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Dear nine-year-old Edinson,
I am writing this to the kid that everybody in the neighbourhood calls “Pelado.”
When you were a baby, you didn’t have much hair. It grew in slow. What a shit deal! Nothing you could do about it. So, thanks to the creativity of your family, you were always Pelado.
Well, I am happy to tell you that over the next 20 years, football is going to change your life in many ways. Some good, some not so good. Football will even help you get rid of that nickname. You see, there’s a guy named Gabriel Batistuta. You don’t know him yet, because the only program you have the patience to sit down and watch is Tom and Jerry. Your older brother Nando will be the first one to be inspired by Batistuta. He’ll start refusing to go to the barber. He’ll start using your mum’s conditioner. And eventually, he’ll start looking exactly like the magnificent Batigol. When he’s running on a football pitch, with his long hair held back with a shoelace, it will be the coolest thing you have ever seen.
Eventually, you’ll work up the courage to tell your mother, “No more haircuts.”
You live your life outside, with a ball at your feet. This is the way in South America. You don’t know anything different. What’s inside, anyway? Nothing fun. Nothing interesting. No Playstation. No big television. You don’t even have a hot shower. There’s no heat. In the winter, your heating system is four cozy blankets. When you want to have a bath, you get a water jug and heat it up over the kerosene stove. It’s very important to get the ratio of cold and hot water right. Standing in the bucket, you will learn to be an alchemist.
This is luxury to you, though. Remember the first house? The one with no bathroom? Any time you had to do your business, you had to walk outside to the little shed!
Can I tell you a secret, though? When I think of this memory now, I don’t feel bad at all. For some reason, it fills me with warmth. It gives me courage. It is a beautiful memory.
Don’t worry about what’s inside.
Keep living your life in the sun, Pelado.
What’s the point of having football posters on your wall, anway? Every two or three years, whenever jobs change or your family can’t afford the rent, you’ll have to move to a new place. But you know what’s nice? Every new place, no matter where it’s located, always has a patch of dirt outside. There’s always a ball around. No landlord in the world can take that away from you.
The most important thing in your life right now, if I remember correctly, is The Ice Cream Goal.
The Ice Cream Goal is something magical. I need to speak with someone at PSG about The Ice Cream Goal. It is genius. It is pure motivation. It was the idea of the organizers of the youth league in Salto. How can you keep a bunch of six-year-old kids motivated no matter what the score of the game is?
You make a rule that the kid to score the last goal of the match gets an ice cream.
The score could be 8–1. It doesn’t matter. It is a race against time to be the one to score that final goal. The feeling of hearing the coach blow the whistle when you’ve scored The Ice Cream Goal … incredible. Pure joy. Will you get chocolate? Will you get one of those Mickey Mouse ones? For the whole day, you are the king.
You are not a kid from the capital, that is for sure. The kids from Montevideo live in a different world. This is a world you don’t even know exists yet. A world of Adidas boots and car rides and green grass. In Salto, it’s just different. For some reason, all the kids want to play barefoot. They start every match with their boots on, and by halftime, the boots are all in a pile, and everyone is running barefoot. If I close my eyes, right now, I can still feel the dirt under my feet. I can still feel my heart beating, chasing after the ball, trying to win the ice cream.
You’ll carry these feelings with you for your entire life, because you are from South America. You are from Uruguay. You are from Salto. You live football in a different way. The blessing and the curse for Uruguayans is that we can never relax. It is the history of our football, and the history of our country. When Uruguayans put on their football shirt, they feel the pride of their history.
We always have to go, go, go. And you will go.
What are your dreams, Pelado?
I cannot remember, exactly. Time has made that cloudy.
Is your dream to play in Montevideo, like Nando? You’ll do that, and it will feel like you made it to the Champions League.
Is your dream to play in Europe? You’ll do that, and make enough money to change your family’s life.
Is your dream to play for the national team? You’ll do that, and have experiences that will make you cry tears of joy and tears of sadness.
Is your dream to play in the World Cup? (I won’t spoil that one for you. I will just say the year 2010 will be El Loco.)
Is your dream to make a lot of money and drive nice cars and sleep in fancy hotels? Well, Pelado, you will get all of those things.
But I have to tell you — it’s not necessarily going to make you happy.
What you have right now, at nine years old, is something that I miss very much at 31 years old.
You don’t have a hot shower. You don’t have a dollar in your pocket. Man, you don’t even have cool hair yet.
But you have something else. Something that does not have a price.
You have your freedom.
As a kid, you live life with an intensity and a passion that is impossible as an adult. We try to hold on to that feeling as we get older, but it slips out of our grasp. There are too many responsibilities. Too much pressure. Too much life lived inside.
Do you know what most of your life is now, at 31?
You go from a hotel to a bus to a training ground. Then from a training ground to a bus to a plane. Then from a plane to another bus. Then from a bus to a stadium.
In many ways, you are living a dream. And in many ways, you are a prisoner of that dream. You can’t just go outside and feel the sun. You can’t take your shoes off and play in the dirt. Things will happen that will make your life very complicated. It’s inevitable.
When you’re a child, you have this illusion that the person who is the most successful is the one with the most possessions.
When you grow up, you realize that the person who is the most successful is the one with the wisdom to live life.
When you make it as a professional, you’ll have everything you could ever dream of. And for this you must be extremely, extremely thankful. But I have to be honest with you, Pelado. There is only one place that you can still have total freedom. It lasts about 90 minutes, if you’re lucky.
When you put on your boots … no matter if you’re playing on the dirt in Salto, or on the green grass in Naples, or in front of millions of people at the World Cup … I want you to remember the words of your father.
What does he always tell you, before you go out to play a game?
I know you know the words.
He says, “The moment you cross that white line and go onto the pitch, it’s just football there. Nothing that is going on outside that white line will help you with what’s going on inside. Nothing else exists.”
If you listen to those words, and you really believe them in your soul, then sometimes, even when the pressure is immense, and even when you are playing in front of millions … you will walk out onto the pitch and it will feel as though you’re not even wearing boots.
You will feel the dirt under your bare feet.
You will feel your heart beating out of your chest, and you will chase after the ball, like you are playing for the greatest trophy in the world.
Like you are playing for the ice cream.