left them high and dry for greener pastures. I took my chance, so the saying goes.”
Every time Novak says, “I don’t need to tell you,” you can bet the farm you’re about to be told.
These games of soccer, taken further in his dream world, involved boys at least three years his senior. In his mind, they might as well have been professionals. This was soccer at its highest level – the apex of the modern game. It was fast; it was skillful; it was rugged; it was frightening, and it was exhilarating. Granite City, Illinois, 1969 – the white-hot, footballing core of the earth’s crust. The epicenter of the universe. Manchester City? St. Etienne? Celtic? Steau Bucarest? They were nothing.
Remember Hector Mendez, the Mexican footballer and sporting goods merchant? His son, Tino was in real life a fourth grader at Novak’s public school. He was in real life the star of a YMCA team sponsored by Dog-n-Suds, a park and eat root beer stand in Novak’s neighborhood. Best root beer in the world, by all accounts (about which I heard a single account), the perfect beverage for any occasion.
To Novak, Dog-n-Suds’ star Tino Mendez enjoyed near mythical status. In Novak’s fantasies, it was he who would pass the ball to Mendez and receive it back in a neat little give-and-go that would mesmerize the opponent and hasten their back line to open up like the Red Sea.
Tino had auburn, curly hair and very slight freckles on skin the color of the Grand Canyon at sunset. His physique was powerful. He was obviously a sex symbol. You know, someone whom you could imagine having sex before most of his peers were ready for that crevasse. He was sort of like a Greek God and a bull and a street thug and Diego Maradona all rolled into one. Maradona, by the way, was born three years before Novak, which would have made him a “fourth grader” in this story. Just thought I’d throw that in.
Novak described his infatuation.
“I did not yet own a proper soccer ball. In my backyard, I would use whatever sort of round-ish ball was on hand. Rubber, plastic, whatever. I know what you’re thinking – Pelé in the dirty backstreets of Três Corações juggling a grapefruit wrapped in an old sock.”
That’s not what I was thinking.
“But it was here that I would imagine myself in the red shirt with yellow trim and the yellow Dog-n-Suds badge over the heart. Black shorts; black socks.”
The emblem’s design, symbolic of the root beer hut, featured a smiling cartoon dog, who, according to Novak, sort of resembled Walt Disney’s Pluto, wearing a chef’s hat and carrying a tray that balanced two overflowing mugs of foamy root beer. Sheer class.
His mum approached him about the church team. Novak, like most kids, preferred not to hurt his beloved mother’s feelings. But … these things happen. Doff of the cap, really, to Joan, who had seized the day initially by cleverly navigating the church bulletin and offering to follow through on the whole soccer sign-up. By merely joining the team of shits, Novak could have made one of those simple gestures that helps make being a parent a rewarding calling.
Like the clever tactician and survivor he was to become, Novak was diplomatic if non-committal about tying his future soccer fortunes to this particular club. They just didn’t do anything for him. He had seen them play. In his heart, he knew there had to be something better going on in the league. He couldn’t put his finger on it in a proper sound bite to satisfy his mum. But he just could not put pen to paper here, so to speak, and give the woman any kind of go-ahead to make the phone call.
I’m being a bit tongue-in-cheek here obviously. In fact, I rang Novak up at about this point and told him where I was and what was happening. I was not obliged to do so. I may have just needed a shot of his voice for inspiration. He laughed that Joan would be pleasantly surprised to learn that she was his very first agent and would therefore feel entitled to an even bigger piece of the action.
“Seriously, though, I seem to remember her trying gently to talk me into it, thinking I was going to miss out on something fun by dragging my feet because of a childish fear, an unwarranted fear. Kind of like when I tried to get out of the tonsillectomy at the last minute. But I must have seemed genuinely apprehensive because she just said something like, ‘Well, you let me know, and either we’ll do it this season or wait ‘till next season. It’s up to you. This soccer team’s not going anywhere.’
Exactly, I thought! She understands after all.”
Novak, sort of a hero to some I suppose, had been offered the chance to get his feet wet by playing on a real team. But he’s balked at it, he claims, without regret.
One of his greatest strengths, during the time I watched him at football, seems to be his decision-making and a confidence in making good, informed assessments and choices. We’ve watched him on the pitch make impressive snap judgments that help turn a match. This is not a character, then, who just shuffles blindly forward like peasants in a Breughel painting or who glides along like a lemming simply for the sake of it.
Once more, the pints of beer.
“Thank you for steering me to this memory, Ben. Don’t you find this intriguing? This whole seemingly innocent episode of not joining my church team – what a fucking smart move for a seven-year-old. Are you kidding me? I mean, seven-years-old, and I’m like, ‘No!’”
So what does he do now -- Mr. Free Agent who still takes bubble baths with army men at his gran’s on Saturday nights? What he did was continue to play at break, watch other teams go at it on the weekends and fantasize like nobody’s business about setting new goal and assist and victory records alongside Tino Mendez as Dog-n-Suds win the league, the challenge cup and some make-believe tournament with championship sides from all over the country. The red, black and yellow (Watford?) are unstoppable, and they are being talked about. He may be but seven, but he is becoming a superstar in a sport that is writing its own story on the fly.
And we drink. And we have a go at darts. And I wonder if he’s told this story before, while drinking pints and playing darts. Am I not his first?
I picture Novak kicking the ball around at the St. E of H fields with the uniformed players of any league before and after their games. His plan is that perhaps he will be noticed, like a starlet hanging out on Hollywood and Vine. Make them want me, he’s thinking. Maybe even fight over me in something resembling a bidding war.
But was it only soccer about which this little American fantasized? Does the dreamer limit his fanciful longings to but one of life’s broadways? Shit! Now I sound like Strachey. See what happens when you hang around too much with one person? You get influenced. My mojo is disappearing. I’ll have to sit on a rubber donut to avoid compulsory military service and chuck the lad lit forever.
I shift through pages and pages.
This is where it starts to get disturbing. Starts? And I became sorry we went to the pub. For now I’m waylaid by how Novak pretended he was a guest musician on Beatle albums among other things and that he had his own pop group. By 1969, of course, the inscrutable mop tops had become drug-addled hippies on the verge of disintegration the way he tells it. The White Album. Abbey Road. Let it Be. But since Novak didn’t identify with real life at the time, he had his own agenda. And that agenda did not include dwelling on reality. The Beatles he focused on were like, the “Hard Day’s Night” and “Help” soundtracks. He placed himself in these films, as many of us did. Yeah, there was a whole alternative scene where Novak is walking sadly on the towpath of the canals to the tune of “This Boy.” And he was definitely in the stupid downhill ski scene during “Ticket to Ride,” part of the whole James Bond send off. And, not too many people know this, but Novak appeared in “Guns of Navarone,” “Sons of Katie Elder,” “Bridge on the River Kwai,” “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “Bonnie and Clyde,” “The Dirty Dozen” and, famously, “Zulu.” That’s how he knew about ‘Men of Harlech’ before having set foot on British soil.
The worst was yet to come. He’d never revealed this to anyone and admitted that he’d probably suppressed it psychologically. He asked me if I could assent to going off the record because this next bit was not for print.
“Do we understand each other? A simple nod will do if you can stop laughing.
“All right, when I was little, my favorite Beatle … was … not John. It was Paul. Yeah, fine. Fuck off. In public, of course, later in life, I would make like my favorite Beatle was John because you had to, didn’t you? If you wanted to go anywhere in intellectual and literary circles or academe, or if you lusted after brainy women, you had to align with John Lennon all the way. Ringo was a clown. George was pure musician and dull and, I guess, mystic. Pretty boy Paul was kind of a fraud and a poser and a stab you in the back kind of character. John developed into, or was merely anointed by the media as, the clever one, the inscrutable artist, the pure political icon. But you know what? I’ll tell you the truth. When I was a kid, John actually made me uncomfortable. The guy scared me. I liked Paul, all right? Maybe it was a left-handed thing. My favorite Beatle was Paul.
“And I’ll tell you another thing. I’ll bet you that millions of people around the world pretended to like John best. Because, if you ask me, the world consists of personalities who, if they’re honest with themselves, associate with one of the four Beatles. And I’ll bet that it’s divided equally. One-fourth of the world’s population – and you know I’m right – are therefore Ringo sympathizers. One-fourth George enthusiasts, and so on. That was their appeal. They had all the bases covered like no other pop group in history.”
So now we know. This is what Julius Novak, Europaeum lecturer, had done with his four-star education at Köln and Cambridge Universities – a half-baked anthropological theory about human behavior vis-à-vis the Fab Four.
I was more interested in knowing who was Marianne Papineau’s preferred Beatle. Based on what Novak had shared with me up to now, I guessed ‘John Lennon.’
“When I met her, she was practically a female John Lennon. She’d been dating a German art student who kind of thought he was John Lennon. It’s a bit comical how a pair of granny glasses and a little acid can really overtake you. As I was hot for her, I easily transformed myself into a John-man. I almost said ‘overnight,’ but it was more like ‘on-the-spot.’
Fast forward a couple of months to May 1969. The spring soccer season in Granite City, sans the opted out Novak, is winding down.
One overcast, late Saturday afternoon, at the soccer fields found Novak kicking a ball with some boys near the largest of the three pitches. A boy from his class at public school approached him. Eftimoff was a friend, and he wasn’t a friend. The boy was an unsettling puzzle to Novak. Eftimoff had a big personality, but he hadn’t learned how to make it work for him consistently. So Novak alternately admired and enjoyed him and was annoyed and embarrassed by him. His mature side looked on Eftimoff favorably and behaved gentlemanly toward him. The small part of himself, the boy (and, later, the man) of which he is most ashamed, shunned and mocked the pudgy Eftimoff and acted despicably and hurtfully.
Good for Eftimoff that any actual or perceived mistreatment from Novak was water off his back. He saw something in Novak, similar to how the future Arsenal man couldn’t help but notice that there was real substance to Eftimoff beneath the unorthodox presentation. Young Eftimoff’s pushiness and perseverance and crackpot ideas were, in essence, the seven-year-old stirrings of entrepreneurship and marketing genius, which is the path he was to follow.
Eftimoff’s father was a small businessman through whose connections the soccer team, on which his uncoordinated little boy played, acquired sponsorship. The name of Eftimoff’s team was Madison County Bar Association (MCBA). Pando Eftimoff was an accountant for a handful of lawyers in town. So half the team were sons of attorneys. They might have called them Sons of the Attorneys, like Sons of the Pioneers or Knights of the Garter. Mind you, this was Granite City, Illinois, so they weren’t big corporate types. Rather, the bulk of their clients were, according to my only source on the matter, victims of industrial accidents, deadbeat dads and instigators of bar fights.
So Eftimoff, absolute shit footballer, but his dad’s a real sports nut and an awfully decent guy. Looks a little like James Coco, the character actor. Eftimoff is a very clever young fellow with aptitude in non-traditional subjects, like opera and cabaret and an uncanny knowledge of sex. He shared with Novak certain pieces of information, which our hero seriously doubted were possible.
“Come on,” he would say, “why would a girl put a penis in her mouth?”
This kind of unfounded crazy talk led most of the boys to believe there was something seriously off about this Eftimoff. When, as it turned out, his were the only parents around who were straight up with him about how the world operated.
He would pass irresistible nuggets covering a variety of subjects, on to his peers, whereupon he was pegged as an unrepentant loony to be shunned. Shut up, they would all hiss. Eftimoff had a lot of objects thrown at him. No one wanted to know. Well, they did; but they didn’t – not from him. There lies the conflict.
The poor kid could barely put one foot in front of the other on the soccer pitch or the baseball ‘diamond.’ Did you know it was a diamond? But, like his dad, he had a knack for bringing people together to achieve a common goal and designing and implementing strategic initiatives. At the age of seven, he was already “managing director” material. At school, he was forever pushing Novak into things and egging him into refining his projects and stretching and demonstrating self-confidence.
“It was so annoying.”
On more than one occasion, he actually grabbed Novak’s arm in the school classroom to make it look like Novak was volunteering.
He would whisper, “Julius, you know the answer,” or “Julius, you’re the best one for this. Get in there!”
Not that I expect you to, but do you remember Novak’s quote about having not looked back when the big boys picked him for their soccer team? Well, he was being metaphorical. He did look back. There stood Eftimoff, in the back of the group, nodding his approval. Eftimoff was never picked as a child, but he was a survivor – kind of like the Emperor Claudius as played by Derek Jacobi.
Back at the church fields on the grey Saturday afternoon, Eftimoff called out to young Novak, luring Julius in his direction by passing a ball to him. Well, not exactly to him. The possessor of the ball had called out “Jules.” The recipient of the ‘pass’ looked up and noticed a soccer ball lolling on the high grass about half the distance between himself and the passer. Eftimoff shouted, very upbeat, “Pass.”
Eftimoff was with MCBA, engaged in a pre-game shooting drill in front of goal. They were attempting the standard pass-and-move-toward-goal during which each player would ideally run on to something like a one-touch setup from their coach – someone’s dad. Given that they were all six and seven years old with very little experience at the game and that the dad/coach was looking himself quite new to the sport, the result could best be described as sloppy.
Eftimoff came right to the point, asking Novak, with a twinkle in his eye, if he would fancy a shot at goal. Novak stared out at the coaches shouting encouragement and the players all horsing around with each other and said, something like, “No.”
Eftimoff kept it up, “Come on. It’s fine. Just get in line. Show ‘em how you score.”
Novak continued to shake his head, petrified, and was just about to ease away toward the safety of home, when Eftimoff without warning bellowed to the coach, “Hey, Mr. Siegfried, here’s my friend I told you about. He wants to play on a team.”
The moment struck Novak completely dumb. How could he not have expected something like this to happen? Had he not been putting himself out there on the auction block, so to speak? All the fantasizing; all the daydreams of glory; all the swaggering on the playground, and now … is this how it was fated to happen? Tricked into a corner by his publicist, his nemesis?
He was frozen, rooted to the spot. If they’d had cell phones back then, he would have called his mother so she could tell them some lie about how “we’ve already been approached. I’m afraid there’s a wrinkle, Mr. Siegfried … Eftimoff. We have a call in to our parish side. They’re quite keen.”
But of course Joan, as I understand her character, would never have agreed to such a con. No. The boy was on his own, and he quite possibly had it coming what with all the secrecy and all the “he shoots … he scores” bathtub commentary.
I can’t take it anymore. I don’t believe I’ll be able to use any of this. I’m thinking I may have to call Rosalie and explain what’s happening, about how we may want to make allowances for the fact that the Marianne bits are more interesting to me than the football bits.
I could send her the following two paragraphs of Novak speaking as proof of what I’m up against.
“In a matter of half an hour, my life changed. I was transformed. It was like being shot out of a cannon. The coach called that evening and spoke to my mom. My father wasn’t the type who did well with that kind of thing. Not a phone person. Mr. Siegfried explained that the YMCA spring season was coming to an end. And while he was not allowed to add anyone to the roster for the remaining league matches, he had entered MCBA into a couple of tournaments. So I would be able to participate in those games. I should come to the practice on Tuesday evening, where I would receive my uniform. My mom took notes to make sure she got it all.
“The real excitement was in rushing home with my very first authentic kit to be immediately modeled for my mom’s hungry Kodak Instamatic. Those photos are still in the family album – blue shirt, white shorts, blue socks. Big smile. Hands behind my waist. Chest out. The shirt was a very smart, cadet blue with silvery-gray collar, cuffs and lettering – MCBA right across the chest. The open neck had string laces. But what struck me about the picture were my socks. I had no idea how to properly fold them, so I have them stretched up over my knees like John Terry and others do these days. I wish they’d stop that. Why do they do it? They’re forever having to pull them up. It’s stupid. I’ve always liked how some of the cooler Italians have the sock folded back and behind the shin pad – very macho. I tried that briefly at Valencia. It’s not easy to pull off … as it were.”