Once upon a time, not so very long ago, twenty-three brave men ventured forth from the most beautiful country in the world to defend their honor in a great tournament of skill...
The back of the plane was on their second rendition of "Naci Celeste" when Fucile twisted around and got up on his knees to drape himself over the back of the seat. "Can we switch now?"
"Why not," Andrés said, in tones of long-suffering, "since clearly I'm going to get no peace until you do." Pereira looked mildly guilty for a moment, but only a moment.
Fucile flashed him a blinding grin. "Thanks, man," he said, and scrambled over Lugano while Andrés got out of his seat.
Fucile dropped next to Pereira and they high-fived, beaming at each other. "Hey," Fucile said, "long time no see!"
"Twenty-four whole hours," someone said from behind them, which Fucile and Pereira both ignored in favor of chattering a mile a minute about something that had happened back in Portugal. Andrés rolled his eyes.
He settled next to Lugano, who nodded wordlessly at him. A hand came down on his shoulder. "Ouch!" someone said, and then, "Sorry." Muslera, extracting himself from the seat opposite, rubbed his knee and wove down the aisle.
"It's kind of cute," Andrés observed, watching him go.
"Like a baby giraffe," Lugano agreed.
"He better not hurt himself before we even land in South Africa," a dire voice said from across the aisle.
Andrés turned; Castillo was watching Muslera, too.
"He won't," Lugano said. "He's made of rubber."
There was a burst of snickers from the seat behind them. Lugano twisted around. "What's going on back there?"
"Nothing," Fucile said, completely unconvincingly.
Andrés elbowed Lugano in the side. "Twelve hours to go, captain," he said, and leaned back with a smile on his face.
After an arduous journey, they arrived in a distant land far from their own, where for many days, they underwent an intense training of both mind and body to prepare them for the task ahead.
Sebastián turned in a circle, taking in the expanse of the training grounds. "Wow," Maxi said, next to him. It echoed his own feelings well enough.
Abreu, Forlán, and Muslera all had their video cameras out, eyes glued to the screens as they swept them in a slow arc around the grounds. Pereira was reaching for his own, unaware of the danger approaching.
"Palitooo," Fucile crooned in his ear, and then with no further warning pounced, landing on Pereira's back. Pereira staggered forward and nearly toppled over. Catching his balance, he hooked his arms under Fucile's knees and took off in a stumbling run as Fucile whooped in his ear.
They galloped by Forlán, whose camera followed them down the field. Lugano surveyed them from the edge of the field, shaking his head - but he was grinning.
Luis was the only one who was actually touching a ball; he was bouncing it off his head next to the pile of equipment. Nearby, the Maestro was checking his watch. Sebastián knew better than to think he hadn't allowed time for this to the second.
Sure enough, as Sebastián watched, the whistle blew. Pereira dumped Fucile unceremoniously to the ground and they both trotted back up the field. The self-appointed videographers put away their cameras, and Pérez, always the last to be ready, loped up from the dressing room.
An arm draped over his shoulder. "Shall we?" Maxi asked, and Sebastián nodded.
Before long, the moment of their first test had arrived. They fortified themselves, vowing to do their best for their own honor and for the sake of their country.
The roar was like nothing he'd ever heard.
It throbbed in Álvaro's ears as they jogged out onto the pitch, as they posed for the match photograph, as they lined up, arms looped over each others' shoulders, and familiar music began to reverberate through the stadium. All he could see was the far end of the stands: a rippling sea of sky-blue, dotted with shining suns.
The music swelled. Álvaro looked up at the sky, and as one, they began to sing.
The days passed quickly. The twenty-three men were the first of their countrymen to reach the tournament in several years, so they set about recording their journey in great detail, for the people of their homeland and the ones who came after.
[Camera switches on and pans around wide training ground, past MUSLERA and NACHO GONZALEZ, both with cameras of their own.]
CAVANI: [off-screen]: Hi everybody, it's the eighth day of the World Cup and we're back here in Kimberley. Guess what? It's still unbelievable!
[Camera swoops around; suddenly focuses on high angle of CAVANI's own face. CAVANI grins and waves.]
CAVANI: Today we're going to talk to a friend who plays against me in Italy, Fernando Muslera. Fernando!
[Camera zig-zags crazily and refocuses to show MUSLERA pointing a camera back in the same direction. Muffled laughter off-screen. MUSLERA lowers the camera.]
CAVANI: Okay, Fernando, say hello to your fans from Lazio.
MUSLERA: What? Oh, um - hello! Buon giorno?
[MUSLERA waves. The picture shakes; more off-screen laughter.]
CAVANI: They have nice shirts, Lazio, pretty sky-blue like ours. Don't tell anyone from Napoli I said that.
GONZALEZ: [off-screen] They're not rooting for Fernando now, anyway, they're for Italy.
CAVANI: I bet some of the girls are, eh?
[MUSLERA shakes his head quickly.]
MUSLERA: Oh, no -
CAVANI: Don't be so modest. Blow your pretty female fans a kiss, Fernando!
MUSLERA: I -
LODEIRO: [off-screen] What are you doing now?
[Camera swoops around to focus on LODEIRO. His expression is quizzical].
CAVANI: Nico, my friend, we're telling Fernando how popular he is. What's up?
LODEIRO: The Maestro says it's time to stop pretending we're in Hollywood and go practice.
CAVANI: What? He's out already? When did -
[Cut to black.]
They acquitted themselves admirably, and rose to meet each challenge as it came, until they passed out of the preliminary trials to the true heart of the tournament, where one mistake could mean sudden elimination.
Sweat dripped down the back of Jorge's neck. He put on a burst of speed and dashed forward, diving into a low slide. The ball went flying. The Korean attacker - Lee? - slipped as he spun on the wet grass, caught himself, and lunged after it, but it was too late; Maxi had already sent it sailing up the field.
Jorge's sides were heaving. He gritted his teeth and sprinted down the pitch toward the crunch of players. He'd lost sight of the ball; there was a scramble in front of the goal, and then he saw it roll out of play.
Corner. Someone – he didn't see who – got their head under it and it flew on in the direction of Luis, two defenders breathing down his neck. His touch brought it down with perfect control; he lunged smoothly forward and suddenly he and the ball were both just barely past the white shirts. In a moment of eerie clarity, Jorge knew he was going to shoot.
The angle was impossible. Luis' foot swung forward -
Jorge was skidding across the grass toward Luis before he even saw the ball thud into the back of the net.
The men met first one hurdle, then the next, against opponents of greater and greater skill, with more and more to lose. Once, it seemed all was lost -
but thanks to the daring sacrifice of one their fiercest, they remained standing.
"Make way for the hero," Eguren hollered, leading Luis onto the training ground from the dressing room. "The most precious hand in Uruguay, coming through!"
"Luis, Luis!" Fucile fell to his knees. "Can I have your autograph?"
"Get in line," Cavani said, shoving his shoulder, and they tumbled over in a scuffling heap.
Diego watched Eguren lead Luis away from the flailing limbs toward the rest of the team. "That, outside, is what you call a mob," Eguren said. "Insanity."
"If they want to talk to him they have to go through his press advisor," Cáceres declared, slinging an arm over Luis' shoulders. "Me."
Luis looked serious. "I'd like to talk to - "
Cáceres slapped a hand over his mouth. "Your press advisor wants you to stop there," he said, and planted a smacking kiss on Luis' cheek. Luis' eyes crinkled.
"Take your Hand of God and be happy," Maxi Pereira added, joining them on the field. "Get an official copyright before Maradona thinks of it."
Fucile's head popped up. "Or - " He suggested what Maradona could do with his Hand of God, to the general amusement of everyone within earshot.
"You know what they're saying out there," Diego heard a low voice say, and looked over his shoulder to see Otero, the assistant, talking to the Maestro.
Tabárez wasn't smiling. He said, "It doesn't matter what they're saying. These boys know what they've done. The country knows."
Diego jogged away before he could hear any more. He didn't need to.
At long last, they reached the penultimate trial, the one that would decide whether they would contend for the title of best in the land. Though two of their best were injured, and two more forbidden to compete, spirits were high, and good humor flowed like wine.
Sebastián had wondered if maybe the tension of the imminent match would dampen their high spirits. He needn't have. The dressing room reverberated with laughter, punctuated by boisterous shouts. Forlán's camera was out again, and Cavani was singing the opening bars of "Wavin' Flag" directly to the viewfinder.
Fucile was bent over a table at the end of the room. He appeared to be doing something to one of the magnetic boards for positional tactics.
"Secret messages, Fucile?" Abreu said, trying to look over his shoulder.
"Shut up," Fucile said without turning around. "I can't play so I'm giving you my very thoughtful tactical analysis instead." He bent back over the board, angling his shoulders so Abreu couldn't see around him.
"How long did it take you to formulate your very thoughtful tactical analysis?"
"It came to me in a dream," Fucile said, and placed the final pieces with a flourish. He swiveled around and said, "Ta-da!"
The blue magnets formed a smiley face; the orange, a frown. Cavani, Abreu and Pereira hooted. Even Lugano was grinning. Forlán, of course, took a picture.
The door opened, and before Fucile could put the board away, the Maestro came in.
He looked at the board, then at Fucile, and arched a brow. "An interesting strategy," he said dryly. "We'll see how it plays out."
Fucile grinned and took a seat between Pereira and Muslera. Pereira thumped him on the back.
The Maestro cleared his throat, and as if a switch had been flipped, the humor died away. He looked slowly around the room, at each player, one by one. Every face was serious, and every gaze met his.
He began to speak, and they listened.
But as a wise man once said, all good things must come to an end, and at long last, the twenty-three men from the most beautiful country in the world met an opponent they couldn't defeat. They fought to the very last minute, with every ounce of their strength, but in the end, it simply wasn't enough.
The locker room was utterly silent.
No one moved, no one spoke. Forlán stared blankly at nothing, eyes a thousand miles away. Fucile's head was in his hands. Muslera sat at the end of the bench, turned into the corner. Every few minutes, Diego could see his shoulders tremble.
Even the Maestro, standing at the end of the room, had nothing to say. Diego had never seen that look on his face before.
It was Diego's job to say something, to do something. He was the captain. But he couldn't seem to make himself speak around the sand in his throat.
Something broke the silence: the sound of slow, rhythmic clapping.
It was Abreu. He was standing up. "Hey," he said, digging up a grin. "Come on, all together." He began to sing in a terrible, off-key voice. "Uruguayans, our nation or the grave..."
His voice echoed strangely on its own. He circled the room, nodding at this player or that. A few began to clap half-heartedly. Abreu sandwiched himself in next to Muslera, and draped his arm around Muslera's shoulder, keeping the rhythm with one hand against his thigh. "Come on, Fernando!" he exclaimed, and raised his voice. "Liberty, or with glory..."
Slowly, Muslera turned to face the room. His face was blotched and his eyes red. In a wavering voice, he joined Abreu. "...the vows that our souls pronounce..."
The clapping grew stronger. Someone smiled, and then someone else, as first one voice and then another joined in, until Abreu's off-key warble was no longer dominant. Cavani laughed. The Maestro, leaning against the wall, clapped gravely. They grew louder, and louder, until the whole room was singing at the top of their lungs: Muslera, still red-eyed and terribly earnest; Luis, hand over his heart; Fucile and Pereira, arms around each others' shoulders.
"Which we will fulfill! Which we will fulfill!"
With a distant sense of surprise, Diego realized there were tears streaming down his face.
He kept singing anyway.
But their effort had not been not in vain. When after long absence they finally returned home, to the most beautiful country in the world, they were greeted as heroes. The people poured into the streets to laud them, and vowed that their brave deeds would be remembered for generations.
Someone was yelling something in his ear; Diego couldn't hear a thing over the roar of the masses of people thronging the street, all clad in blue and white.
Fucile was leaning out the bus window, laughing slightly hysterically. "Do you see this? Do you believe this?" He leaned out further and waved, and the cheers swelled.
Forlán was hanging back from the windows, Diego noticed, watching the crowd with a smile on his face. Diego withdrew and squeezed down the bus to his namesake.
"Not going to give them a glimpse of their champion, golden one?" he said, nudging Forlán with one elbow.
Forlán turned. "I like watching," he said softly. "It looks nice."
Diego looked out at the sea of blue and white stretching as far the eye could see, the sea of his countrymen, every one chanting their names.
"Yeah," he said, after a minute. "It does."
A little hesitantly, Forlán leaned out the window. The roar that greeted him eclipsed anything they had heard so far. He waved, ducking his head a little, and then in a spontaneous burst of emotion, pumped his fist.
Diego's ears rang like bells. He found he was grinning. Forlán turned back to him, a smile stretching across his face.
"I'm glad to be home," he said.
And every word was true.