Merkel – Tsipras Feud Drives Soccer Team to Brothel

Football with Austerity 

Nikos lay on the pitch, trying to regain his wind.  The yellow grass was scratchy on the back of his neck.  The pitch was only watered by rain this season, and it hadn’t rained in days.

“Get up,” the Herakles defender barked at him.  “Get up, you prostitute.”

Nikos stared at the bright blue sky.  He rolled his eyes to the side to get a glimpse of the referee.  The yellow was coming out, or maybe even the red.  It had been a very vicious tackle, and the Herakles player, Tsiriou, was doing nothing to pretend it had been an accident.

“You aren’t hurt, you pink whore.  Get up!”

Some of the young men on the Voukefalas side, like Konstantinous, might have jumped up to answer this insult, but Nikos only smiled back at Tsiriou and waited for justice.  He tasted a hint of blood in his mouth; he must have bitten his tongue a little.

Kontantinous had been a little uncomfortable when the jerseys from their new sponsor arrived.  They were pink and bore the name of a local brothel.  And Nikos’ mother had been scandalized when she first saw the team take the field in pink.  But Nikos had only smiled, the way he was smiling now.  It was the only way he could see to get by.

Six months ago, he had been a high school history teacher.  It was an okay life, fun, but busy, hurrying to practice with the amateur football club after grading papers.  Teaching was a slightly more responsible job than many of the Voukefalas boys had – most of them were delivery drivers and waiters in their early twenties, with grand hopes of being noticed by the pro teams.  Only Yannis, the backup goalie and club manager, was older than Nikos, and even he wasn’t thirty yet.

So, when the cuts came in the school budget, it was young, carefree Nikos that they felt the least bad about firing.  When he went back to his mother’s house the next week, he felt much less young and carefree.  He should go to Germany like his brother, his mother told him.  They paid good money in Germany.  It was no good to explain to her that while the Germans were happy to import surgeons like Euclid, they really had no use for teachers of Greek history.  So she harped on him all the time and he spent as much time as he could practicing soccer and working at his new job as a woodcutter on the property of Konstantinous’ uncle.

Woodcutting was an old job that had become new again when the government put a big tax on heating oil, the one thing they thought nobody could live without.  Instead, everyone cleaned out the chimneys and fireplaces that had once been mostly ornamental, and began burning wood.  Konstantinous’ uncle had some acreage that had by luck and laziness been left fallow and become a woodlot on the outskirts of Larissa.  He started selling firewood and when his sons and Konstantinous could not chop enough wood to keep up with demand, they hired some friends.  Now Nikos and a couple other Voukefalas players did most of the cutting while Konstantinous and his cousins spent the day chasing off people who came to try to cut trees without permission and steal windfall.  Konstantinous had a big ATV.  He flew a Golden Dawn pennant from a whip antenna on the rear rack, and kept a cedar limb cudgel across the handlebars.

Voukefalas had been in next-to-last place all season, and they lost their last game.  Nikos was not himself the next day, scowling at the gnarled spruce as he hacked them down.  Sweaty and covered in dirt and itchy flecks of dry bark, he went back to his mother’s house at the end of the day, carrying his small wages in cash in one pocket, steering his motor scooter with one hand and holding bundle of kindling over his other shoulder.  One of the branches had thorns, and gouged him on every pothole.

“Look what nice visitor you have,” his mother said, as he stepped through the door.
“What has happened to my skinny little Nikos?” laughed Eleni, who was supposed to be his girlfriend all these years.  “This beard and hair, this sweat, these muscles.  You are like a Spartan from the movies.”

Nikos sighed.  He only wanted to be a history teacher, not a big brute like Konstantinous.

He dropped the kindling by the fireplace and shrugged.  “I hadn’t noticed.  I guess it’s the woodcutting.”

“Don’t look so sheepish.  You’re still my little Nikos.  You were always cute, you know, but I have a secret:  sometimes I would see wrestlers, and think, ‘oh, all I will ever have is my skinny little Nikos.’  But now I get a big strong Nikos.  Sexy, sexy.”

His mother smirked until the last bit, but then looked a little sideways at Eleni.  Always it was like this with Eleni.  She spoke her mind.  Their fathers had been grain merchants together, before all the trouble.  They had been friends since childhood.  She was a year older and had been bossing him around as long as he could remember, with that big pretty mouth and that loud but sonorous voice.  It was she who drove the PowerWheels his father ordered for him back when he was rich and they were toddlers.  When they were teens and he had a real car she let him drive but told him where to go.  He followed he instructions smiling that little defeated smile that was always on his face, one turn after another until they ended up among some trees where the road dead ended into the Pineios and she kissed him.  That was when she was twenty and he was nineteen.  Since then, their relationship had not progressed much.

“Still with the football, though,” Eleni sighed.  “Always practicing, no time for your girlfriend.”
“This one,” said his mother said with total sincerity, “I am sure she will marry you as soon as you grow up and stop playing with balls like a little boy.”
Eleni erupted in giggling at the old woman’s unintentional double entendre.
Nikos forced a laugh.
“Have to go,” he said.  “Team meeting.”
Both women frowned.

He didn’t actually know there would be a team meeting.  He only really hoped for a few hours of escape.  Perhaps a couple others would be there, and they could kick the ball around a bit, maybe try out a wicked bender of a penalty shot on Yannis or Manos.  This was before the city had stopped paying to water the field, and he wanted to feel the slick green wetness of it on his shoes, shake out his aching muscles, see the panels of the ball glistening in the low sun, and breathe cool wet air until dusk.

But it was not to be.  His lie to Eleni and his mother came unintentionally true.  Yannis waved to him from the little clubhouse as soon as he pulled his scooter into the lot.  The whole team was there.  They were wearing street clothes and had their hair all gelled and combed.

“Did you get my message?” yelled Yannis.  “You didn’t pick up.”
“My phone broke last week.  No money to buy a new one.”
“Idiot left it lying on a rock during lunch,” said Konstantinous.  “My little cousin Alexis didn’t see it and ran over it with a four wheeler.”
Nikos secretly disputed the part about Alexis not seeing it.
“That sucks,” said Yannis, like an American.  He was a travel agent and used to get himself good deals to New York and the Grand Canyon all the time.  Back when he had lots of money, he had often seemed like a bit of a loudmouth asshole, buying drinks for the team only to show how successful he was.  But his money was mostly gone now, and his generosity was not.

“Is your plan still active?” he asked.
“I think so.”
“Cool.  I have a phone that used to be for my business, but I can’t afford a second line anymore.  I’ll give it to you and you can swap the SIM card out of your broken one.”  Then, louder, to the rest of the team:

“I’m sorry I have to tell you this my friends.  But I think you all know that this club is supposed to be partly funded by the athletic federation, and partly by sponsors, and that this season, the federation didn’t give us any money and the only sponsor was my travel agency.  And my travel agency is not doing so hot.  Nobody can afford vacations anymore.  In fact, this week, I had to decide between sponsoring us next season and firing my secretary.  I chose not to fire Ekaterini, because, let’s face it, she has nicer tits than any of you.”

The team made some raucous noises about Ekaterini’s tits, just to be polite.  But the joke could not cover the bad news.

“We’re amateur anyway,” said young Vassilios.  “It’s not like you pay us.”

“But there’s uniforms to buy, and bus fare to our games, and upkeep on our pitch and locker room, and fees for referees.  It takes about ten thousand euro a season to run the team.”

“Oh.”

“I am looking for a new sponsor for us.  But to be honest, things don’t look good.  So tonight might be goodbye.  I hope all of you wait a bit to see what I can pull together, but, if you want to go over to Sagittarius or Fearless, I don’t blame you.  Just not those bastards Herakles.  But anyway, tonight, there is about three hundred euro left in the team fund for this year, and we are going to use it to party!”

The team cheered.

Nikos was caught out a little.  Yannis must have told everyone else to dress nice over the phone.  Konstantinous was all done up in a gaudy Italian silk shirt and jeans that were way too tight on his meaty thighs.  The team piled into the cars that a few of them still owned.  Nikos asked where they were going first and promised to catch up.  He went into the little clubhouse locker room and showered and found some clothes in his locker.  They weren’t really going-out clothes, and they smelled like the locker room, but they would have to do.  He knew the combination for Panagios’ locker, and doused himself with some cologne he found there, some horrible Turkish shit.  Oh well.  You do what you can.  His smile, gone all day, came back just a little.
He found the team at a bar.  “There, you are, finally, schoolmaster,” shouted Konstantinous.  He was very drunk, as were most of them.  Nikos could never believe how fast people seemed to get drunk when one hadn’t had a drink yet oneself.  They were having fun, but the bar was a sad place.  The owner was tending bar himself while his wife waited in vain to serve tables.  Their children, back in the corner, were the only people eating dinner.  Ragged men came in, downed shots of cheap Russian vodka, and were turned away when they no longer had cash in hand.  Bottles of good local wine sat untouched on the shelf behind the bar.  They didn’t get you drunk enough for the price.

“You’re missing all the fun,” yelled Konstantinous in his face.  “I’m going to seduce that beautiful thing at the end of the bar.”

“She looks homeless and old enough to be your mother,” said Nikos.

“Shit, you’re sober so you’re probably right.  Here, catch up old man.”

Some rot-gut Russian stuff was presented to him and he drank it.  And then some more.  It burnt like throwing up.

“You should go and say hello to that beautiful thing at the end of the bar,” Konstantinous bellowed at him.

Nikos squinted down at her.  “I can never talk to beautiful women, you know.”  The words were harder to pronounce than he expected them to be.  It hadn’t seemed like much.  But he’d had only one sandwich for lunch, and was thirsty all day.  The alcohol was firey and pure in his gut.  “I’ve had the same girlfriend all my life, you know.  No practice with the talking.  I can’t, with the beautiful ladies.

Konstantinous guffawed and slapped him hard on the back.  He almost vomited.  “But that’s the thing, Nikos!  She isn’t beautiful.  She’s old and ugly.  You said so yourself just a moment ago.”

“Shit.  It was more than a moment ago.”

“Yannis!” yelled the big defenseman.  “We need to go someplace else.  There are no beautiful women here.”

“None of the bars have beautiful women anymore,” said someone, sweating drunk and almost crying.

“House of History does!” yelled Konstantinous.

“That’s not a bar, it’s a brothel,” said Yannis.

“But you owe me,” moaned Konstantinous.  “If there’s no football next year, you owe me.  I won’t get any if there’s no football.  Girls only want to sleep with me when I play good football.  Last year, did you know, when I scored the two goals in one game – ”

“We all know,” growled Nikos, “And it was more like three years ago.”

“When I scored the two goals in one game, I had two girls in one night!”

“At the same time?” gasped young Vassilios, who hadn’t joined the team until after the peak of Konstantinous’ bragging about the incident.

“Yes!  Well, not really.  One after the game and a different one after dinner.  But there is no chance for that this year, because Yannis is cancelling the team.  Yannis must buy me two girls!”

“Okay,” said Yannis.  “Whores on me.  Who is going?”

“With only three hundred euros?” whispered Nikos to him.

“There never was any three hundred euros,” he whispered back.  “It’s on me.  I just wanted to give the boys a good time to remember.”

Most of the team had girlfriends they didn’t want to lose, and said goodnight for the evening.  Nikos began to leave too.

“Where are you going, schoolmaster?”  Konstantinous’ heavy hand was on his shoulder.  “You should come too.”

“I have a girlfriend.”

“You have girl who likes to go around town telling people her man used to be a football star.  Used to be.  And you never go out with her anymore.  And I bet when you do she never lets you anywhere near her pussy.  She doesn’t respect you my friend.  She doesn’t respect that you are a still a football star, and she doesn’t respect your dick.  Don’t pretend I am stupid about these things, old man.  I grew up in your footsteps, on the same street.  I used to try to tag along with you and Eleni, but she said I was too small.  I know these things.  Nikos, you are my friend and I love you.”

“You’re drunk,” said Nikos, “And none of that is true.”  But he went with them to the brothel anyway.

The last few shots of rot-gut didn’t really hit bottom until Nikos was crammed into the back seat of someone’s tiny, rattling Renault.  The streets were a blur of nauseating turns.  They got out beside a dimly lit house and hustled inside.  The lighting was low and warm, limning the outside curves of girls’ thighs and breasts and jawlines.  Konstantinous was loud.  Georgios was trying to act cool.  Vassilios’ eyes were wide and white.  Yannis was being charming to someone, though Nikos couldn’t tell who, or why, for that matter, as his friend forked over bill after bill.

“Why on earth would he pretend to seduce anyone here?” he asked aloud.
“Because it’s polite,” said the girl whose soft little hand was drawing him down a night-lit hallway.  “Because if you do that, then we can pretend like we are impressed by it, and then you will feel like we want you, and that you aren’t just an asshole.”

He felt he should dispute this in some way, but in the near dark, he could just make out the way her black hair was gathered up away from the glowing nape of her neck, with a few stray ringlets bouncing, bouncing near the backs of her earlobes.  A sheer negligee hung just below her shoulder blades, and its lower hem bounced in time with her locks and her walk, the left and then the right curve of her bottom eclipsed and then revealed.

They were in a little room, candle-lit and he was on his back on the bed.  She was drawing the negligee up over her head.

He woke up suddenly, and looked around terrified, ready to be embarrassed.  But he must only have nodded for a second, because she hadn’t noticed.  She sashayed up along the side of the bed, breasts bare and round, belly and hips and thighs a wonderful smooth ellipse whose upper focus was the triangle front of her thong. He felt much more alert after his split-second nap, and became aware of a smell, like gym socks mixed with rubbing alcohol and some sick sweet dead thing.  It was him!  The clothes from his locker!  The awful scent pilfered from Panagios!

He scrambled with the shirt-front buttons as she moved in gracefully.  Maybe she didn’t smell it.  Maybe she was too professional to care.  She was up on the bed; she had him straddled and was working on his pants.  White thighs plunged into the mattress on either side of his ribcage, supporting wonderful hips.  Her face was round like a china doll’s, her long eyelashes were turned down, and curls of onyx hair were piled on her head and spilling down her brow and temples.

The lashes fluttered up, and she looked at him, just as he got free of the shirt.

“Oh,” she said, and brushed light fingers from his breastbone down his abdomen.  “Mr Koliomos, I never thought…”

“Mister What?!”  He was entirely awake now.

“Nothing!” she gasped.

“You called me by my last name.”

“It was on your credit card.”

“I don’t have a credit card anymore, and anyway, it was Yannis who paid.

She slouched back, soft bottom on his thighs.  “Ok, ok.  This is going to sound weird.  You were my teacher for Greek History in high school.”

“What?  You’re underage? Get off of me.”

“I’m not underage.  I’m twenty-three. I’ve been doing this for – long enough.”  But she got off his legs anyway, and sat with her shins tucked under her on the foot of the bed.  She continued:  “It was five years ago.  People said it was your first year teaching.  You were so cute.  With your little stubble beard and your flashing eyes, and all slim with a nice butt.  And you were so excited about everything. You know – all that history.  The Ancient times, the Hellenes, the Byzantines, the Turks.  God, I don’t even remember all that anymore, but I wanted back then so badly to know it all so that you would like me.  And you were a footballer.  Most of the girls in school liked boys on the school team.  But you were on Vokefalas, in the best amateur league, and winning all the time.  You would have kicked the school team’s ass.  And of course some of the girls had crushes on the players in the Super-League, but really, that’s not realistic.  Those guys are rich and famous and mostly over thirty.  Might as well have a crush on an American movie star.  But you, you were right there.  We used to go to all your games, me and a couple other girls.  And we would cheer for you so hard, and hope you would notice, but you never did.  So I recognized you tonight, and when your friend said you were too drunk to pick, I said I’d take care of you.  Were all those guys from your team?”

“This is too weird.  Plus I have a girlfriend.”  Nikos sat up.

“That same girl who used to just march up to you and kiss you after every game?  I used to watch her.  She always sat next to the same potato-faced old woman.  Was that her mother?  Women always get old like their mothers.”

“That was my mother.”

“Oh.”  She looked down and back at one of her dainty toes.

“This is too weird,” he repeated.  “I have to get out of here.  How in the hell did I end up in a brothel anyway?”

“Fuck you,” she said, suddenly scowling.  “How the hell did I end up in a brothel?”

“It’s a legal profession,” he said carefully, reaching for his malodorous shirt.

“But nobody treats it like that!  What would your bitch of a girlfriend think if she knew you were here?  What do you think?  Do you think I sat in that class of yours all year learning history so that it would make me a more successful prostitute?  Do you think I dreamed of this? 
I wanted to go to college.  I wanted to be a goddamn veterinarian!  But everything went to shit on me, just like it went to shit on everybody.  Not everyone gets a steady job like teaching.”

“I’m sorry,” he said.  “I wasn’t thinking.  And teaching isn’t a steady job.  I was laid off.  I chop firewood now.  All day, every day.  Like a peasant in the ancient times.”

Her expression softened a little.  “It’s bad for everyone now.  You just have to survive it any way you can.  You chop wood, I do this.  Times will get better somehow.  And tonight, that handsome friend of yours paid for you to get laid.  Survive it.” She smiled a crooked smile, “Otherwise, I’ll feel like I’m bad at my chosen career.”

“Sure? Or are you just trying to pretend I’m not an asshole.”

“No, no really, you’re way better looking than most of them we get in here, even if you do smell funny.  Plus, you have awesome abs.  Back when I used to daydream about you and only saw you with a shirt on, I always had this nagging worry that you didn’t have good abs.”

“I didn’t used to.  It’s all the woodcutting.”

“It’s a nice surprise.  That’s why I said ‘Mr Koliomos’ a minute ago.”

She was crawling back up his legs.

“Getting weird again.  I’m not a teacher anymore.  My first name is Nikos.  Let’s stick with that from now on, yeah?”

“Ok Mr Nikos.  My name is Maria, if you don’t remember.  Ah, there it is, that cute sad little smile!”

She was gone when he woke up.  Everyone seemed to be gone as he pulled on his pants and ventured into the hall.  The dimness had changed to dinginess somehow, and where once the sounds of the place blended into a quiet hum of life, now he could hear every floorboard creak under his feet.  But there were low voices coming from the front of the building.  Once his shirt was on he emerged into the parlor.  Yannis was sitting in an armchair, his handsome face smudged dark under the eyes.  In the armchair beside him sat a trim old woman in a business suit and tie, with white hair trimmed close to her precocious skull.  An animated but hushed conversation between them ended as they saw him.

“Morning Nikos,” said Yannis, more brightly than he looked.

“Morning?”

“Only technically.  The sun is nowhere near up, but it’s way past midnight.  Did you sleep well?”

“We’re supposed to throw out the sleepers,” said the white haired woman. “But your friend said you are really a nice boy, and we should let you rest.”

“Besides,” said Yannis, “We’ve been having a great conversation here waiting for you.”

“Once again, despite my rules,” she sighed.  “Normally, I’d never allow a man to hang around like this without buying a girl, but you did buy six for your friends, so I can make an exception I suppose.  Besides, you’re a nice boy too.”

“The others?”

“Long gone.  Are you feeling drunk at all, anymore?”

“Just hung over.”

“You left your scooter at the first bar, right? And came in Georgios’ car?”

“I think so.”

“I’ll drive you over there.  Let’s go.”

Nikos made it to the woodlot in the morning, barely.  Konstantinous did not, but then, he was the boss’ nephew.  Nikos’ head rang with every blow of the axe, his mouth felt stuffed with cotton, and he threw up precisely at ten a.m.  But he could feel himself smiling his old smile.  He felt like a survivor, like Maria.

The day melted into the next, and many more.  They were all hot and uncomfortable with nothing notable but the struggle of living.  He smiled a lot though, during the day, while thinking of Maria.  In the evenings he was sad, and began trying to avoid Eleni.  Sometimes he went to the yellowing football pitch and kicked a ball around by himself, working on his shot, his specialty.  Sometimes he just wandered around town after work so he wouldn’t be home when she went to look for him.  He didn’t want to be with her, but “breaking up” seemed like too strong and sad a term for ending the odd little relationship they had.  That hour with Maria had made him feel better than anything he’d ever felt with Eleni.  And he wasn’t even sure it was real.  Maybe she had just been good at her job.  He wanted to be with her again though.  He thought of her all the time.  He rode his scooter past the brothel sometimes.  But he never had any money, and he hadn’t the slightest idea how much he would have to save up.  Yannis had paid, after all.  What was he supposed to do?  Walk in there with two euros rubbing together and ask the white-haired woman how much was enough?  He wondered perhaps if he could find Maria somewhere else.  But was it okay to just ask a prostitute on a date?  Was that like cornering a doctor after dinner and asking for medical advice?  His brother always hated when people did that.  He would daydream about it though: about kissing her in daylight.  When the daydream went farthest from reality the thumping of his axe would fall distant and the strokes would become only the metronome of their imagined lovemaking and his sunburnt lips would smile.  And so it went for months.

Then one day his phone, the old one Yannis had given him, rang.

They all gathered down at the field in the evening.  Yannis was beaming.

“We have a new sponsor!” he shouted.  They’ve bought us jerseys and I’ve got us signed up for the new season just in time.  He opened a cardboard box and began tossing silky pullovers at the team.

“Why are they pink?” asked Konstantinous.  He unfolded one.  With a furrowed brow: “And why do they have the name of a brothel on them?”

“That is our new sponsor,” said Yannis

Most of the boys laughed.

“We can’t be sponsored by a brothel,” rumbled Konstantinous.

“It’s the same brothel I took you to after the party at the end of last season,” said Yannis.  “Did you have a problem with one of the girls?”

“I just mean, it’s not good.  It’s one thing for a few men to cut loose one evening, but it’s another to make a show of it.  I can’t wear this thing and play in front of fans.  I am a member of the Golden Dawn.  They don’t support this licentiousness.  What will my little cousins think?  What questions will they ask me and their father?  They come to every game!”

“It’s the best I can do, dammit,” snapped Yannis, finally at the end of his rope.  “I put out an ad, and the madam is the only one who responded.  The only one.  And she’s really a very nice woman.  I spoke with her a lot that night I paid two of her employees to fuck you.  She remembered me when she saw the ad, and she called me up.  She only wants to help.  She tells me she tried to give some money to the schools and they wouldn’t take it.  It makes her sad.  So I say we are going to let her help us, and be grateful for it.  If you don’t like it you can walk.”

Konstantinous just looked at the pink jersey and grunted.

“Now,” said Yannis, “We have some actual problems to talk about.  Vassilios is gone up to the pros, so Nikos, you are starting at striker again.”

“The pros?  That kid was good, but…”

“But AEL is having their own money troubles.  The kid was cheap, is what he was.  And so were two other young mids from Sagittarius.  I heard AEL is not renewing contracts on three of their older guys.  So anyway, before I had the new sponsor, Kostas and Petros joined Sagittarius to fill their holes.  Plus, Manos isn’t at starting goalie anymore.  He went to America to drive a taxi in Manhattan.  So we’re going to try my cousin Antonis in goal, and I will still be backup.  I haven’t found any replacements at mid yet.  Let me know if you know anyone.”

The team trotted out onto the yellowed grass of the pitch.

“Nikos,” called Yannis, “Warm up Antonis, but don’t kill him.”

“I’m not scared,” said the kid, heading toward the goal and putting on an old pair of Yannis’ keeper gloves.

“Of that old schoolmaster?” jeered Konstantinous.

“I’m twenty seven,” said Nikos.  “You’re twenty six.  Don’t act like there’s a difference.”

“You’re both ancient to me,” yelled the kid from the goal.  “I think Nikos taught my brother in school.”

“There’s more than one reason I call him schoolmaster,” roared Konstantinous. “He’s got a bender that will teach you humility.”

Nikos took a step and blasted one at Antonis, a wicked thing that rocketed straight for his face and then suddenly slid left just inside the post.

“Shit,” said the kid, picking himself up.  But he hadn’t flinched, and he’d dove the right way.  Nobody could have stopped it, standing there flat-footed on the goal line for a penalty shot.  If it was during a real play, and he’d come out to cut the angle, he probably would have caught it.    The kid was pretty good.  Maybe things would be okay.

Three weeks later, for their first game, things were not okay.  The new mids were no good, and Georgios and Konstantinous back on defense seemed slow and out of shape.  Antonis made some good stops, but was getting shelled and threw a wild tantrum at the refs and his own defensemen after Olympus scored their second goal thirty minutes in.  Yannis relieved him, and was scored on twice himself, but took it in stride.  The game ended four to nil, but the problems were only beginning.

A man in a suit came to the bench and tapped a dejected Yannis on the shoulder.  He was from the Federation and said that there had been complaints, and the pink jerseys advertising a brothel could not be worn at the next game.

“The fuck!” said Yannis, like an American.  “It’s a perfectly legal business.”

“But it isn’t a good image for amateur sport, and obviously the association with it is already making you less polite,” said the official.

“What about all the players in the Super-League?” snarled Yannis.  “The whole thing is sponsored by a gambling company!  Are they all being impolite because of it?  Which vices are allowed to sponsor sports, and which are not?”

Nikos was interested to hear what would come next.  Yannis didn’t get mad often, but when he did, there were fireworks.  But someone tugged on his own shoulder.  There was Eleni.

He felt bad.  Her kiss after the game.  How could he tell her?  It would feel so empty.

Instead she slapped him.

“Sponsored by a brothel?  Your poor mother went home in shame at the half!  Why didn’t you tell her?  She could have at least sat in the visitor stands instead.  Why didn’t you tell me?  I think you have been avoiding me, Nikos.  What is going on?”

“I’ve just been, I don’t know.  I’m poor now Eleni.  I can’t take you on dates anymore.”

“Dates?  Grow up!  We are way past dates.  We are a couple.  You have to speak to me regularly.  I have to speak to you.  But you hide from me.  It has nothing to do with dates.”

“Okay, I’m sorry.  What did you want to speak about?”

“I have job in Turkey.  I want you to come along.”

“In Turkey?”

“Yes.  There is a company there that wants to start importing more Greek produce, from here in Thessaly, now that the prices have got so low.  You should come too.  You could teach again, instead of chopping wood.”

“Teach?  Teach what?  Greek History?  The Turks are the bad guys for hundreds of years of history lessons.  They murdered us! They enslaved us!”

“No, you idiot.  Teach Greek language.  There will be a market for it there.  If we leave the EU, they’ll become an even bigger trade partner for us.”

“I can’t Eleni, I just can’t.”

“You never could.  Anything.”

She stalked off.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” was all he could think to call after her.  He thought of some better things as he trudged toward his scooter, but it was too late.

Turning on his scooter and pointing it toward the road, he saw a figure leaning against the gate.  It was Maria.  Her face was blank.  Why did she have to see him like this?  Losing four-nil, tired, grass-stained, slapped and shouted down by his girlfriend.  Better to act like he didn’t see her at all.  But he couldn’t not look.  She was too cute, standing there in a pink hoodie and miniskirt and tight black leggings.  He’d seen her, up in the stands, sitting beside the team’s new sponsor, cheering the handful of good plays the team had made.

As he putted forward she turned away and pulled up the hood of her sweatshirt for some reason.  She pulled on the drawstrings and cinched the hood until it covered her mouth and scrunched her nose.  Dark curls stuck out beside her eyes.  It was a silly, childish gesture that grabbed his heart somehow, and thumped it in his chest.

“Hey Maria,” he said.

She just stared at him.

“How have you been?” he asked.

“Why don’t you ever come by and find out?” she asked, voice muffled by the hood.

“I never have any money.”

“You could have come by when I get off.”

“Is that okay?  I always wanted to, but I was never sure.  I just thought, you know, my brother is a surgeon and he always hates it when people ask him medical questions at parties.”

“What does that have to do with anything?  You could come by.  It’s not like I’m a slave or something.  It’s just a job.  I could have a boyfriend if I wanted.”

“I will then.”

“You won’t.  You almost didn’t even stop and say hello just now.  I saw it in your eyes.”

“No Maria, I really like you.  You’re the cutest thing I’ve ever seen.  It’s just that we lost four to nothing, and my girlfriend just left me for Turkey and I didn’t want to come to you as a loser.”

She let the strings of the hood go, and her springy hair pushed it back away from her face.  It was like a flower blooming.

“It was more fun to watch when Voukefalas always used to win and you always used to score lots of goals,” she smiled. “But that’s not why I like you.”

“It was a very different team five years ago.  We had that winger, the Serbian kid Djerovic.”

“With the huge adam’s apple?  I remember him.  He was really ugly.”

“He was really good.  An incredible passer with great vision.  It was all him.  He would set up the play and I would just put it in the net for him.  He’s in the English Premiere League now.  And then there was Politirous, at mid.  He should have gone pro too, but he was too quiet and nobody noticed him.  Last year he broke his leg without medical insurance, and got it splinted up by someone who didn’t know how to do it.  He walks with a cane now.”

“I don’t care about Politirous.  And maybe when I was a kid, I liked you better when you won.  But now I like you because you keep trying.  And you still have a nice butt.”

“Yours has been coming to me in dreams for the last month.  Want to go, I don’t know, somewhere?”

“Sure.” She swung onto the back of the scooter, wrapped her arms around his chest and hugged his ribs between her thighs.

They ended up at woodlot where he worked, and crept in among the scrubby trees.  Nikos heard the snarl of an ATV.

“Shit,” he whispered.  “Konstantinous.  I forgot.  Whenever we lost, last year, he liked to come out here and find the people pilfering deadfall and beat them up.”

“He won’t beat you up though?  He’s your buddy, right?  The big one who swears so loud when the play goes badly?”

“I wouldn’t call him a buddy.  Co-worker, and teammate for years.  And no, he won’t beat me up.  But he will hang around and be an awkward nuisance.”

So they crouched together under a shrub trying not to laugh and waited while Konstantinous gunned his 4-wheeler back and forth, shouting obscenities at imaginary firewood thieves.

It was so much fun, they did it again after the next game, when Nikos had scored a goal, and was in good spirits despite another loss.  And then after several more.  Eventually, Yannis sweet-talked the right person at the Federation office and Voukefalas was allowed to wear their pink jerseys again, instead of t-shirts with numbers written in marker on the back.  The got a tie in the new kit and Konstantinous did not come out to the woodlot afterwards.  Nikos and Maria almost missed his roaring and the funny thrill of hiding from him during foreplay.

And then it was the game against Herakles, with Tsiriou and that whole gang of brutes.  Konstantinous was livid the entire match.  His ears were brilliant red and the thick bands of muscle in his neck were cranked tight.  It was one to one in the seventy-fifth minute and the big defender broke up a play in the Voukefalas zone, and booted the ball in a high arc down the field, screaming a taunt at the Herakles striker whose gambit had failed.

It wasn’t a smart play, but it was a safe one.  The ball was in the air for a minute or more, hanging in the blue sky.  Panagios, on the right wing, had plenty of time to run it down without going offside, but the Herakles left defender had plenty of time to run him down in turn.  Panagios was looking for the cross, and Nikos was coming up the middle.  The play was too obvious to work.

“He can’t shoot from there,” the goalie was screaming, cheating out toward Nikos already.  “Cover the striker!  Koliomos is the one that drilled me last time!”

Panagios  got the cross off, past the left back, but Nikos saw it was too late.  The goalie had the angle and big Tsiriou was bearing down on him, and would be there at the same time as the ball.  Nikos waited, figuring he might fade off to the left instead of shooting.  Perhaps he could draw Tsiriou with him and then cross back to Panagios.  The ball reached his boot, and he began to turn.

Instead he was hit by something that felt like a bus.  It jarred his bones and hurt before he even hit the ground.  And there was Tsiriou over him, a triumphant idiot.  The play would never have worked, but the rules were clear.  Nikos had been fouled while in possession of ball at the top of the eighteen, with a clear shot on the goalie.

“Get up,” Tsiriou snarled.   “Get up, you prostitute.”

Nikos waited until the ref held up the card.  The other Herakles defenseman bent to give him a hand up, cursing his own teammate under his breath.  Nikos was smiling.  Down but not out.  The penalty kick was a sure thing.  He would take a hit like that to win the game every time, if he could be so lucky.  He got up wiggled his aching jaw and dusted the dead dry grass off his butt.  He waved to Maria.