“Me, for example, I’m a left winger, everyone knows that.”–Robert Bolaño, “The Return”
It always seemed to me that the left legged player got a place in a football team for no other reason other than that he was left-legged. In the makeshift fields of my youth, the left winger occupied a forsaken part of the field, with overgrown grass and other debris tossed from the centre of the field. The right leggers had the rest — which is to say the best — of the foot-trodden pitch to themselves.
Chilean-born writer Roberto Bolaño, acting as both witness and participant, doesn’t harbor prejudice against left or right wingers. How could he? He was, after all, right-handed but left-legged, a condition known as laterality or cross-dominance.
In “Caracas Address,” a lecture he gave after being awarded the Romulo Gallegos prize, Bolano began: “When I was little I played soccer. My number was 11, the same number as Pepe and Zagallo in the Sweden World Cup, and I was an enthusiastic but pretty bad player, though my shooting foot was my left foot and the conventional wisdom is that lefties are always useful to have in a match.”
It doesn’t help matters much that the leftie’s right leg is, normally, dead. (“Chocolate leg,” Arsenal fans called Robin van Persie’s habitually useless right leg. Van Persie, to be sure, is an exceptional player.) But imagine the combination of a so-so left foot coupled with a comatose right one getting into the team for no other reason except that he is comfortable on his left foot.
That aside, the left-sided player has the problem of a directional nature. Let’s turn to Bolaño again: ”For example, when the coach said ‘Pass to the right, Bolaño’, I didn’t know where I was supposed to pass the ball. And sometimes, playing on the left side of the field, at the coach’s hoarse voice, I even had to stop and think: left, right. Right was the soccer field, to shoot left was to kick the ball out of bounds towards the few spectators.” Try it with lefties: tell them abruptly, say, while driving, to “turn right” and see how long it takes them to work out which side is their right.
And yet it is the left foot which is fetishised, the recipient of prizes, garlands that start at the ankle reaching up to the waist. In fact all the foot clichés I can readily reel are the one to do with the left foot. The first time I saw the cliché “cultured left foot” was in a piece about Uruguayan genius Alvaro Recoba. Or “trusty left foot” or this somewhat over-the-top praise poem in the Guardian rumour column about which-player-is-going-where: “Arsenal are looking at…Uruguay striker Alvaro Recoba, whose left foot is currently writing a thesis on humour as subversion in the oeuvres of Hungarian émigré poet George Faludy, just to prove exactly how cultured it is.”
Perhaps despite our veneer of acceptance, we are still primitive. It’s not too long since left-handed people were forced-beaten, even to use the right hand. So to hide our prejudice, we couch it as praise. Or perhaps like the superstitious ancients, we are still in awe of the left-legged player, an occurrence that happens once every ten times.
The last words come out of the mouth of the late African novelist, Chinua Achebe.
A passage in Achebe’s magnificent novel, Arrow of God talks about mastering something that you can even do it with your left hand. The colonial administrator has summoned the priest Ezeulu, the novel’s chief protagonist, to his compound. In one of the offices, a young white man held a pen “writing, but with his left hand. The first thought that came to Ezeulu on seeing him was to wonder whether any black man could ever achieve the same mastery over book as to write it with the left hand.”
When Ezeulu is able to go home after a few weeks in detention, he instructs his son Oduche to go the white man’s school. “When I was in Okperi I saw a young white man who was able to write his book with the left hand. From his actions I could see that he had little sense. But he had power; he could shout in my face; he could do what he liked. Why? Because he could write with his left hand. That is why I have called you. I want you to learn and master this man’s knowledge so much that if you are suddenly woken up from sleep and asked what it is you will reply. You must learn it until you can write it with your left hand.”
* This piece is published here with kind permission from the new South African website, The Con.