Boniek vs Brady. A short story by Carlo Popplewell

It was officially the end of Week 3, though by then I was in my own Week 5. Although still early April, summer had flashed us a tantalising glimpse of her inner thigh, soaring temperatures bringing us giddily to the balconies, gardens and front doorsteps of Dublin, cans raised in solitary toasts to the odd world we now occupied.

The sun had begun to set as I disconnected from an evening Zoom drink with friends, technology lending a Covidian respectability to drinking alone. I was gathering up the empty cans I had left rolling around when I heard the voices coming from the street below. Living above a laneway in the city centre this was not a particularly uncommon occurrence. But while in the previous life their presence would have been a mild annoyance shut out as soon as I closed the balcony door, I now found myself lingering outside, drawn to their conversation.

“Boniek win Champions, win Third at World Cup, win Serie A. Brady? What do Brady win?”
“Ah fuck off pal. Brady won two Serie As. And the FA Cup. Did your Boner lad ever win the FA Cup, did he?”
“FA Cup. FA Cup is nothing. Is shit. If Brady better, why Juventus sell and keep Zibi?”
“Because Trapattoni was a fucking moron who hates Irish people.”

Glancing over the edge, I could now see the source of this heated debate on the Juventus team of the early 1980s. The man in Zibi Boniek’s corner had square shoulders that matched an even squarer jawline. He patriotically clutched a can of Karpackie in his right hand, his left engaged in wild gesticulation. The man making the case for Liam Brady was of a notably wirier build. Seeing his matted, grey beard I could not help but think of Gandalf, his trusty staff replaced by a 2 litre bottle of Scrumpy Jack.

I would generally classify myself as deceptively shy, and certainly not prone to initiating or interjecting in conversations with strangers. However over the previous few weeks I had become increasingly aware of a need to engage in small talk. The self-service till in Tesco was passed over for the cashier. The first comment on the weather would come from me, not from my elderly neighbour. Lubricated by the several beers I had consumed, that I should choose to engage these two homeless people in conversation from my third floor balcony was therefore perhaps not so surprising.

“If it wasn’t for that cunt Platini, they could have both played. But fuck Juve anyway.”
Neither man seemed put out by the interjection from the forehead peering down at them. Instead, they sipped from their drinks in uncoordinated unison before Boniek replied.
“Platini was good player, very good player. Best in world. But French. So asshole.”
“Good player, not a great player,” grinned Brady, “Good player Bill, not a great player.”
“Great player. But great asshole.”
“He’s never heard of Eamon Dunphy, the Polish fuck,” Brady said, looking up at me conspiratorially.

As I reeled off a few of my own favourite Dunphy lines, he crossed the street to allow himself a view of my entire face.
“You know I saw Dunphy over in Italy. Palermo it was, Holland match.”
“You were at Italia 90?” a poorly disguised note of surprise in my voice.
“Well I haven’t always been a bum sleeping around Camden Street, if that’s what you’re getting at. I was making steady money, loved football and loved booze. I wasn’t going to miss it. Myself and a few boys did all the group games.”
“Not the Romania game?”
“I wanted to, but the funds had gone. And my liver was going too at that point. But in Palermo we saw Dunphy with his fecking perm on him and gave him dog’s abuse. Called us a bunch of drunks. A bit rich from him, though I suppose he wasn’t wrong.”
“How was it?”
“You heard all the stories of it, seen the videos, yeah? Well it was even better than that. I don’t think your generation understand what it means to be proud of your country, because you don’t need to be. To be proud you have to know what it feels like to be a piece of shit. And when suddenly you’re not a piece of shit of anymore, that’s when you’re proud.”

Boniek had been supping pensively on his can, the references to Ireland’s foremost football pundit clearly lost on him, but now he finally spoke.
“July 1982 Poland play World Cup Semi-Final in Barcelona. Semi-Final! We have incredible team. 15 years old and I watch game in Poznan square with all of city. We lose Italy 2–0. Paolo Rossi, cheat, score both goals. But that day Poland change. We change, after getting fucked by Nazis, fucked by Russia. Now Poland plays where we belong. In third place game we play France. Platini against Boniek. And we win. 3–2. Platini say after game is not important for him, only third place. Not important? We know that day we are something special. We can not be fucked by Russia and Soviets, by Communists, by anyone. That day we become free. And I watch when 15 and I say I will go to Barcelona. To France. To Germany. And tell them about Poland.”
“And to Dublin?” offered Brady.
“Fucking Dublin,” he replied, drinking long and hard from his can.

Darkness had by this point set in, bringing with it the insidious chill of a clear spring night, but still I could not pull myself off the balcony. I was suddenly aware of the role reversal in which we now found ourselves. Community belonged to these two men down below. The streets were theirs, and I was the disruptive presence. I was on the margins of their world, in which human connection was not restricted to the green dot stream of my laptop. It’s important I state this, because I want it to be clear that what I did next was not motivated by any humanitarian or altruistic instinct. It was not empathy that prompted me to invite them inside but instead a purely selfish act.

We spent the next few hours watching Youtube clips of our favourite players. There was (the real) Boniek’s hat-trick against Belgium in 82 and Ray Houghton in both Stuttgart and New York. A brief discussion on matters of global migration was triggered by an Emanuel Olisadebe compilation, while both Brady and myself were moved to tears as Sonia broke clear of Ribeiro in Gothenburg. That was followed by the entirety of Robert Sycz and Tomasz Kucharski’s lightweight sculls success in Sydney 2000, roared across the line by all three of us to the doubtless consternation of my neighbours.
It was well-past midnight and once we had exhausted my supply of spirits that they left. My memory by then was hazy, though I vaguely recall being on my third attempt at explaining why Ireland should have won the World Cup in 2002. What I do clearly remember is that there was no expectation for our arrangement to be anything more than what it was. They did not ask me for me money; I did not offer them blankets, food or a place to stay. We simply drank and watched videos and called it a night when we ran out of both.

8 weeks passed before I saw their faces again. The Irish Times had compiled the names and images of all those who had passed away, the centre-piece of a particularly sombre Saturday supplement. Janusz Kubica and Ronnie Coughlan appeared side-by-side, having died within two days of each other. I myself had received the results of my antibody test a few days previously, the oddly reassuring positive diagnosis confirming that I had contracted a barely noticeable strain myself at some point.

The antibody test could not pinpoint a date and so ultimately I’ll never know when I had it or who I may have passed it on to. They had died 13 and 15 days respectively after that night and at the time had displayed no symptoms that suggested anything more than a smoker’s cough. The streets and shelters gave little option for social distancing, cocooning or any of the other terms we had all grown so familiar with, and there were countless sources from which they could have contracted it. Yet the nagging sense of guilt is one that I suspect will always live with me.

I told the story of that Friday to very few people, and those who I did tell were incredulous at how reckless I had been. I had risked my health, my belongings, my lease, my reputation. But none of them could understand what I had gained, of the benefits to my mind, my soul, my spirit. And that is ultimately what burdens me the most. Every Friday as we flood back to the pubs and restaurants I pause for 5 minutes and load up the same two videos — Boniek and Brady’s greatest moments at Juventus. As I watch them float through space, glide past defenders and bulge top corners the length and breadth of Italy, Curvas erupting in joy and despair, I am overwhelmed by the terrifying paradox that it is to be human.


Write short stories with the odd opinion piece thrown in. Work can be found here.

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