Los Cincos y los Diezes
A letter changes the life of a young footballer forever
1. The Letter
We had been waiting six months for that letter, for the day my brother, Juan Carlos, would become the first Caballero to leave. I always thought he’d eventually sign for Instituto, but a scout from FC Huracán had spotted him during a school match and said right there and then that Juan Carlos would be the greatest 5 in Argentina: that’s the defensive midfielder who wears the number 5 shirt and gobbles up all the loose balls. He’s a worker, the one who gives everything for those around him. His jobs are to win the ball from the opposition and to take it from his defenders and move it forward to those more imaginative, and also to block the opposition’s number 10.
The 10 is the magician. The creator. The guy with who is a better player than everyone else. I often wonder about 5s and 10s — that the two most famous positions in the sport that we adore so much should be exact opposites; the only thing we seem to love as much as an artist is the man who can kill his art.
I always thought Juan Carlos should play as a 10, as an enganche who connects the forwards to the midfield. Juan Carlos could have been the ultimate 10: he was blessed with an intelligence and balance that few kids of his age possess. I used to tell him that he would be the best 10 in the Córdoba Province, but he was always content to be a 5.
Like every other family in Argentina, mine was mad about football. My father didn’t really talk, not to anyone, about anything, except during or after a game. He would speak to Juan Carlos after his school matches, asking how it went, how the team was looking and whether the rest of them were working as hard as his son.
My brother was never much of a talker either, though, so I started going to his games in order to tell my father about them when we got back. By then I’d begun listening to the games on the radio and had been through every one of my uncle’s old boxes of El Gráfico. I fell in love with football and inside a year I’d read every football book in the local library. My father was always too busy to talk to me about the games, though, and so as I got older and more knowledgeable, we began to talk about less and less. He took my brother to see Instituto once a month but I was never allowed to go, apparently because it was too dangerous for a girl to be in the popular. It was there, on the concrete terracing, that the barra brava banged their drums and led the chants. I must have listened to over a hundred matches on the radio before I saw my first game at a real stadium. Juan Carlos would take me with him once a fortnight when he started getting free tickets. My mother would just say we were visiting our cousins.
I had by then developed an understanding of the sport that was far superior to all of Juan Carlos’s coaches. At half-times, my brother would come to me and ask for advice. His friends found it hilarious that a little girl was telling her big brother what he should be doing on a football pitch, where the space is and what mistakes he had made. But they wouldn’t dare make their feelings known. Juan Carlos’s performances earned him too much respect for that. He would jog over, pouring with sweat, and I would consult my notes and remind him always to show their 10 onto his weaker foot or to give the particularly skilful ones an extra yard so they didn’t ghost past him, but never to allow two yards to those with the vision to execute a pinpoint through-ball. Twice a week we did this, and twice a week Juan Carlos would do exactly as I said when he went out for the second half. I was always amazed at how much he had taken in and by how perfectly he’d adapt his game to my instructions; not least because he would usually be flirting with any number of female admirers that stood along the touchline during our tactical discussions.
My brother was a handsome man, blessed with my father’s strong jaw line and jet-black hair; but whereas my father’s face was stern and dark, eternally cast in shadow by the perennial mopping of the sweat from his brow, Juan Carlos’s was bright and gregarious, welcoming and content. He would let the sweat pour off him, forming tiny droplets that hung from his chin like triumphant symbols of all the heart he put into his work. And that’s how he saw his football: as work.
People called him an idol. The local media had been writing about him since he was 12 years old and scored 12 goals in one match for the school. “One for every year this little genius had been on earth,” one particularly chirpy local journalist gushed. They even interviewed him for the local news. Everybody was so proud. “A Humble Hero” ran the headline in El Diario Córdoba. “The most important thing was that the team won the cup. We are all champions,” Juan Carlos told them. “I was only able to score the goals because of my teammates.” In fact, anyone who knew anything about the game could clearly see he scored those goals despite his compañeros. The final score was 12-8.
From then on, he had his pick of the girls in town, but rarely did he have a girlfriend. The longest relationship he ever had lasted about three months. Alicia was the prettiest girl in school. She was smart, too. She spoke English and Italian and read poetry, and her father was the mayor. My mother had heard the gossip and asked Juan Carlos about her one evening at dinner.
“So what’s this I hear about you and Alicia Canteros?” she asked, with a wry smile.
“The mayor’s daughter?” snapped my father. “You think you’re good enough for the suits at the mayor’s office?”
“It’s all hearsay. She is not my girlfriend,” sighed Juan Carlos, never once looking up from his plate.
The next day I found Alicia crying by the football pitch at school. She said Juan Carlos had broken up with her.
The Caballeros were farmers; farmers and housewives. We always had been, ever since arriving from old Italy nearly a century ago. The men worked on farms and the women worked in the home. But I wasn’t going to be anyone’s housewife and it was clear that Juan Carlos was destined for things much greater than ploughing fields and slaughtering cattle. He would be a national idol. He was already halfway there. And me, I would be the one who wrote about people like him. I would not only be the first Caballero to go university, but also the first woman in Argentina to commentate on a live match on the radio. I could already speak faster and more intelligently than any of the men who called the games in Córdoba.
I would sneak off on Sunday evenings and run to a phone box near town to call the radio shows. I said I was a boy, and that’s what they called me: “El Pibe”. I became something of a favourite on Radio Impacto. Every Sunday night the presenters would give El Pibe at least three full minutes to deliver his take on the evening’s major talking points. They even started calling me back after I was once cut off because I had ran out of money. I had to start using different phone boxes in case they sent someone to bring me into the station one evening for a live show. It was something the presenters had joked about before making the invitation official after my prediction that the Talleres forward Humberto Rafael Bravo would score as many goals as Diego Maradona.
I practiced my commentary into a mini tape recorder my mother had given me for my 13th birthday. I had tapes and tapes of Juan Carlos’s games. They would be priceless in 10 years. I always told myself that when my brother won the Mundial I would present them for archiving. Imagine that: La Nación’s most famous journalists writing about the life of the country’s greatest player whilst listening to tapes of a 13-year-old girl calling school matches somewhere in the provinces.
It was the just beginning. We were ready. And it would all start with a letter.
My father and Juan Carlos were out in the fields when it finally arrived. I raced through the front door and swept through the kitchen when a sudden realisation brought me to an abrupt halt: I didn’t know to which of them I should hand the letter. I asked my mother, who was drinking maté and watching the bread bake.
“Give it to your father,” she said, her arm outstretched, offering me some tea. “He will decide.”
“But it’s not his.”
“Isabella, why must you complicate things?”
“Having to decide whether or not to hand a letter to the person to whom it is addressed is something that has to be debated in this house, and I’m the one complicating things?”
My mother laughed. Every time I thought she’d snap, she instead let out a devious chuckle. The corners of her mouth turned up ever so slightly, less than a millimetre perhaps, in perfect sync with the narrowing of her gracious, green eyes. Her head tilted ever so faintly to her left, just enough to allow her glistening dark fringe to lean away from her forehead. I used to misinterpret that look as one of intrigue, but it was actually one of humour; one that acknowledged of the lunacy of the world around us and told me that she appreciated the ironies of our plight on this farm.
“Come on, my love!” she screeched, grabbing my hand and skipping out of the kitchen towards the fields.
I was slightly disappointed by the envelope itself. For something that had been anointed with the responsibility for protecting a young man’s dreams, it was rather dull — just a piece of folded paper, a strip of adhesive the only thing between us and words that signalled a new beginning. There wasn’t even a club crest stamped on the corner.
What I mostly remember about that moment is seeing my father smile. It wasn’t a big one, his mouth hardly moved, but I read it as enough to convey the sense of pride I imagine he must have felt at that moment. Perhaps I saw a tear in his eye, but it was hard to tell as he wiped clear the remnants another hard day’s work. My father had been spending more and more time in the fields over the last few years and less and less time at the markets — the only other place I’d ever seen him communicate with anyone. I often asked to help out, but he always said that he and Juan Carlos could manage the work. They would often be out there until the early hours of the morning, even when Juan Carlos had a game the next day.
But all that would be over now.
My father took a knife from his pocket and skilfully slipped it under the seal, slicing it open with one, efficient stroke of his blade. Juan Carlos stood motionless, staring at that envelope as if it was the only thing in his world. My father pulled the letter free and began to read, but the look I had previously interpreted as one of joy became increasingly distorted. The sun’s smile was so strong that it hurt my eyes to look at the bright, white paper he held in his worn, discoloured hands. I could clearly make out from the back of the page that there couldn’t have been much more than 200 words on that piece of paper. I wanted to ask him what on earth was taking him so long. He stood so still; as static as I had ever seen a living thing. Then his eyes travelled back up to the top of the page. Was he really going to read that damn thing twice? He scanned back down and the look on his face began to change again, almost by the line. He dropped his arms to his side, engulfing the letter in his shadow. He handed it to my mother. I would normally have dived over her shoulder, but I couldn’t take my eyes off him. She dropped the letter. As it fell, it float down to the dry, grey soil at her feet before catching a breeze, darting between my parents and back up into the air. Juan Carlos and I followed its flight, but didn’t move a muscle. My father stepped forward, rested both hands on my brother’s shoulders and looked right into his eyes. He looked into mine once. I think it was on a birthday, or maybe it was that Christmas he handed me my first notebook for Sunday school.
“You will do the name proud won’t you, Son?”
“Of course, Father,” Juan Carlos nodded
“Isabella, your brother is going to be a soldier.”
2. Sólo un Chico de las Malvinas
16th May, 1982
I hope things are well at home? How’s Jenny’s dancing going? Tell her I was asking about her and about Mary’s diary, too. I hope she’s writing in it every day like she promised? Let her know I’ve kept my end of the bargain and that I’ll read it to her when I get back. Let everyone else know I’m missing them like mad, but that I’m fine and I’m enjoying my holiday.
We’re pretty much wrapped up here now, I reckon, so I expect to be home soon. Hey, you ain’t traded me in for a younger model since I’ve been gone, have you? So sorry I didn’t get the chance to see you again before all this kicked off. We were xx xxxxxxx xx xxxx xxxxxxxx xxxxxx x xxx xxxxxxx xxx xxxxx xxxx xxx xx x xxxxxx and were rushed back and then straight out here. We took off so quick xxxxxxxxxx xxx xxxx one of its propellers wasn’t working. Can you believe that? xxxxxxx xxxx xxx xxxxx xxx xxxxx xxxx xxx xxxxxx xxxxxxxxx. The banter on the way over here was brilliant, as always. We were all telling jokes about their top man and some of the lads even had T-shirts made up. I’ve kept hold of a shirt for you that says, “Start crying for us, Argentina!” It’s always good to have a laugh. Anything to pass the time, really, and believe me, there was a lot of time to pass. It took so long to get here that I think most of us forgot we were actually going somewhere.
It’s an odd place, really. They say we’re on the other side of the world, but you wouldn’t know to look at it. “You’ll travel the world,” they told us. First Northern Ireland and now this. Not exactly what I had in mind. It’s all cold, wet and green. It looks sort of like the Scottish Highlands or the Isle of Man. It reminds me of our week in the caravan with the girls last year actually. It was right weird when we first met the locals. This young girl came rushing over to me waving a notepad. I almost wet myself when she asked for my autograph in the broadest Cornish accent you’ve ever heard in your life. In a funny way, it kind of makes you feel like you ain’t that far from home after all, though, which is quite good.
We xxxxxx xx, xxxxxx. We took xxxxx xxxxxxx pretty quick, and xxxxxxx xxxx xxxx xxxx. When we rendezvoused xx xxxxxxxx we knew we were golden. There was a lot to do, of course, but xx xxx xxxxx xxxxxx xxxxxxxx xxxxxxx. They seem a little chaotic, to be honest. Like they’ve ran headlong into something they weren’t ready for. The only moment of doubt was after xxx xxxxxxxxx xxxx. I was gutted, we all were. You remember xxxxxx? You had a chat with his xxxx, xxxxxxxx, last May at the barracks I think. He was on it. I didn’t know him that well really but it sort of brought it all home to me, you know what I mean? It sounds selfish to say it, especially when I think xxxxx xxxx xxx xxx xxxxxxxx xxx must be going through, but in a way I was sort of glad. Glad is the wrong word actually, but when something really bad happens we all try really hard to find the good in it. You always find the good in things. We could do with more people like you, both over here and back there. One of the fellas here with me (a lad called xxxxxxx, clever little bastard, he is) said it’s just the way we cope with it all. I don’t know, but it made me hate them more and hate can’t be a bad thing to have in war. I danced a bloody jig when we xxxx xxx xxxxxxxx... Gotcha!
Anyway, what I meant by glad was that it made me think about you and the girls. I think about you all the time of course, but this was different. I don’t think I really have the words, love, but it really made me think of you all. It made me think of you loads. For hours, I reckon, and that made me smile. These islands don’t feel like the sort of place that sees many smiles. I’d bloody kill to see one of yours when I get up every morning.
Anyway, I have to get my beauty sleep. xx xxxx xxxx xxxx xxx xx xxx xxxxxxx... I’m still trying to get used to sleeping through the whistle of the wind. This has to be the windiest place on earth. Give the girls a massive kiss from their dad. I miss you, love. I’ll be back before you know it.
All the love in the world from the other side of it,
1st June, 1982
How are you? You probably still haven’t got my last letter, so don’t worry about writing back to me. Just knowing you’re all there is enough. Some of the lads here ain’t got a lot to go home to. They’re the ones who really get into all this stuff, talking about brothers in arms and all that. Shame really. The best part about going away is coming back. Along those lines, and yeah, yeah, I know I said this last time, but I reckon I’ll be back soon. Some of the lads been saying they reckon she’ll xxxx xx xxx xxxxxx xxxx, xxxx xxx xxx xxxx xxxxxxx xxx x xxxx xxxxxx xxx xxxx xxxx xxx xxxxxx xxxx xxxx xx xxxx xxx xxxxx xxxx xxxx xxx xxxx xxxx xxxx xx xxxxxx xx xxxxxxx xx xxxxxxxx. I don’t know much, but I don’t reckon she wants us to, if I’m honest. I remember your dad saying she xxx x xxxxx xxx xxxx xxxxx xxxx xxx xxxxxxx xxx xxxxxx folk like us. Guess she x xxxxxx now. I been chatting to a couple of the new guys, especially the interpreter. We have one with us just in case. He’s an interesting fella. He’s been teaching me some Spanish words. Did you know that they speak Spanish in Argentina? Spain used to own them, see. They used to own the land I’m lying on right now. According to one of the journalists I met on the way here, so did the Dutch and the French. It had to be given back to the Spanish, though, so God knows how we ended up with it. Probably because nobody else wanted it. Anyway, You believe that? Me speaking Spanish, ha ha. Ola me amor x!! I’ll take you out for a slap-up meal when I get back with candles the lot. I’ll speak Spanish to you, as well. I’m going to be one romantic old bugger with that lingo in my arsenal. Bloody irresistible.
Right, got a really early start as xxxxx xxxxxxxxx xxxxxxx xxxxxxxxx xx xxx xxxxxxx so must dash. That xxxx xxxx will be along to collect the letters soon and if you don’t have them ready to go as soon as he gets here then he x xxxxxx xxxxxxxx. xxxxxxx xxxxxx xxxxxxxxx, xxxxx xxxx xxxx xxxx xxxxxxx xx xxxxxxx xxx xxxxxx xxx xxxxx xx xx xx xxx xxxxxx xx xxxxx xx. Tell everyone I love them and that I’m enjoying myself.
I miss you more than I can ever say on a piece of paper like this. I’ll be with you soon, love.
12th June, 1982
How are you? I could really do with one of your hugs today. I’d give my left arm for your sausage and mash and one of those pretty smiles to go with it. Anyway, obviously I’m fine because I’m writing this letter now, so don’t worry as you read on but you’ll see it’s been a pretty strange day.
I found this fella, see. Well, this kid. He couldn’t have been no more xxxxx xx. I found him crouched xxxxxx x xxxxxx xxxx inland of xxxx xxxxxxx. He clearly couldn’t walk. The left knee of his uniform was soaked red with blood. God knows how he managed to get half way across xxx xxxxxxx, we were the ones doing all the bloody yomping. So, yeah, I’d wandered off for a pee when I heard this shuffling coming from a little ditch. I crept over to it, rifle drawn, and there he was. xx xxx xxxxxxxx! xx xxxxxx xxxx xxxxxxxxx, xxxx xxxxxx xxxxxxx xxxx xx xxx xxxx. xxxxx x and shouted at him to stop. I don’t quite know why I did that, not like he was going anywhere. Then he hauled himself up, dead straight, and held out his Argie blade. You get used to your blade, to all the stuff they give you. They sort of become a part of you, like an arm or a leg. They’re what makes us different, see. Not to each other, but from them. Enough of them had already felt the sharp ends of our bayonets, so it was sort of funny that he should hold his blade out to my rifle. His leg was shaking like mad.
It’s weird the things that fly through your head at times like that. I was 100% focused on him, on my duty, but in those few seconds I still remember thinking all sorts of stuff. I stood there, aiming a gun at a kid, and I wondered xx xxx xxxxxx xxx xxx xxx all this, love. How can X xxxx xx x xxx xxxx xxxx xx an enemy? Yeah, we can all xxx x xxxxx xx xxx xxxxxxxx xxx xxxx xxx xx xxxxxx xxxx xxxx x xxxxxx xxx xxxx xxxx xxx xxxxxxx, x xxxx what’s in the pull of a finger? When you actually get up close, though, so close that you can see them looking back at you, xxxx, xxxx, xxx xxx xxxx xx xx xxxxx? I know nothing about Argentina. I know nothing about their government. Christ, I don’t know much about my own. You see they don’t clog our brains with that xxxxx. xxxxx xxxx here to do a job, I suppose. And so was he, I guess. And you know what? I bet he didn’t want to be crouched there freezing his bloody knackers off any more than I did. He was a brave bugger, though. I’ll give him that.
‘Como say yama?’ I shouted, which is how you ask someone what they’re called in Spanish, but the boy just stood there looking straight at me. I asked again and then he replied, but with a load of words in Spanish that I didn’t understand.
‘Rendursee,’ I shouted, which means to surrender. He just kept looking at me, though. It felt like we were there for about half an hour. Eventually, he threw his knife down. I called the lads and we took him away. I’d never had a prisoner before. I don’t want another one.
I count my blessings he didn’t have his gun and that I still get to come home to you all. I’ll count my blessings every day for that. Thing is, though, at the same time I couldn’t stop looking at him. One of the lads xxxx x xxxxxx xxxx xxxx xxx xx xxxx xx x xxx xxx xxxxx. I guess lads are like that in war. Maybe I was. At least I used to say things that would make people think I was. But, love, how can I shoot a kid? I don’t want to xxxx xxxx. I don’t really xxxx xx xxxxx xxxxxx.
I xxxxxxx xxx xxxx and all the lads were cheering and patting me on the back as we passed them.
There was something about this kid, though. I don’t know what it was, but he was different and sort of the same. That don’t make sense, I know. I think I respected him. Once he’d dropped the blade, I think I even sort of liked him. I don’t know if that makes any sense. It’s at times like this when I wish I’d studied more in school and maybe gone to a proper college or something. I don’t think I can really explain to you what I was feeling.
He had a piece of paper on him. You know I ain’t one for reading and that, but it was sort of beautiful, I think. Once we realised that it wasn’t important or nothing, xxxxxx let me keep it. I’ve copied it out for you because what’s beautiful about it is how it looks. Here it is…
Soy un diez.
Soy un cinco también.
Después, hoy soy un soldado
Y lucho por mi país y por mi pueblo y por mis colores.
Quiero a mi hermana, a mis compañeros, y mi casa en Córdoba.
Quiero a mi madre, a mi padre, y a Argentina.
Pero soy solo un chico de las Malvinas
Mis pies una vez fueron mi gloria
Ahora están frios y húmedos
Funny, isn’t it? The shape I mean. Like it works up to something and then falls away. xxxxxx translated it for me. Apparently it says he’s a soldier and stuff and then the long line says all he really wants is to be back at home with his family. I recognised the third from last line. It’s what he said when I asked his name. He says he’s just a boy.
It made me think about us and how xxxx xxxxx xxx xx x xxxx xx xxxx. The more I learn about xxx xxxxxxxxxxx xxx xxxx x xxxx them equally. xxxxxxxxxx x xxxxx. xx xxxx xxx xxxx xxxx xxxxxxx xx xxxx xxx xxxx xxxxxx xxx xxx xxxx in power longer. xxxxx xxx xx xxxx xxxxx. xx xx xxxx xxxxxxx xxxxxx xxxxxx xx xxxxx xxx xxxxxx, xxx xxxx xxxx xxxx xxxx xxxx xxx xxxx xxxx xxx xx xx xxxx xxxx xx xxxxx xxxxxx. xxx xxxx xx xx, xxxx. xxx xxx xx xx. x xxxx x xxxxxx xxxx. x xxxx x xxxxxx x xxxxxxx. x xxxx xxx xxxxxx xxxx xxx xx. x xxxx xxxx xxxxxxx xxxx xxxx xxx xxx x xxxx xxx xxxx xxxx with me right now.
But you’re not, we all know she is and he probably knows they are, too.
I’ll never forget that kid.
3. Las Malvinas: From Caudillo to Pibe
Juan Carlos Caballero: A Life Lost in Las Malvinas
At 12 years-old, Juan Carlos Caballero was tipped to be an idol of Argentinian football. Thirty years later, the veteran of Las Malvinas remembers a dream that died one afternoon in the South Atlantic.
By Martín Gutiérrez
3rd April 2012
We stand in silence — a long and tranquil silence that I dare not break. It’s the first time we’ve met in over 30 years, and for over half an hour we’ve hardly said a word.
In June 1976, as a trainee journalist on the news desk of El Diario Córdoba, I was sent to a local school to conduct my first ever newspaper interview. I was there to speak to a 12 year-old boy who had just become the first player in the history of Córdoba boys’ football to score 12 goals in a single match. Young Juan Carlos Caballero was the talk of the town, having single-handedly delivered the Junior Cup to his school for the first time in its history.
I met him at his parents’ farm on the outskirts of the city, where he was already working in the fields with his father. A stern and misanthropic man, Sr Caballero remained by his son’s side at the dinner table in total silence as the young boy ran me through each of his goals. I would see Juan Carlos play a handful of times over the next four years before I moved to Buenos Aires to take up a position here at La Nación. Whenever our paths crossed, we’d stop and chat, his sister, Isabella, never failing to ask me when I’d come to interview her big brother again. While I’d never been able to kick a ball more than a few feet, I saw something familiar in Juan Carlos. I, too, was an ambitious young boy from the provinces hoping to make my way in the world and so I tried to stay in contact with him — a journalist lives and dies by his contacts and I quickly realised he could one day be one worth having. After my piece was published, the chief scout from Club Atlético Huracán had phoned me at the newspaper to find out just how good the kid was; the local sides Belgrano and Instituto had also expressed their interest to the Caballeros. I expected to see much more of Juan Carlos in years to come.
But this week, we meet for the first time in more than 30 years. And not at a club training ground or a posh awards ceremony, or even the family farm back in our hometown, but at Plaza San Martín in the heart of the Buenos Aires. We stand side-by-side, motionless, entombed in what feels like a sacred silence, facing Monumento a los Caídos en Malvinas. As a boy, Juan Carlos looked like the archetypal pibe — a devious smile perpetually on his handsome young face. It was one that I read as conveying an excitement for the life that lay ahead. For the dreams he would go on to live. And for the fame and reverence an illustrious career in Argentina’s national sport brings those talented enough to make it. Today, however, the reverence the man commands is an entirely different one.
He wears a three-piece suit beneath a jet-black trench coat, and polished black loafers. Juan Carlos is unrecognisable from the boy I met three decades ago. “A lot has changed,” he says. “I recognise some of the names [here],” he continues. “That boy was a 5, like me. He was from Rosario… [That one was] from Mendoza, a 10 who used to sneak wine from the vineyards at night. I was going to… go and visit him… [but] he never returned.”
There’s a crack in Juan Carlos’s voice as he speaks about his compañeros. The adolescent grin has been replaced with something perhaps best described as a sort of empty gaze. Having removed his hat when we arrived, the rain water now ran down the length of his face before falling to the puddles at our feet. They perhaps mask his tears; I can’t be sure. The silence has returned, and it lingers until the rain stops.
“Did you remember me?” Juan Carlos asks later that afternoon as we sit watching Las Madres walk the Plaza de Mayo. With his question arrives that boyish smile that first greeted me at a Córdoba family dinner table all those years ago. “I played as a 10 [that day],” he tells me. “Seba, who usually played as the 10, was sick and so I was pushed forward. Until that season everybody said they saw me as a 10, but Seba and I were quite far ahead of the rest of the boys in our school and he could play only as a 10… I could play anywhere. At our first training session, I told the coach that to get the best out of us both, I should play as the 5.”
Between his sips of maté, I notice his feet twitching as he talks, as if actively reliving the kick of every ball that day. “We won the cup, so I guess it was a good idea… From the back I could organise those around me. And by working hard for the team, by being what they now call a Pacman, I earned the respect of my compañeros, so they listened [to me]. Football is about movement. You don’t always have to be going forward, but you always have to be moving.” Juan Carlos seems to move only when discussing the sport.
I want to ask him about Las Malvinas; we’ve been together for over two hours now and I’m becoming increasingly aware that I’m not getting enough copy for an interview commemorating the 30th anniversary of the conflict. I attempt to steer the conversation that way, asking what he thought of the islands when he first arrived. “It was cold and wet,” he replies. “In fact, one of the British soldiers told me he thought it was like Britain… It was hardly La Plata in November,” he adds, chuckling quietly. His feet have settled. He pulls a notebook from his breast pocket and scribbles something down. I notice what looks like a football formation sketched out on the adjacent page and ask him what he uses the notepad for? “For my thoughts,” he replies. I press him on what thought it was that he’s just added. “Just an image… I’ll unpack it later […] I went to a couple of writing classes last year and everyone had one. It seemed like a good idea… I write essays, short stories and lots of poetry. I began [writing poetry] on those islands. The heart of a 5; the mind of a 10,” he adds with what I think was a wink.
And just like that we’re back to football again. “My career ended in Las Malvinas,” he says. “It was like playing without a crowd. In every corner of those islands, there was nothing but silence. One that the wind carried with a palpable menace.” I never thought of war as being silent, I tell him. “It was deathly silent,” he shoots back. “Until one day… when it was broken by the sound of bombs falling. All around me, my compañeros fell. I joined them on the turf when something flew into my knee.” Juan Carlos had been hit by a piece of shrapnel. “That was the moment that changed my life forever… they say 649 Argentinians lost their lives in Las Malvinas. But it was many more than that. I am still here, but for me a life ended that day. I feel lucky that I was able to start a new one… Many were not so fortunate.”
Juan Carlos hid in a ditch for two days after a series of explosions had separated him from his troop. He was eventually found by a British soldier and captured as a prisoner of war. A few days later, the war was over and he was released. “I thought that was it for me,” he says when I ask him how it felt coming face-to-face with the enemy. “I was tired, wet, and in a lot of pain… But I wasn’t going to go down without a fight. [The British solider] pointed his rifle at me; I pointed my knife at him. I say I wanted a fight. But maybe I wanted something more.” It’s at such gripping memories that one would expect to see a man speaking with his body as much as his words, but whenever he speaks about the war, Juan Carlos remains still. “I froze, waiting for him to shoot. I remember thinking about how it would sound. How it would feel. But the guy just stood there looking at me… [then] he tried talking to me in Spanish.”
That British soldier, Tom Jenkins, died in 2002, aged just 45. “I always wondered… what he made of me. Thankfully I found out [a few years after his death] when I received a letter from his widow. He had written about me in his letters home… He found one of my poems, which had later inspired him to start writing his own. Mrs Jenkins and I email each other about once or twice a month now and she continues to send me scans of his work.”
Juan Carlos places his hat back on his head and closes his eyes. I ask what he sees in the darkness. “I know what you are getting at,” he says. I’m aware by now that Juan Carlos is an intelligent and thoughtful man: little gets past him — either on or off the football field. “I do not have to close my eyes to remember,” he replies. “I see them when I am awake.”
He stands and asks me to walk with him. We stroll to the centre of the Plaza, where he stops and looks out at the Madres pacing their circles. “The mothers of my compañeros should be walking with them,” he says, squatting. “Marcelo Bielsa squats on the touchline. He says you can see more at ground level, that it’s easier to decipher the patterns of play. Bielsa is an idol for me; more so than [César Luis] Menotti. But I have already seen the play from the ground.” He rises back to his feet, and for the first time I notice what an imposing figure he has become. He stands around 1.85m, but at a slight angle. “My dodgy knee won’t allow me to squat for that long anyway,” he adds with a grin. Another chuckle escapes the boyish smile that returned to his face as soon he mentioned El Loco Bielsa. “He understands that creativity and individualism must be allowed to flourish, but in a way that benefits the collective.”
The silence returns and I take the opportunity to ask him what he’s been up to for the last 30 years. “When I returned [from the war], I couldn’t play anymore… so I went back to Córdoba and helped my father sell the farm. We moved to a smaller house and I got a job in the factory. It was fine, I worked with the union and there was lots of time to read on the shop floor.” I ask him if he ever pursued another sort of career in football, a question I think I ask mainly to try and coax that smile back out of the earnest man that has returned to my side. “I did some coaching courses and became the DT of my old school team in 1988… We won the Junior Cup, the second in our history. I was offered a job with a very small club in Buenos Aires… but by then my mother was very ill and my father couldn’t manage. My sister had left for the capital by then. She was doing very well and I couldn’t make her come back.”
His sister, Isabella, is now a prominent football writer at Clarín and occasionally commentates on televised games. It wasn’t until we met at a football writers’ dinner in February that I realised she was the same Isabella I had met three decades ago. A week later, we sat in her San Telmo apartment listening to an old audio tape of her commentating on the Junior Cup final. When she told me what had become of her brother, I asked her whether she would help me secure an interview. “Good luck getting him to talk about anything other than football,” she said, with a devious smile which I now recognise as something of a Caballero trait.
Juan Carlos left the factory last July, after nearly a quarter of a century on the shop floor. When his father passed away, he sold the house and took early retirement on medical grounds, and has since taken up writing full-time. “I’ve had a few short stories here and there and El Gráfico published one of my poems,” he says. “A villanelle about Boca’s 10, Juan Román Riquelme, and River Plate’s 5, Matías Almeyda — two great binaries of Argentina… Both are integral to their teams, but both represent completely opposite ends of the spectrum; as footballers [and] as Argentinians… For me, what is so great about them is that they know what they are. We need them both… The thing about the 10 is that while he is an individual, given the freedom to express himself, he cannot truly flourish without his antithesis — the 5.”
I once again attempt to steer the conversation back to Las Malvinas, asking Juan Carlos for his thoughts on who should hold sovereignty over the islands today. “People get in the way of politics. People should come first.” I ask him about the Junta and the approach taken to the conflict. He removes his hat and turns to the Madres, who have finished their march and are now chatting and embracing one another. “I always come here whenever I am in Buenos Aires on a Thursday. Their march is deeply moving, but for me what is even more emotive is the way in which they greet one another when the walking stops. I imagine many of them meet just once a week, brought together by the most unthinkable of things.”
Juan Carlos seems to see the contrasts in everything. I press him on the tactical deployment of our troops during the conflict. “OK,” he says, turning on the bench to face me for the first time all afternoon. “The England team charges full-steam ahead… like that lad [Bryan] Robson. I have never seen a 10 play for England, except for Paul Gascoigne — boy, what a player. He’s a pibe, you know, like El Diego.” It’s at this moment when I realise Juan Carlos is using the word ‘pibe’ as anthropological term as much as a colloquialism. “Their problem is that all they have are bad 5s, and when they get a good one like that lad [Ray] Wilkins, who always retained possession and kept his team moving, they don’t realise it. Our problem is we have these people who are 5s but… they make it to the top and then they behave like the most incompetent of 10s: from Caudillo to Pibe. We were too English in our approach to Las Malvinas. War is not a game.”
For hours I had been trying to coax Juan Carlos into talking to me about war and politics, to direct our discussions away from football and address something more important, but perhaps that is exactly what he had been talking about all along.
Now I feel as if I have so much more to ask him, but my time is up. “I am writing a book,” he tells me as we say our goodbyes and agree to meet up in a few months’ time. “It is a collection of short stories and poems, entitled Los Cincos y Los Diezes: Los Pueblos de Argentinidad.”
Juan Carlos Caballero is still here, but he is one of many who lost his life in Las Malvinas. Speaking to him today, however, 30 years after the conflict, I get the impression that amid all that loss, he seems to have found something.
Translated by Richard Hartley