“The Young, the Handsome, the Brave”: Odessan Football in Verse

Championship-Winning Odessan Lineup, 1913

My maternal grandfather, after whom I was named but whom I never had the chance to meet, looms large in my imagination. In 1919, at the age of nine, he went to work at a smithy to support his parents and put his siblings through school. When my mother was a little girl, he ran a semi-illicit confectionery factory and would come home smelling of vanilla, the pockets of his linen suit stuffed with sweets. He rescued sparrows who fell down on our balcony every winter and nursed them back to health; he loved to watch them perch on the edge of his dinner plate and peck at his food. I could go on, but you get the gist: this man I knew only through stories and photographs was my childhood hero. Alas, every hero has his tragic flaw…

For my grandfather, as for so many Odessan men, that flaw was excessive zeal. And in his case, the zeal was for football (that’s soccer, of course). Not long after my mother was born, he stopped attending matches altogether and followed the progress of his beloved FC Chornomorets strictly via the airwaves. Why? Because, on what turned out to be his last trip to the stadium, he had become so engrossed in the game that he allowed his cigarette to slip from his fingers. Before he knew it, his trousers were on fire and a neighbor in the stands was swatting at his thighs. Not quite rock bottom for a football fanatic, but it would do. From that point on, he’d have to satisfy himself with radio broadcasts.

Can you blame my grandfather for getting carried away at the stadium? In Odessa, football is almost a religion — one brought by missionaries from the United Kingdom in the late 19th century. You can read Volodymyr Gutsol’s nice little article about the Odessa British Athletic Club (OBAC), which introduced football to the city (and, likely, to Imperial Russia as a whole), at The Odessa Review. Interest in the sport spread like (forgive me!) wildfire, and Odessan players burned bright on the national scene. In 1913, the city’s team took the Russian Empire’s second championship, defeating St. Petersburg 4 to 2. True to form, the pernickety Petersburgers tried to get the Odessans disqualified because they had fielded too many foreign-born players. Their effort was unsuccessful — Odessa had won fair and square…

And just to make sure everyone remembered, poet-turned-epidemiologist Alexander Krantsfeld (1897-1942) immortalized two of the stars of that glorious lineup — the Englishman Ernest Jacobs and the Ukrainian Yuri Dykhno — in an sprightly, springy lyric:

Agile of body, how swiftly they run —
springtime sings out in each kick.
Here every shout is a shot from a gun.
The fans, as if drunk, sway and quake.

Under bright skies, cries of approval
and censure blend into one.
Heavenly rapture, ardent upheaval:
“Go Jacobs! Go Dykhno! Come on!”

Feathery grass, turquoise horizon,
eyes on the crystalline vault:
over the field on which Hellen has risen,
a rook glides close to the ball.

Strong bodies clash, bathed in the sun,
as the crowds roar and rave.
Each woman’s smile gleams like a coin
for the young, the handsome, the brave…

1913


Тела упруги, движенья быстры,
В порывах мощных поёт весна.
И каждый возглас, как будто выстрел.
Толпа трепещет, толпа пьяна.

Под ярким небом крик одобренья,
Крик порицанья слились в одно.
Здесь все в экстазе, здесь все в гореньи:
«Поддай-ка Джекобс! Урра, Дыхно!..»

Вся в бирюзовой оправе зелень.
В прозрачный купол уходит мяч.
Над мягким полем, где ожил эллин,
К мячу так близко летает грач.

Толпа рокочет, залита солнцем,
Звенят удары могучих тел.
Улыбки женщин горят червонцем
Тому, кто молод, красив и смел…

1913

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