George Alagiah interviews us on the BBC
Thursday 5 April 2007
Tall Enough For Basketball
Owen Powell – 5th April 2007
One of the most pleasing aspects of this project has been the wholly unexpected way that little networks and chains of people have become part of the story. I think that we perhaps both thought that we would find (for example) a Colombian and then that would be it, then a little later we’d find a Bulgarian somewhere else, and they wouldn’t know anyone except other Bulgarians, and that would be that as well. In fact, it was of course Ligia who introduced us to Milena, who in turn introduced us to Alejandro, our Mexican. At the first of Alejandro’s gigs that I saw, Milena mentioned that his percussionist was Spanish, but it wasn’t until the third time I saw them play (at an arts and music event held at the Bulgarian embassy) that we had a chance to chat.
In the manner of men the world over, we had established which football teams we each supported before we had swapped names, and to our surprise we realised that they would be playing each other in the UEFA Cup quarter-finals the following week. Bingo, the date was set for a proper interview, in a pub in Finsbury Park with Sevilla playing Spurs on the big screen. We exchanged mobile numbers, and, finally, names. “I’m Israel,” said Israel. I looked baffled. He looked like a man who’d seen people look baffled before. “I’ll explain next week ...” he said.
And so, I found myself in the Twelve Pins in Finsbury Park a week later, sipping slowly at my lager and waiting for Israel to arrive. The Twelve Pins is a huge, barn-like, old-school Irish boozer, and I had walked through its doors holding a notebook and wearing a pale blue cashmere scarf. It’s about twenty-five yards from the Arsenal World of Sport, as well, so I was going to have to be very cautious about over-celebrating any Spurs goals this evening. I’m not saying I felt like an unwanted outsider here, that would be a vastly misplaced analogy, but I felt like it wasn’t somewhere I would normally go to have a good time. But that was before Israel arrived, and I had one of my best pub nights out in London for a long time.
I have to be honest here, and say that my notes from the meeting do rather tail off and become illegible towards the end of the evening. One of the last ones I can read simply states: “9.05pm. Quite pissed now.” But we had started with the best of intentions. Over the first pint, we talked mainly about music, as the pre-match build up began. When Israel plays with Alejandro, it’s mainly on the Cajon, a Peruvian instrument that’s sometimes known as the ‘Flamenco box’. It literally is a box, big enough to sit on and tap, hit and beat. It’s a great sound, almost melodic, and it complements Alejandro’s rhythmic acoustic guitar playing exceptionally well. Israel has been playing for three years, and used to accompany a Spanish flamenco singer who had a regular gig performing in a chain of bars around London. Unfortunately, after a particularly drunken night the singer got in a bit of a messy situation with the owner of the bars, and they were banned from playing ever again.
The game kicked off. I was at the bar buying the second round when Robbie Keane skipped through the Sevilla defence, got a lucky deflection, and slotted home. There was only a minute gone on the clock. I had terrifying visions of Spurs winning 8-0 and Israel not speaking to me and then me being outed as a Spurs fan (how could I not celebrate 8-0?) and all the Arsenal fans (the rest of the pub, it seemed) tying me to a bus and driving me off down the Seven Sisters Road. I brought the beers back to the table with an apologetic look on my face. “It’s a long game,” said Israel, and we both took a large swig of lager.
“I remember exactly the day I came to London. It was the fifteenth of November, 2005. I remember also the cost of my ticket. I paid only 15 Euros for the flight. Even now I remember exactly this. I had come to join my girlfriend. She was studying here, and she said I should come over too, try to study, try to get a job as well. Uh-oh.”
It looked like the Spurs goalkeeper Paul Robinson had just brought down Correia. We studied the replay – it was a blatant dive. Israel shrugged. “That was bad. That should not have been given. We are not even playing that well. Kerzhakhov is doing nothing.”
Our conversation ceased somewhat as we waited for the penalty. Ex-Spurs player Fredi Kanoute banged it in. Within minutes there was trouble on the terraces. The cameras zoomed in. It was one of those pubs where they keep the jukebox going rather than having the match commentary, so the scenes of black-clad riot police swarming into Spurs fans, batons swinging, was accompanied by Bjork’s ‘It’s Oh So Quiet’.
“The Sevilla police,” said Israel, shaking his head. “They are crazy. Look at them. I know them. They will be on coke, on hash. So violent. Anyway, so, now I have this day job, working for a promotions company, distributing the London Lite. It’s ok work, not so bad. I started off doing the City AM, I had to hand out 500 copies a day. With that paper, you see the same faces day after day. I would get regular customers. Some of them even bought me Christmas presents.” Israel watched a Sevilla move unfold. “Agh! What is Kerzhakov doing? He is no good. I don’t know why he is on the pitch. Another pint?”
Israel got to the bar and back without any incident in the game, but shortly after sitting down again, Sevilla scored again, and a player with a familiar-looking Russian name on his back wheeled away in celebration.
“See? What did I tell you?” said Israel, smiling. “Kerzhakov! He is our best player! So – where was I? Yes, after City AM, I got moved to London Lite and Victoria station. Man, that was tough. They had me on 800 copies a day, every evening, but I wasn’t there for long and it’s got a little easier now. My girlfriend is about to get promoted. She works in the McDonalds on Leicester Square, it is the busiest branch in London, and they might make her assistant manager. There are people in there from all over the world. I think some of them think I work there as well. I go in to see her a lot, I’m sitting in the staff room, they wonder who I am.”
Ah. That reminded me. The name. Was Israel a common Spanish name, I wondered?
“In Spain, we are still a very Catholic country. Your names, they have to come from the Bible. My parents have six kids. I am the fifth, the third son. When I was born, my father looked through the Bible, perhaps he had chosen his favourite names already, but, you know ... I got called Israel. I like it! It is a good name.”
Half-time. I got another pint to see us through until the game restarted. It’s usually at about this point in an evening that I forget I haven’t really had any dinner, and try to console myself with the thought that all of those calories in beer sort of count as food.
We mainly talked about sport in the second half. Israel said he’d played a lot of American sports when he was younger – baseball and basketball. “Basketball?” I remember saying, incredulous. ‘But you’re ... you’re ... stand up!” We both stood up. “You’re as tall as me! How did you play basketball?” Israel explained he played as a centre, where it doesn’t matter if you’re short, as long as you can pass well. I think the sport conversation got quite involved. We bemoaned our national football sides. I recollected my love affair with the Real Madrid side of the late eighties, Butragueno and Hugo Sanchez et al. One of my notes reads: “The sport is the thing that keeps us n hxx”. I wish I could work out what it says, it sounds like it was going to be quite profound. Then the evening just became a general fairly drunk evening in the pub. I mean, I could try to reconstruct the conversation or the thought process that inspired me to make the note “No Latin in schools”, but I can’t really claim I remember what we were talking about at that point. Similarly, there’s a whole story hidden behind the terse phrases half-way down one of my notebook pages: “Very poor. Stole ring. Very rich.”
The game dwindled through a goalless second half to a conclusion of sorts. The second leg was a week away, and Israel was up for going to White Hart Lane to see it, but I couldn’t help thinking that the night would end badly for one of us. We did, however, decide to watch the final together if one of our teams made it. I’ve got a sneaking suspicion it won’t be mine ...