Zaida picks up a card in the fourteenth minute and the coach takes her off in the sixty-fifth, which is a stupid decision because they're only up by two and it's not like Sweden aren't more than threatening enough to stage a comeback. Which is exactly what happens: she watches, horrified, as first Engstrom scores, then Larsson, and now it's going to penalties and she's stuck on the bench—
She wakes up panting, shirt damp.
For as long as she can remember, Zaida's known she wants to play football. No, she doesn't just want to play -- she wants to be good, better, the best. She's never stopped to question whether or not it's possible: she knows it is. She just has to make it happen.
She never even thought about playing any position but striker. She's there to score.
The World Cup's still three months away. They -- the U-21 team -- are in Bucharest for a friendly. It's a miserable match: grinding, labored, flat. Romania score twice on set pieces. Zaida takes a long cross down with her knee, jinks it between two of the Romanians, fakes out the right back who's managed to stay on her and slides the ball past the keeper, their only goal.
She calls Olaya afterward, tells her about the game, listens to Olaya talk about exams and planning a trip to the coast with her friends.
In the middle of Olaya's description of their mother giving some creep the shutdown of his life, a voice says something in the background. Olaya, muffled, answers; then she says to Zaida, "Dad wants to talk to you." Zaida closes her eyes, just for a second, and then opens them again.
"Okay," she says.
"Hey, sweetheart," her father says, a little softly. He's always been soft with them. "How was the match?"
"Okay," she says. "I scored. We lost."
Her father snorts, a sound of ironic familiarity. "Tell me about it."
Her father has three league titles, a Champions' League medal, European Championship and World Cup trophies, but he still talks like that, like the world won't give him anything he doesn't force it to. Zaida doesn't understand why: he's got a chip on his shoulder, but nothing to fight. He got everything, in the end. He's David Villa.
She tells him a little more about the match, because he always wants to know. It makes her feel awkward, like she's giving him a match report, and underneath, a little resentful: their matches aren't as good and she knows that, she doesn't need reminding.
"Olaya told me about her trip," she says, when she's tired of explaining how badly they sucked.
"Maybe," her father says, darkly. "We'll see."
"You should let her," she says. "She's old enough."
"We'll see," he repeats. He'll let Olaya go, in the end; they both know that.
She hears voices in the hall outside. It's close enough.
"Hey, dad, someone's here, I've got to go."
"Okay," her father says, after a minute. "Watch out. I love you."
"Love you too," she mutters, and ends the call.
One of the earliest things she can remember is playing football with her father -- just passing the ball back and forth in the yard. Sometimes she couldn't hit it any farther than halfway between them; sometimes he forgot to hold back and the ball would go zooming past her and all the way to the house. He always laughed, then, and raced her to regain possession. Of course he let her win.
By the time she was in primary school it was serious, or sort of serious. Her father taught her to pass, to trap, to control, to find the ball with her head, with both her feet. Her attempts to score took on the beginnings of obsession. Around the same time, she began to figure out that playing football with her father wasn't like the boys in the park playing with theirs. She also began to figure out why they never went to the park themselves.
When she first started to play for real, for a team, her mother said why didn't Zaida use her second name on the jersey, because it would probably be more fun without the extra attention. She said yes. She wanted the number 7, because she was too young to know better, but every kid wanted a seven. They assigned numbers alphabetically, and Zaida González was 13. She stuck with both until she got called up to Rayo's senior side. That was when the papers finally picked it up, and she decided if they wanted a story, they could have one. So she put Villa on her shirt -- it was her name, too, and just because someone else had it first didn't make it their leftovers or something. But she kept her number.
They offered her the 7 last season, after Luisa Valle left to have a kid. She didn't take it.
Back in Madrid, they split up, back to their respective cities and clubs. Four to Valencia, three to Barcelona, four more to Donostia, five to Bilbao. Zaida takes a cab home.
Her mother greets her with a kiss on the cheek. Her father pats her arm and says, "Good goal."
Olaya comes home later and pokes her head around the door to Zaida's room, where Zaida's polishing her boots. "Nice goal."
Zaida scrubs a scrap of cloth across the toe. "That's what dad said."
"It's still true." Olaya comes all the way in and sits next to Zaida on the bed. She looks at Zaida's boots. "How long have you been home, exactly?"
"It's important," Zaida says, unruffled. She's used to Olaya's teasing. She still can't resist adding, "You'll understand when you're older."
"Sure," Olaya says, reaching out and ruffling her hair, "little sister," and flees before Zaida can retaliate.
No one can figure out where Olaya got her height: she's the only one in three generations on both sides, tall and lanky as soon as she hit thirteen. Zaida never did; she's short and compact, like -- the rest of their family. For a while her teammates called her la bala, the bullet; now they call her la terminadora, the terminator.
She's been the youngest more than once, but no one's ever called her kid.
When people ask her where she's from she usually says Asturias, because that's where she was born and that's where they went back for the summer, every year. But she didn't live there again until she was nine, and that's not where her earliest memories are from.
Carles and Gerard always told her that she cried every day after leaving Valencia, until they gave her a stuffed Barcelona mascot and then she slept with it every night. She remembers the doll -- she thinks it might be in a box somewhere in her room, still. But moving to Gijón was even harder, because by then she was old enough to have a school and a team and a home and real friends. She didn't cry, that time; when her parents told her, she stomped up to her room and slammed the door and didn't come out for the rest of the night. She refused to speak to either of them for three days, saving her most furious glares for her father. She'd learned, by then, that it was easier to be angry than to cry.
(Her mother sighed, often, and didn't indulge her tantrums at all; her father, Zaida realized much later, avoided her, because he couldn't turn down the move and he couldn't see her unhappy.)
In the end, it was just as bad leaving Gijón for Madrid. But by then, it was because of her.
Grecia and her family come over for dinner the week after the team gets back from Romania. They live in Barcelona, now, and come down to visit often.
Zaida's never gotten along that well with Grecia, even though she's always known her father would have liked it -- both of their fathers. It's not her fault. Grecia's nice enough, she guesses. That's sort of the problem.
Nora's a little better. She followed Zaida everywhere when they were kids and their dads got called up together. Or when Zaida's family went to England: sometimes her parents would take them all for a visit and all the girls would have to play together, Zaida and Grecia and Nora and Alma and Olaya. Nora always took Zaida's side.
She and Nora don't really talk these days, but she has Nora's number. Nora's in school, still; last thing Zaida heard she wanted to do biology in university. Zaida got a text from her after the U-21 team qualified for the World Cup. She'd told her dad, and he'd grinned.
They're talking about people whose names Zaida knows but doesn't really care about, so she tunes them out for a while, running over the next game in her head. Zaida's mother asks Grecia and Alma about school and their boyfriends. Then their dad says, "Zaida, girl, you were playing in Bucharest last week, no?"
She can see Alma and Grecia exchange a look just behind their father's back. Olaya catches them, too, and gives them a glare as fierce as anyone's. It runs in the family.
Zaida shrugs. "It was a bad game. We'll have to do a lot better at the World Cup."
"She's the only one who scored," her father says, with the sort of half-belligerent pride that always makes her want to slide under the table, because she doesn't know what to do with it.
"Just like her dad," Grecia's father says, grinning at Zaida's, who rolls his eyes but somehow looks like he's smiling even though he's not.
Zaida stands up abruptly. "Sorry, I have to leave early," she says. "I'm supposed to meet a friend." Her mother gives her a look but she pretends not to see it. She does add, "It was nice to see you again."
Since she's not actually supposed to meet anyone, she calls Mery and they meet in the park near Mery's place and kick a ball around for a while. There's a group of kids doing the same nearby so Zaida can't help showing off a little, while Mery laughs at her. The boys are too little not to be impressed.
She gets a tongue lashing from her mother when she gets back home but she doesn't mind.
It came down to Espanyol or Rayo, when she was fourteen. She almost picked Espanyol just to see if she could get away with moving back to Barcelona by herself, maybe stay with Uncle Pepe's family, but in the end Rayo was the better choice. Besides, she wouldn't have put it past her parents to move with her anyway and Olaya didn't deserve that. Instead, they waited until the school year ended, and the next week Zaida started training with Rayo's junior team.
They've got a new coach this season who's pretty good. She -- it's a she, for only the second time -- played pro herself, around the same time Zaida's father did. She wins points from Zaida by never mentioning it.
Most of the time she takes the metro to practice, like the rest of the team. She's not a very good driver: Olaya is much better. (Technically Olaya's not supposed to be behind the wheel yet, but what their parents don't know won't hurt them as long as it stays that way.) Rayo's grounds aren't that great but at least they get to use the same ones as the men's team. They're more successful, after all.
The coach has them doing fitness drills today, which Zaida always finds a detestable necessity. She's in a lot better shape than she was last season, though, she can't deny that. Patricia falls in beside her as they jog around the field for the cool down and says, "Saw your goal last week."
Zaida lets herself grin at that. "Pretty nice, huh?"
"Stay away from my record, brat," Patricia mock-growls, knuckling her under as Zaida cracks up until the coach calls, "Ruiz, Villa, calm down."
Maybe it should be strange to think of people fifteen years older than her as friends, but that's what a team is like. Patricia's not exactly old enough to be Zaida's mother but she's old enough that she probably wouldn't be playing anymore if they were the men's team. She still has a great touch, though, which is what matters. She also has the all-time scoring record for both the U-21 and senior teams -- but not for long, if Zaida has anything to say about it.
It's an open secret that the federation's just waiting for the World Cup to be over before Zaida gets her call up to the senior team. They tend to do that with the women's teams, graduate the players from one level to the next, rather than mixing it up like the men do. Zaida doesn't care. She's got plenty of time to score for both.
The next home game is the cup derby against Real Madrid: Real finally set up a women's team a few years ago, after the senior internationals qualified for the World Cup and made it all the way to the semifinals. It was years after they should have done it. Now, of course, they're about to win the league. Zaida rolls her eyes every time anyone mentions them, on principle.
Her team wins this time, though, 5-4, two goals from Zaida. She almost gets her hat trick: the ball ricochets off the crossbar in the 87th minute and for a minute she's so frustrated she wants to hit something. She settles for kicking the turf, once, and giving it her most forbidding scowl.
She finds her family after she's showered and said goodbye to her teammates. Her father's signing someone's shirt. At least it's been long enough that no one comes to the games just to see him in the stands, she sometimes thinks resentfully.
"Good game," he says, when they see her. It was, so she can't really deny it. She just shrugs, and he slides a hand over her hair and squeezes her shoulder, a little awkwardly.
"Maybe I'll come to the next game, too." Olaya doesn't come to many games, between school and her friends, one of whom Zaida's pretty sure she's actually dating. "They said it was against Atlético and we hate them, right?"
Zaida knows Olaya's making fun of her, but she still says, "Right."
"Who else do we hate?"
Zaida ticks them off on her fingers. "Athletic. Espanyol. Barcelona. Oviedo. Collerense. Levante. Sociedad -- "
"So," Olaya says, interrupting, "everyone who isn't us."
Zaida grins at her. "Right."
They go away to Oviedo and Zaida's grandmother comes to the game. Zaida's never been entirely sure how much her grandmother really likes football, but she comes to watch Zaida play, every time. For years she let Zaida practice kick ups against the wall of the house her son bought for her, even after the first time Zaida cracked a window, even after the second. When she says Zaida's just like her father, Zaida doesn't mind as much. It's what grandmothers are supposed to say.
Zaida's grandfather died when she was nine, from lung cancer. Zaida doesn't remember him very clearly anymore; mostly she remembers how tall he seemed, and his bristly mustache when he kissed her on the cheek. It made her giggle. They watched every game of the World Cup together the summer before he died, the last year her father was in it.
Her mother told her some things, when she was older, that made her second-guess her own memory. Or see, unwillingly, what she barely remembered: twin raised voices, father and son, piercing her sleep; her mother, tight-mouthed with anger; her grandmother murmuring another rosary under her breath and stroking Olaya's hair. Maybe it was worse than she thought, maybe her imagination isn't reliable, maybe she misunderstood. Either way, she's glad she never knew any of it while he was alive.
In Oviedo they win again, barely. Mery's the one who gets the game winner, but Zaida scores, too, making it six goals in five games. By now it's clear that she's having a good season, a really good season, even better than usual. It's two months to the World Cup.
They win away at Atlético, draw Espanyol at home, lose to Athletic. Zaida comes home looking for something to take out her anger on but Olaya takes one look at her and says, "Go kick a ball at someone else."
"You're too alike," her mother always said, when Zaida was in a mood.
"So are you," Zaida shot back once, "and you're still married."
Her mother raised one eyebrow so sharply that Zaida shut up without even thinking about it.
They almost never fight, though. The one thing her father never, ever does is push back.
There's a picture in her other grandparents' house of her mother standing with one foot balanced on a grubby football, grinning at the camera and missing two teeth. The first time Zaida saw it she asked her mother if she'd gotten in a fight and her mother laughed so hard she nearly cried. So Zaida must've known for a long time that her mother had played football but it never really felt like she had, not until Zaida was much older.
Later, she asked her mother if she ever wished she hadn't quit playing. Her mother, looking thoughtful, took a minute to answer.
"I think I did, a little bit, later. But it wasn't the same, you know, even when I was your age. It was fun, and I liked to compete, and I liked the game. But that's all it was for me. I had school and your father and in the end I figured out I'd rather be doing that instead."
Zaida frowned. "But didn't you want to win something yourself?"
Her mother smiled a little. "Sometimes what you want changes."
Zaida looked at her, uncomprehending.
Her mother rolled her eyes and said to the sky, "No, of course, she must be the milkman's child." When she looked back down, though, she was smiling.
The team does an ad with some of the U-21 boys, who've got their Euros coming up. "Get me Soriano's number," Olaya tells her. "He's cute." Zaida gives her a shove and Olaya falls over giggling.
The guys their age are actually a pretty good group; they're more used to their sisters and cousins playing the same game and going to the same matches and idolizing the same stars than any of their older counterparts are. Some of them are still stupid assholes, but that's just a thing about teenage boys in general, Zaida's pretty sure.
She goes over to Soriano during a break and tells him, "My sister's a big fan."
"Oh yeah?" he says, brightening. "Villa, right? Tell your dad I think he's awesome. He was, like, my hero when I was a kid, he was the grea--"
González, a couple feet away, reaches over and smacks Soriano across the back of the head, not gently. "Shut up," he hisses, and glances at Zaida, giving her an apologetic grimace.
Zaida shrugs, but she can feel her mouth flattening out. González probably gets it, but that doesn't make it any better.
Afterwards, Cuatro does interviews for a big segment on the team's World Cup preparation. The federation's rep tells them to be sure to answer "enthusiastically." What he means is be positive, upbeat: like good girls. It's bullshit, so Zaida says what she feels like saying, like always. Out of the corner of her eye she can see Laura and Mery a little way beyond the cameraman, making faces of exaggerated shock at her.
At the very end they ask her. "Are you going to follow in your father's footsteps and bring a title home?"
She looks right into the camera. "I'm going to do better."
Four weeks to the end of the season. They've got the away game against Real coming up, and it's a big deal, maybe the league decider. In the meantime, there's another international game, this time at home, against Germany. In other words, they're going to get crushed. Zaida tells her parents as much, but her father insists on coming anyway.
They don't get crushed, exactly. They lose 3-1, and it doesn't matter that the third goal was a penalty or that Zaida's goal came out of nowhere because it's not the goal difference, it's not the defeat, it's how easy it was for them.
No one says much in the locker room afterwards. Zaida keeps her head down. A couple of her teammates pat her on the shoulder as they go out; Mery, she thinks, and someone else. She doesn't look up.
When she finally leaves, her father's waiting.
Neither of them speak until they're almost home. Then he says, "It was a tough fight."
"No, it wasn't," she says, short and acid. "It wasn't hard at all." It's a friendly but she doesn't care. It won't be a friendly next month. There's no such thing. "We could have done better. We could have tried."
Her father starts to speak, and she opens her mouth and hears herself say, "Maybe I should go to America."
She doesn't know where it comes from. She's never once thought about moving: she'll win, she'll be the best, on her terms, at her club, in her country. She'll make everyone acknowledge her. She looks at her father and he's staring at her, as much at a loss as she is.
"You want to go abroad?" he says.
She shrugs, a short, jerky motion. "Maybe I'll have to." She knows, even as she says it, that she doesn't want to, but she keeps going anyway. "I'm old enough to decide for myself."
She knows, deep down, that if it weren't for her father, if she were born into any other family, she'd have had to fight twice as hard for what she's got. Which just makes her more frustrated, fills her with the perverse urge to push and push and push and make him stop holding back. She's not a kid and she's not a little girl. She's going to deserve what she gets.
She holds her breath, waiting.
"We should talk about this later," he says. "Not after a defeat."
Suddenly she's so furious she can barely see straight.
"Sorry we're not the men's team," she bites out, voice nearly shaking. "Sorry we don't win everything."
Her father looks at her blankly, like he has no idea what she's talking about, which only makes her angrier. His brows go down. "You should never make big decisions after a loss," he says. "Listen, I know what--"
She cuts in. "Since when?"
She sees him start to answer and then clamp down on his own reply. "We'll talk about this later," he repeats. "If this is really what you need to -- we'll talk about it."
She can't even explain why she's so angry, so frustrated, only that it's stinging, choking her throat, bringing tears to her eyes. She can't hit anything, she can't yell, she can't speak. "Stop -- stop -- " He reaches out, and she jerks away. "Stop coddling me!"
"No one's coddling you," her father says harshly, his voice rising at last. "Like it or not, you're my daughter and there is no f -- no way I'm -- "
She hears her own voice snap, "I never asked to be!"
Her father recoils and for a desperate second she thinks no, no, I take it back. Then his face hardens and so does her resentment.
"You can't always get what you want," he says. "Better get used to it."
They barely speak to each other for the next few days. "You don't have to come," Zaida says to her mother the day before the Real game. "It's no big deal."
"Don't be silly," her mother says. "Of course we're going." She looks at Zaida, their eyes at a level, then reaches out and touches her cheek. "I want to see you win, too."
When Zaida comes downstairs, bag in hand, boots over her shoulders, her father's in the kitchen. Her mother and Olaya are nowhere to be seen. Their eyes meet, neither of them giving so much as an inch, and Zaida wonders, with a chilly mixture of belligerence and nausea, if he'll stay silent.
But he doesn't. He says what he always says:
"Show them what you've got."
When she remembers that night later, his words are always first.
It's no one's fault. It's been raining all evening and the grass is slicker than usual. It's a great game, fast, electric; Zaida takes a fierce delight in it at the same time she wishes they were seven up and stomping Real into the ground. But in reality they're still one down, except Laura's through on goal, outpacing Real's center back. It's no good; she's off-balance. She goes down and the ball bounces away from her, rolling temptingly out alone, down the field from Zaida. The keeper's completely out of position and Zaida tucks her head down and launches into a flat-out sprint. Codina's converging on her from the left. Zaida lunges in a slide, because she's faster, she always has been. Her foot connects with the ball and she knows it's going in the moment she touches it, before she actually sees it skip across the wet grass, past the keeper's outstretched fingers, into the net.
Only Codina isn't pulling back, because she's slipped, Zaida realizes, momentum sending her hammering forward and Zaida sees her coming in like a bad tackle, sees it before it happens. She has a moment to brace herself, and then --
She nearly blacks out at the crack. It's skewers of iron, tongues of fire shooting up her leg, like nothing she's ever felt before. She cries out before she can stop herself, and somehow she's on the ground and she doesn't even know how she got there.
Somewhere there's the whistle, voices, running feet; she can barely tell, trying to curl in on herself and in too much pain to do even that. Everything comes in flashes: one of the voices urgently asking her a question she can't understand, unfamiliar hands lifting her. The stretcher jolts and she can't bite back the whimper. Deep breaths. Two. Three. Four. She concentrates everything on the in, out, in, out. Distantly, she's aware the stretcher's on the ground again. With every scrap of effort she can muster, every reserve she can draw on, she manages to keep her face from twisting up and opens her eyes.
There's a hand gripping hers.
His face is white. She's never seen him look scared before, not her father.
"Don't worry," she tells him, or tries to. She has to let him know it'll be all right, has to get that look off his face. "I'm okay."
Then she passes out.
When she opens her eyes, it's to white and stainless steel.
She has to blink twice before the fuzzy edges go away, lightheaded. There's no pain, just a vague floating sensation, which must mean they've got her on the good drugs. A nurse beside her bed is making soothing sounds, and as Zaida pushes herself upright she sees that her leg's immobilized.
The nurse hands her a plastic cup of water, which she manages to take with a mostly steady hand. As she drinks, the door opens, and a tall doctor comes in.
She puts the cup down.
He introduces himself, and goes on for a while about where they are and how she'll be in good hands. She only absorbs about half of it, but she's pretty sure he hasn't actually said anything about her leg yet. Finally she has to to interrupt. "Is it broken?"
The doctor nods. She slumps back against the pillow, already resigned to a recovery period. "So how long til I can get back on the field?" At the doctor's subtle change of expression, she feels her heart skip. "More than a couple months?"
"Yes," the doctor says. "Well."
Then they tell her.
They let her father in right afterward, while she's still staring at the wall, trying to swallow the panic.
"Hey, sweetheart," he says in that gentle tone so incongruous with the outward appearance. "How are you?"
She wants to say something reassuring, she wants so badly to be able to pretend it's just another sprain. But all she can hear, over and over again, is I'm afraid there's no chance.
She can't speak lest a traitorous waver betray her -- lest she cry. That's not what she does, she doesn't need -- she --
Her father, brows drawing together, takes a step forward and she meets his eyes.
"Zaida," he says.
Her face crumples and her father's gathering her in his arms.
"Papa," she says, muffled, and clutches at his shirt as she soaks it with tears.
"Shhh," her father murmurs in her ear. He's stroking her hair. "Shh, I know. It's gonna be okay."
He keeps saying that, over and over, as she sobs into his shoulder. Her entire body's shaking. She can't look at him. "It'll be okay," he says. "I know. I promise."
She has to take several gulps, for air, to fight down the rest of the tears. "They said I can't -- I can't play -- "
"Bullshit," her father says, and it's so far from what she's expecting that she physically starts.
The doctor said, she feels like she should say, or But they'll have to operate, I might not even-- Instead she doesn't move, waiting, trying to choke back even the smallest shudder: unable, try as she might, to stamp out the wild surge of hope.
"Listen to me," he says into her ear, fierce and savage. "Fuck them. They don't know what the fuck they're talking about. It's not over unless you want it to be."
His arms tighten and he gives her a little shake.
"They don't think it's worth it. They think it's too much, too much money or too much work or too much time. They don't know you. Understand? You can do it. It'll be hard but if you want it, we -- you can do it. I can get the right people, they'll work with you, or -- " He takes a breath.
"Or me," he says. "Every day, if you want. I swear. I swear."
She just nods into his shoulder.
"I'm going to miss the World Cup," she says, when she can speak again without crying.
The smile he gives her has a feral edge. It's not a parent's: it's a player's.
"Don't worry," he says. "You'll win the one that counts."
She comes back.
Of course she does.
She scores her first goal sixteen months later, on a rainy day in September. They're playing Athletic, and Nuria's put them up one-nothing thirty minutes into the first half. The ball from Mery couldn't be any better served if she'd handed it to Zaida on a plate: all Zaida has to do is shoot.
The keeper doesn't have time to do anything but turn her head and watch the ball rocket by. The yell of triumph comes from deep within Zaida's throat and for a second she just raises her arms in the air and glories in the feel of her ball in the back of the net, a feeling that never dulls no matter how many times it happens. Then she takes off running.
Her teammates are converging on her from all corners of the field, but she goes straight for the stands. He's not smiling. The expression is one she knows from tapes, photos, newsreels: the rictus of raw, visceral triumph.
Everyone in the stands knows what her story is; they're cheering louder than if she'd won them a trophy final. It's not the Bernabéu, but it'll do. Zaida skids to a stop in front of his corner, on the far right, by the goal. She pumps a fist in the air and the cheering swells. Then she cocks her arm back over her shoulder, thumb pointing down, and turns her back to the stands so they can see her name. So everyone who saw that goal knows who she is.