At primary school Marieke Lucas Rijneveld was allowed to stay in the gym playing football with the boys, when the girls were sent off to shower after PE. “I was good at it. I can still hear the schoolmaster shouting: ‘Rijneveld is on the ball, Rijneveld is scoring!’” says the author, whose parents disapproved of their daughter playing such a boyish sport.
It wasn’t until, as a rising star of the Dutch literary scene, they were asked to write some poems for a football magazine, that it all came flooding back. The poems never happened “because I thought: how do you write a good poem about football without it getting ugly?” says Rijneveld, who identifies as non-binary and uses the pronouns they/them. “But then I delved into football terms and found out that those terms actually refer to life. I wanted to write down my own football memories, and soon it became more about life than football itself.”
Rijneveld hit world literature’s premier league last year when they became the youngest ever winner of the International Booker prize with their debut novel, The Discomfort of Evening, at the age of 29. They were back in the headlines this spring when they were commissioned to translate Amanda Gorman’s poetry into Dutch; this caused uproar because Rijneveld is not black. They conceded with a graceful poem, printed in the Guardian, accepting that, despite a shared history of “fight[ing] pigeonholing with your fists … another person can make it more inhabitable”.
When Rijneveld got older, their parents stopped them from playing football. In adulthood, they took the sport up again, but discovered they had lost the knack. “My coordination turned out to be bad. I had no overview in the games and my fear of failure was too great.”
The playing might have stopped, but the love of football remained. “It’s a game about power, about cooperation, about communication, about happiness and unhappiness, about perseverance, disappointment, hope and joy – everything we experience in daily life in terms of emotions is in a football match,” Rijneveld says. “We recognise ourselves in the players, we recognise ourselves in the rules. Football is kind of a ritual and I think that’s why it’s so important to many people.”
Written after the Netherlands were knocked out of Euro 2020, their poem Substitution applause sums up so much about the tumultuous week we have just been through, not only in football but in the Wimbledon championships and Tour de France. It speaks not to victory but to the moment in every sport when the body gives out.
“It’s never been about the win for me, I find losing much more interesting,” says Rijneveld. “You can lose and still feel like a winner; the other way around is impossible. Sometimes we long to lie on our backs and stare at the clouds and not have to perform for a while.”
By Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, translated by Michele Hutchison
With a penalty in my legs, I caught a glimpse of
the hunting grounds before me as I lay mowed
down on the grass, wondering if I was healed now,
whether once floored, the curse clenched between
my teeth, torn calf muscles, I had finally become what
I wanted to be: motionless and still. The bliss of
this moment was almost impossible to put into words –
well, how would you put it – not being pulled to my feet
this time, for once not standing up and getting on with
things, just simply lying there like run-over quarry. Yes
lying there and perishing, because I could, because no
one is ever blamed for perishing, no yellow or red card
would be incurred, no more goals that I could miss. I lay
there in that blissful moment, temporarily out of play,
still dreaming of ball possession, of leaving the
defence, of a glorious long shot at goal,
no feeble substitution applause, never again offside.
But once I had been floored I saw how I’d dribbled
through the years, how I was constantly being mowed
down and no one ever covered my back, that the hours
were full of feints, feints made in hope and that
I was fooled over and over again, and for the first time
I stared up at the clouds in peace as I thought of extra
time, days with extra time and more lying down, with
that penalty in my legs, being a hopeless miss
sometimes and miles off goal, but that’s the way things
are with all those chances and life in the knockouts.