The final round of the Uruguayan All-Defense Ping Pong Battle Royale was well under way, and it was looking to be a real corker. Lugano and Muslera had been knocked out of the proceedings relatively early due to Fernando's chronic clumsiness and Lugano throwing the ping pong paddle at Diego Perez's head. He missed, but meanwhile Godin (the other half of Team Other Diegos) was able to blast one past him. After quite a few rounds(and quite a few mate breaks), the teams had been whittled down to to Team Castillo/Cacares and Team Husband (AKA Fuci and Palito). It was a wonder that the latter team made it so far, not because of lack of skill but because Fuci was just as invested in running his mouth as he was in winning. Palito, as always, was busy picking up the slack.
As for Diego Forlan, his job was to document the guts and the glory on his camera, and maybe surreptitiously upload a portion to Twitter. All thoughts of sharing with the internet were squashed, however, once the team began to speak of mutiny.
“All I'm saying is that I am in serious need of my beauty rest.” Distracted by this particular train of thought, Fuci waved his paddle with a dramatic flourish rather than blocking Castillo's shot. Palito had to quickly compensate. “And the last thing that my beauty needs is to be jolted awake courtesy of El Loco's nationalistic streak. I refer, of course, to his charming habit of blasting the national anthem over the P.A. system when some people are still trying to rest.”
“I think everyone is aware of that, Fuci,” Palito said mildly as he aimed for Castillo's center mass. “I think everyone picked up on it around the second week.”
“If you're expecting us to all take on El Loco in defense of your beauty rest,” Lugano said between swigs of his ever-present mate, “then we seriously need to think of another reason.”
Fuci's mouth pulled down into a childish little pout. “Oh, trol-lol-lol. My self-image is a very high priority for team morale, I'll have you know.”
“I don't know, guys.” Fernando said. His long legs took up the entirety of the largest sofa in the rec room. “I'd feel like we'd be inviting bad luck if we kept the anthem from being played.”
“Oh, Muslera." Fuci darted away from the table (much to the vocal dismay of Palito) in order to give Fernando a vigorous hair-ruffling. “Uruguay and the Virgin will both still love you if I get a little more sleep in the morning.”
Diego cut in before Fernando could get too embarrassed - “But El Loco will kick your ass if you tamper with his ritual.”
“You all know that Aberu keeps the disc with the anthem on it under his pillow, right?” Fernando is still a little red. “There is no possible way for you to steal it.”
By this point, Fuci seemed completely unaware that the ping pong game still existed, now caught up in his new crusade. “There is always a way,” he declared. “Are we not men? Are we not valiant Uruguayans, who live and die struggling for glory?” Most of the room gave each other their patented “Ugh, here Fuci goes again” look. “We've got to go for it. It's the patriotic thing to do.”
Their chatter grew into a chipper chorus. Diego decided to let them be for now. He tucked his camera under his arm and left to take a look outside.
Suarez was seated in a lounge chair on the back balcony, overlooking the late afternoon sun. He peered at the laptop in front of him, mate in one hand and the other one tucked up under his chin. “Hey,” he greeted Diego without raising his head. Diego was expecting him to be e-mailing Sofia or looking at pictures of his family, but instead he's watching something on Youtube; a black and white video of cardigan-clad men with jaunty hats, smiling and waving awkwardly to the camera. Diego looked over Suarez's shoulder, puzzled, until a caption comes up on the screen: “The 1930 Uruguayan National Team”. Diego had never seen them out of uniform before. In stasis, shifting their weight as the camera captures them, they looked far from the mythical heroes he'd grown up wanting to emulate.
Luis motioned for Diego to sit beside him. “It's funny,” he said after a few more moments of watching their heroes. “I've lost count of the number of times that we've been shown footage of the game, but I've never seen them off the field before.” He chuckled at the image of Hector Castro laughing and joking with the goalkeeper (whose ears stuck out almost as much as Fernando's). “Can you imagine scoring goals with one arm?”
“You're starting to sound like my dad.” His father always had the stock “If Hector Castro could score goals with one arm, then you will never have an excuse for not excelling" speech ready whenever Diego was having a particularly bad playing patch in his youth. Or when he was feeling discouraged. Or over breakfast.
There was so much weight on their shoulders. This wasn't Diego's first World Cup, but it felt larger this time, and not just because they'd made it farther than anyone had expected. It was different from the beginning, this time around. One would suppose that some strange alchemy had knitted their group together; Diego knew that it only took one man who knew how a game could unite a country. He saw it in Fuci's nervous hyperactivity, in Fernando's constant fears of letting the team down, in the way that each one of them pushed harder and harder for something larger than themselves. It was glorious, but it also took a toll. Luis sat half a world away from his wife, who could conceivably go into labor at any moment. He decided to take the chance of possibly missing the most amazing moment of his life for the sake of the tournament and the people that they're fighting for.
Luis shut his laptop down once the video finished, and the two of them looked out in silence for a minute. Kimberley looked like Uruguay the most at sunset; the skies turn the land golden and the trees seem to shiver with dying light. “Do you think we can do this?” Luis asked.
“I think...” Diego tried not to predict a determined future, no matter how positive. All he thought about was possibility. “I think that we can try.”
Luis absorbed this information with the calm, thoughtful acceptance that Diego is used to seeing from him. “I wouldn't want it any other way.”
Nico burst out onto the balcony, practically waving his arms in distress. “Fuci's leading an attack team to steal the national anthem from El Loco's room.” He pauses. “They're all gonna die.”
“Tell Lugano to yell at them until they stop.”
Nico rolled his eyes. “Lugano's declared himself second in command. He says that if enough of us hold Abreu down, we can win easy.”
Diego closed his eyes and counted to three. “Of course he is.”*****
As always, Forlán woke a few minutes before he needed. So much travel had given ample chance to see how other men used those few minutes, but he'd long since realized that there was no point in envying Lugano, who kept his eyes screwed shut against the sunlight until the last possible second, or Fucile, who sprang from his bed to turn on the radio. Forlán hadn't quite lost his envy of Muslera, who slept so soundly that Castillo often needed to supplement reveille with a pillow thwacking.
Suárez used those few minutes to talk to himself, lips moving silently as the sky lightened.
These were all reasonable uses of the time. Forlán, so tellingly that its obviousness frustrated him, spent those minutes with his teeth and body clenched against the expected insistence of an alarm.
But today the time lengthened somehow, becoming enough that Forlán could start to relax. He even thought for a moment that he might doze off again.
Then Lugano sat up, as propulsively as he did everything. "Well," he said. Forlán readjusted his blanket so he could check whether or not Lugano looked as smug as he sounded. "I guess we've out-flanked El Loco."
Just then the first notes of the anthem sounded.
Orientales la Patria o la Tumba!
Libertad o con gloria morir!
"Son of a whore," Lugano said.
Forlán listened attentively. "He's playing the full version this time."
"What a son of a whore."
A howl rose in the next room. Forlán identified Fuci's squeaky outrage, and then Palito's calming rumble. Then both voices broke into laughter, and the first part of Fucile's morning ritual began: Europe, cranked too high. Even Forlán had to laugh when Palito very clearly and very pleasantly announced, "I am using the shower first, before you clog the drain with your pretty hair."
Lugano snorted, and without Palito's niceties, dashed into the bathroom.
Forlán pulled on some track pants and stepped into the hallway. He wanted a morning walk, some time to himself before the pre-match instructions and the anxieties and the pep talks began. He wanted some peace before he gave in to the realization he still didn't want to make; this was most likely his last chance to prove that he hadn't failed everyone who had believed in his early promise.
Five doors down, El Loco returned an Iphone to Muslera, whose usual smile seemed dimmer this morning. El Loco returned to his room, but Muslera, listless, wandered out into the garden, a charming place full of non-indigenous plants that must involve too much labor. Forlán followed him without attracting his attention.
Muslera chose a low-set lawnchair that put his knees somewhere near his eyebrows, but he accepted the indignity as tranquilly as he received the abuse from Celeste fans. He turned his face to the sky. "Hey, Mary," he said, his voice very soft. "I know you're kind of busy right now with the Chilean miners and all, so it's not like I'm going to ask that we win the match or anything though if you wanted to arrange that I'd be very grateful. I'm not even going to ask that I don't fuck up too badly -- that's on me, right? Me and the goalposts. But please, Virgin, I just need this one thing and I promise I won't buy that new car and I'll donate all the World Cup money to the Ospedale Pediatrico Bambino Gesù. Please, please don't let me throw up on international television."
Forlán had to cover his mouth to quiet a chuckle. He'd made a similar prayer during his first World Cup, though he wished it had been to as benevolent a woman as the Virgin of Lourdes. It had taken him a long time to stop explaining, pleading, and bargaining with a mental image of his father.
High above, Lugano stuck a face covered with shaving cream out a window. "DIEGO!" he bellowed. "Where is my goddamn razor?"
"How the hell should I know?" Diego Pérez answered from his balcony.
"No need to yell, dude." Diego Godín said. "Not that I expect you to ever internalize that."
Hoping for a few more minutes of peace, Forlán crouched behind a tall shrubbery. This gave him three seconds, and then Suárez came through the begonias to sit beside him. "Hey," Suárez said. "Kind of crazy this morning."
"Yeah." Forlán started to laugh. They would go up against South Africa later and it would all make sense on the pitch, but for now they were just twenty-three men with twenty-three different sets of insecurities and twenty-three different grooming rituals. He waved his hand, trying to encompass Lugano's demented game face and Muslera's quiet determination to grow and Fucile's bravado and Palito's steadiness and his own fears that he would never prove the critics wrong. Then he turned to Suárez, so fierce on the pitch and so shy and awkward off it. He would face his own critics and his own demons for many more years.
Forlán slung his arm around Suárez's shoulder and hugged him close. "Someday this will all be yours, son."