The Penalty Kick

Jacob picked up the ball and walked it twelve paces to the spot in the dirt he had marked off with his foot. He dug the toe of his boot into the dirt and beat it down enough to fit the old ball so it wouldn’t move. He set it down and then lifted it a foot off the ground, spinning it carefully in his hands, before placing it firmly in the spot again. Jacob’s dad had taught him to always set the ball down this way: “Never let the referee do it for you. It’s your penalty kick—not theirs,” he had told him.

It was mid-July and the summer heat was stifling. For three weeks, Jacob had spent hours in the little park behind his parents’ house in New Jersey. During the day, he would take his old ball and hop the yellow brick wall at the end of their street, shortcutting his way to the soccer fields. He kicked the ball around until the floodlights came on. That was his sign for when the adults would come out to play and he knew he had to head home for dinner. After dinner, he’d sit on porch with his ball. He watched the older men walk down the dead-end street and hop the wall on their way to play soccer with their friends. They were mostly laborers from Mexico and Central America, and sometimes they wore jerseys familiar to Jacob from the television broadcasts of the professionals: the dark green of Mexico, luminescent yellow of Brazil, orange-red of Spain.

The sun was setting.

After Jacob set the ball down, he stood up and looked toward the old goal. The once-white net was a dusty gray and hung sadly, full of holes. He took a few deep breaths and closed his eyes, lifting his head to the sky. Jacob was in his imagination now.

“It all comes down to this,” he heard the voice of Ian Darke say. “Jacob Costa is going to be the last player to take it for Argentina.” (In his head, he always played for Argentina. It was the only team he’d ever watch with his dad).

Jacob stood to the left of the ball. He opened his eyes and took three steps back and one more step to the left. He was transported to the Maracanã Stadium in Rio. Jacob turned his back and stared into the distance, breathing in through his nose and exhaling deeply. He imagined there were 100,000 people in the stands like the day Uruguay beat Brazil in the 1950 World Cup Final. His grandfather had told him the story many times. The Brazilians supposedly threw themselves to their deaths after they lost the final.

“Costa has been Argentina’s most consistent penalty taker. He hasn’t missed from the spot all year. But, can he do it on the big stage here? Millions are watching all over the world as he steps up to take it. Will Jacob Costa be the hero for Argentina?”

Jacob turned back around and stared ferociously at the goal. He was staring at the biggest goalkeeper he could’ve imagined. He picked his corner, like his dad had always taught him. “This one’s going in the top right,” he muttered under his breath.

Jacob took another deep breath, stared at the ball, and stared again at the goalkeeper he imagined in his mind. The goalkeeper was jumping around, ready for the kick. Jacob smirked. He took two steps toward the old ball, planted his left foot beside it, and drove a shot that curved into the top right corner through a hole in the net.

Jacob Costa jumped into the air celebrating. He fell to the ground and grabbed his head with his hands. “He’s done it! Jacob Costa has done it! He’s won the World Cup for Argentina with the very last kick of the game!”

The floodlights came on as he kneeled in the dirt, imagining his teammates surrounding him. The ball was twenty yards away in a ditch beside the trees. It was time to go home.


This is a short story about a moment, as many of my stories and poems are because of their short nature. Moments are powerful. We can all connect to moments.

When I was a boy, I spent a lot of time in the park behind my parents’ house in Bayonne. It was in that park my dad taught me how to play soccer (it’s the same park from “My Dad and the Soccer Ball”). For years, starting in eighth grade, I’d head to that park alone or with my friends to play soccer. A lot of the time, it was alone. I wasn’t a very good soccer player, but I was obsessed with it. I would watch for hours on TV, and when me and my  grandpa drove in the car together he’d never let me listen to the radio so instead I just asked him about what was going on with Argentina’s national team. It was on one of those car rides to the pet cemetery in Old Bridge, where his dog had been buried, that he told me all about Riquelme and El Conejo Saviola.

I remember sitting in my parent’s old vacation home in the Pocono Mountains with my head in my hands as Holland eliminated Argentina from the 1998 World Cup. I remember exactly where I sat—five feet in front of the television, adjacent to the couch where my dad watched with his Portuguese friend—and how I felt: devastated. Even though I was born in the United States, I never watched U.S. soccer growing up. My dad, grandpa, uncles and everyone else in my family watched Argentina, so I did, too. My first hero was Gabriel Batistuta, who I wrote a report on for Ms. Squittieri’s class in eighth grade. The assignment was to write about one of our role models. Many of the other students thought it was Jesus when they saw the picture on the cover (to be fair, this is Batistuta).

I imagine there are millions of boys and girls around the world—maybe even every boy and girl who has ever touched a soccer ball—who imagine themselves as Messi, Cristiano, Zlatan, Mia, Marta, Alex Morgan when they’re playing with the ball. It is what drives us to keep playing. We want to be like the players we admire. We want to celebrate. We want to be loved and idolized. And, for many of us, it doesn’t start in some rigid club system on perfectly manicured turf. It starts in our backyard. It starts in a vacant lot across the street. It starts on a dusty soccer field where no one is watching. Or, maybe, everyone in the world is watching. It all depends on how you see it.

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