Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Soccer is unquestionably the world's game and its legions of fans experience the highs and lows of each game and discuss the team feverishly all week. Some of the biggest stars of today came from humble backgrounds but they have used their skill to create a better life for themselves and their families. The game is not immune to real life concerns however and sadly sometimes politics becomes entwined with sports as occurred recently. Wars have been fought over results in soccer games and people have been killed over the outcome of matches.

In Eugene Yelchin's book Arcady's Goal, the title character lives in a rough camp for orphans in the Soviet Union in 1945. His parents have been deemed enemies of the state and he has been sent to live in a camp, guarded by tough armed guards and under the rule of the despot Butterball who organizes soccer exhibitions for Arcady to show off his skill. It is in one of these exhibitions that Arcady is spotted by an inspector called Ivan Ivanych. To his surprise the inspector returns to the camp with papers to adopt the young boy.

Historical fiction novels can sometimes have gross inaccuracies but I think the fact that the author's father was a Soviet who loved and played soccer gives him some credence. His description of Arcady's fist impressions of Ivanych's house and food is heartbreaking. Arcady convinces his new father of his love for the game and Ivanych agrees to find a team for him if Arcady will agree to learn to read. The first time Arcady plays with boys his age his skill is breathtaking but due to political differences he doesn't play on that team.

Ivanych himself has secrets as Arcady begins to discover. All is not lost however as they learn of a tryout to be held by the Red Army team, on which Arcady's hero, Fedor Bruko plays. A special pass is needed just to go to the tryout however and one thing becomes certain, the tryout is of tremendous importance for both of them. Ivanych has his own reasons for adopting the young kid. Arcady's goal has been transformed from an on field one to an off field one as well.

In the afterword of the book Yelchin gives a personal account of the after effects of the Communist Stalinist regime and the way in which it destroyed generations of families systematically. Relations between the United States and Russia are somewhat frayed now but it is fascinating to learn about this nation's sad past and to see how even today citizens are struggling with the legacy of decisions taken well before they were born. I recommend this book for those aged 11+.

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