The Golden Shoe

/ by Clemens Berger

If I hadn't been so good, the German Democratic Republic would still exist. And if the German Democratic Republic still existed, the Soviet Union might not have collapsed. And if the Soviet Union hadn't collapsed, who knows what kind of lives we'd be living today.


But I was that good. Unbeknownst to most people, I made world history, for better or worse I can't say. I don't have anything to compare it to. Could be I'm considered modest. It's possible people think of me that way, but I'm not that way at all. On the contrary, I'm well aware of the significance of my deed. Whenever I see a piece of that Wall, whenever I see a documentary about how it fell, I see myself trotting out of the locker room, I hear the whistles and the catcalls, the insults and vulgarity, the raving and abuse, when my name blares out of the loudspeakers while I rotate my shoulders.


They hated me, they despised me, their faces grew red with rage at the mention of my name, their features contorted at the sight of me. I can still see myself nibbling at my chain with the cross on it and chewing my gum like it had attacked me. I still feel my insides contracting and my cheekbones grinding while they play the national anthem. I can still see myself gazing out beyond the stadium roof into the evening sky. Please let me be good, I said, let me be as good as I am.


I always put on a show of modesty so people would think I was the simple boy next door, one of them, one of us, not a bit different. We're all the same: that's what people say who don't give a hoot about others; I wanted to pass as that kind of person and always acted like what people think of as a nice guy. But niceness doesn't mean a thing. The winners of all those TV talent shows are nice. The standard mean, the lowest common denominator, that devastating mediocrity that mustn't ever stick out beyond the average — just don't be something better, for God's sake don't achieve anything extraordinary, and then even act like you know you've done it! Don't do anything that might be considered improper, and they'll think you're nice. Niceness is the mutual insurance of little minds.


On the field I was never modest, and it's on the field that what you really are shows through. On the field, you're distorted to the point of recognizability. There are those who make an honest effort, who sweat and strain and dash across the turf with their teeth clenched and their eyes squinting. Then there are others who see only themselves, their eyes glued to the ground, deaf and blind to their teammates, one-man armies marching to their own orders. Some are so ambitious it hurts to have to watch them in that state. They make sure the coach sees them doing exactly what he's told them to do. After every pass, every sliding tackle, they seek out his eyes, while others curl up, almost disappear, hiding themselves whenever and wherever possible, placing themselves in the service of something bigger, something that could be just one person or all of them.


I wanted to shoot goals, with my foot, my head, my chest, my shoulder, with my hand for all I care, any which way, just get it in there, across the line, more than half the ball's diameter, hands in the air, fists clenched, jersey off, and whooping. I wanted to decide games and see myself in the photos, I wanted to read my name in and under the sports reports and see as many different minutes as possible in the parentheses that followed. Setting milestones, creating facts, leaving traces. I wanted to be the one the rest of the team knows can score even in the ninety-first minute. I was the one others could place their hopes in even when everything seemed hopeless. It's not for nothing that I won the Golden Shoe, although a Romanian was briefly allowed to claim it for himself after his country had bent over backward to make one of its subjects into Europe's best forward.


I never worked, and people hated me for it. They couldn't forgive me for having what others so often deny themselves. I always did what I enjoyed and earned a lot doing it; whatever I did, I did it with a passion. It may be I'm a lucky bum who landed on the sunny side. Maybe so, but I've never let go of my dreams, not even for a day. I always wanted to live whichever way I was living. You could tell by my smile that things could be different. The spring in my step showed other possibilities, even when I was going through hard times. What's that compared to someone who has to get up at the same time every day to go to an office or a factory, or to a retraining course or some agency, but who has always sensed that his dreams, his urge to be free, were drifting past him? They held it against me that I wasn't overworked too, bent and broken, and working for something that has nothing to do with me.


I was outside in the fresh air, I traveled around, I got so many letters I felt bad for the mailman, whose pay should have at least been doubled. I shot my goals, and I had more money than I'd ever dared to dream of, even though that wasn't what motivated me. I was happy to take the money, but I'd never let them take my freedom away. I only live once, I told myself.


Work, that's what they say nowadays. Coaches and managers, functionaries and journalists: work, worrk, worrrrk. Even most players are foolish enough to speak this word; serious faces, sentences rehearsed in front of mirrors, rancid preserves — just don't do anything wrong, always think first how it'll look on TV, silly costumes, a sad Carnival. We've worked hard, we've worked well, we have to keep on working, we have to work even more, we're going to work tirelessly on ourselves, on and on and on. Sleight of hand! Dazzling! Capitulation to healthy common sense, which is anything but healthy!


I never worked, and I'm proud of it. I got yelled at by coaches when my way of being disturbed them. Managers gave me their opinions when they saw their hopes going down the tubes. People booed me and wrote I was a redneck, a numbskull, a lazy pig. On the street, they called me unspeakable things, and when I turned around there was no one there. But I never worked, I stand by my word. Precisely because I know what it means to work, and I'll correct myself: I did work, as a mechanic's apprentice, but after that I never worked again and never wanted to. Playing soccer is not work. Anyone who thinks it's work is either regurgitating jargon or hopeless as a player.


Not long ago, when I came home late at night and switched on the TV, I saw that game again. Seventeen minutes had passed, we were leading one to nothing, and as I could read on the display, in the second minute I'd scored a goal, right after the starting whistle, before which they'd just as soon have carried me off the field, locked me up in the locker room, or done something even worse to me.


I dimmed the light, opened the balcony door, and laid down on the couch. From time to time I heard cars drive by on the street. It was drizzling, the air was chilly, there was a breeze from the Vienna Woods, and while the men in black and white and the men in light blue and white ran across the green, I saw that second minute again in my mind's eye, when I got the ball on the right flank and moved to the center; just before I arrived at the round chalk line that extends the goalie's path to the sixteen-meter area, I aimed between two legs, low into the right corner.


The redhead was already waiting for me with fists clenched, and the vein in his neck was bulging so much I worried about his heart. I hugged him, tugged his ears, the others were coming from behind and from the side, jumping on me, kissing me on the head and neck. I heard my name being called. I heard it, but I didn't want to hear it, not at this moment, not from those mouths.


I hadn't seen that game in ages, I always wanted to keep it inside me for myself, but when the bald-headed Burgenlander fell in the penalty box — the opponent hadn't even breathed on him, but he fell good, doubled up, and slid across the end line — I sat up straight and turned up the volume. I saw myself taking the ball and setting it up, I heard everything get quiet, and I caught my breath, the way I hadn't back then. I closed my eyes as I got a running start, my heart was racing, I started sweating, please, I mumbled, let me score, don't let me screw it up, even though I hadn't been thinking any of that back then. You're lost if you even think you might miss the shot. And I heard "goal! What a day, what a day," then opened my eyes and saw myself two decades earlier running toward the corner, a crowd had formed around me, “in the twenty-second minute, Austria leads the Gee Dee Arr by two points, and Toni Polster has finally done what the football fans here said he should do, shooting goals not just in Spain, but here with us." Fantastic perspective, I saw myself from above like a bird, long run-up, a short delay step before winding up, left foot, right corner.


Football fans. Three times I repeated the phrase on the couch, louder and louder, more and more amused, how laughable it sounded in a country where, after the second goal against their team, supporters mockingly got behind the opponent and got more excited about every opposing goal than any catch-up goal. Spain — I saw Seville before me again, the river, the cafés, the stadium, the people in the hottest city in the country, Andalusia with fields full of grain; I started to sing softly, sun and sun and sun, tailor-made for my temperament, I have to see you again and again, smiling and laughing was easier for me there than in Vienna, easier than in Germany, it was more natural, there's no other way to say it, take me, Spanish caravan, yes I know you can.


What popped into my head then was the only day I'd gone to the bullfight arena, to impress a female journalist. I was seeing myself try out a few off-color jokes, teasing her with the terrible stuff going on below us, before I got sick to my stomach and couldn't get another word past my lips, when in our box the ref whistled for a penalty kick. This time I kept my eyes open, saw our goalie fly to the right and deflect the ball; I loved him at this moment like no one else, that person who later wanted to sit in parliament for the right-wing Freedom Party.


Man, was I ashamed for him! Wanting to sit there in the middle of that degenerate bunch who can't see any farther than Austria's borders, applauding the most vulgar speeches and pursing his thin lips. He was always a fine talker, they never called him a redneck, he was someone, they said, who had something upstairs. Something, maybe, but what? How could that guy be that other guy? He'd probably sung along to the national anthem too sincerely too often.


I wasn't entirely sober that evening. At the half-time break, I fetched a bottle of beer, but there wasn't any half-time break, not with a rerun, and on my couch, I saw everything again, and different from the way I carry it around in my head. Who would be watching this game at this hour? Unemployed people? Students? Freelancers? Athletes with no discipline? Seedy bachelors? And because it was never enough for me to hit just one of the goal nets, because I didn't want to play favorites, in the sixty-third minute I chipped the ball from the inside left past the goalkeeper into the right corner, maybe not the prettiest goal ever, but one you can only shoot if you want to score at any cost.


All at once everyone was roaring my name, like they wanted to adopt me or something, fifty-five thousand people who hadn't chanted my name at roll call, but tried to bury it under catcalls and boos, fifty-five thousand were cheering for me, as if they were the ones raking in the goal bonus — except for the four thousand East Germans, who had come to the Prater in busses, trains, Trabants, and Wartburgs, and were surprised that in Vienna they weren't getting any welcome money. For the first time, they'd been allowed to leave their workers' and farmers' paradise without restrictions. Through back channels, the players had been negotiating for a long time with West German clubs, but the fact that they'd lost to eleven Austrians — that was the nail in the coffin, the death blow, the beacon. The wall had fallen not a week earlier, the East German state was still standing, but now, on the evening of the fifteenth of November, it was hopelessly lost.


And now everyone was cheering for me? The guy they'd just as soon have issued an entry ban to, at least for those days when the national team was playing? "Córdoba," they say in the country that only loved me when it could reclaim me for itself, and ominously click their tongues. But this unimportant game won't ease their inferiority complex. What is a victory against the Federal Republic of Germany, which couldn't keep Austria in the tournament, compared to shooting down a whole country? Who'd want to live in a country that loses to Austria after ninety minutes?


While those forty thousand were deciding whether they should even go back to Berlin, Dresden, or Leipzig, whether after this disgrace they could ever show their faces again in Rostock, Karl-Marx-Stadt, or Frankfurt an der Oder, I saw the other fifty-one thousand in the stands storming down toward the field, an avalanche, a mass of people, a human steamroller that wanted to get as close as possible to the pitch so they could roar my name again and again, the name they hated just sixty-three minutes ago. I showed them what I thought of that, briefly, but emphatically.


Go ahead and despair about your lives and envy me for mine, I thought again and again, in your heads you score every goal, in your drunkenness you know how to win every game, at the hot-dog stand you all work out the tactics. Even though whenever I saw or heard that nastiness, I pounded into my head that I couldn't care less — after all, I'd achieved what I set out to achieve, my little bit of freedom, which was huge compared to others — still I had to admit that I was thin-skinned, that I couldn't so easily shake off being not loved, but hated. Can I help it, I thought, whenever I smiled modestly, that you sit in front of the TV with your fat bellies, drinking beer after beer, and never wanted to live the way I do?


Can I help it if once, just once, you'd like to trade places with me on the spot and stand in my shoes anytime at all? Me, too slow? You're already panting on the third step in the stairwell. Me, too stupid? You run after every Pied Piper who comes along. Me, too lazy? You've never dared to take one single step that could have let you disappear completely, at least not consciously. I have a nice life, I'm thankful to God, to my mother, to my father too for all I care, I'm thankful to myself, to chance, to whoever, I'm thankful to be who I am. I love the life I'm living. I doubt any of you can say that.


The choruses of catcalls! The comments about "the snail"! The jokes that I was denounced by the Humane Society because I stood on top of an earthworm for ninety minutes! The caricatures and epithets! The low-class comedians trying to command attention at my cost! Fuck it, I tried to tell myself, better to be hated than ignored.


But I didn't want to develop a thick skin. I didn't want to go through life wearing armor. I didn't want to say: in one ear and out the other, because my brain and the connections in it were what they once called — and still do call — a soul. And then they were blowing the final whistle, and at the same time the Soviet Union had just beaten our rivals from Turkey. In a few months, we'd be traveling to the World Cup in Italy, where I'd started on my way into the bigger world and spent half my income on long-distance calls to Vienna.


On my couch, I heard the commentator's voice break, he was fighting back tears and pointing out that even someone so jaded had a hard time talking about what had happened, and while my teammates were taking a lap around the stadium, thanking the spectators and soaking up the celebration, I disappeared into the locker room. There were no mobile phones, I couldn't call my mother or my girlfriend. I hit the showers.


If I hadn't been so good, I might never have taken the field for Austria again. Even the coach had let himself be led astray by the witch hunt against me, and put me on the bench a few times, which still makes me cast my eyes down in shame. Since then I imagine Hell as the substitutes' bench: while everyone else is allowed to be active and to want something, you're condemned to idly spectating. The others see you're only permitted to watch, and assume, even if they must know better, that you're not good enough to get put in the game. You're not part of the bargain, you don't have a role, maybe you're granted a couple of minutes, and maybe you even start to sweat a little. Hell is other people who see you sitting on the bench.


I had cheers and curses in my ears, and in my nose I had the cold of a November evening long past, when I turned up the water temperature. Something within me was raging and roaring that I'd tried to hide for too long. I brushed my teeth to get rid of the taste of beer. My hair felt different, my body had changed, I started to whistle to distract my mind. Are there any of you, I mumbled, who still pat me on the back now for what I did back then, who didn't wish I'd go to Hell before those three goals? Everything changed from one day to the next? We've seen that before in this country.


The water splashed down on me, I turned it even warmer and soaped up. I played football and didn't give / a glance to any other aim. / I lived, because I had to live / from and for the football game. Where did that come from all of a sudden? I played football like no one else, I had sharp wits and a good imagination, I played nonchalantly, easily, and cheerily, I always played and I never fought. I sang the lines to myself, from time to time I whistled, I'd outwitted the world.


What was in store for someone like me? A life working at a job whose meaningfulness you have to talk yourself into like a sick horse, if things go well. Begging for handouts and standing in agency lines if they don't. I'm not a representative of anything, I'm no shining example, no proof of any kind of opportunity; even if you bring talent, ambition, and tenacity to the game, there's still a trace of luck that can't be erased. I'm one in a million.


A few days earlier I'd read that except for politicians, football players were the most unpopular humans, closely followed by car dealers. To turn off all the debates circling around in my head, I got out of the shower, tied a towel around myself, and booked a flight to the Costa del Sol, not far from Seville. Even if that rowdy American who can't sing or act, but was successful doing both, thinks his song was what brought down the Wall — by finishing off the German Democratic Republic, I rescued Communism. In all modesty: I was very good.


Translated by Geoffrey C. Howes

Clemens Berger

born 1979 in southern Burgenland, Austria, studied philosophy at the University of Vienna. He’s a writer, essayist and playwright. Recent publications: „Und hieb ihm das rechte Ohr ab“ (2009), „Das Streichelinstitut“ (2010), „Ein Versprechen von Gegenwart“ (2013), „Im Jahr des Panda“ (2016),