Like most, if not all boys growing up in 1950s Arequipa, Peru, my father Renato was obsessed with fútbol; unlike many of his peers, he was as passionate about calling the game as he was about playing it. He went to the stadium every Sunday with my grandfather, and, at halftime, he would wander toward the press box, peek in, and try to overhear the commentary. The radio men impressed him; they were never at a loss for words. On Mondays, the local newspapers would print diagrams of the previous day’s goal-scoring sequences, and my father would study these, recalling the plays as he’d seen them and thinking how he might have narrated the lead-up, the shot, the goalkeeper’s futile dive, and the ball hitting the back of the net. At night, he’d fall asleep calling games in his head, matches starring his heroes, the local boys of FBC Melgar or El Piérola or Alianza San Isidro. He spent his Saturdays at the field behind the school, holding a microphone wired to a tinny speaker, narrating the scrimmages between the various grades. Here, he began to make his reputation, using his voice to add a certain glamor to what otherwise would have been ordinary neighborhood games. The players responded to his baroque and quick-witted descriptions of the unfolding match and elevated their game accordingly.
Soon, my father was performing at local talent shows, including once before a sold-out audience at the municipal theater in Mollendo, a beach town a few hours from Arequipa. For the occasion, he improvised an imaginary game between his beloved Melgar and Universitario, hated rivals from the capital, Lima. When, in his recreation of the invented match, Melgar scored, the gathered crowd cheered and celebrated just as enthusiastically as if the goal had been real. My father recalls observing the audience, some 300 shouting men, women, and children on their feet, and not quite believing the scene. People were embracing, clapping. “¡Golazo!” He stepped from the stage and was met by his uncle, Juan Castor, overcome with pride, weeping.
If this all sounds far-fetched, one must recall how the sport was experienced in the days before the arrival of television, before ubiquitous replays and streaming match highlights were available on the Internet. In early 1950s Peru, either you were at the stadium, watching the game yourself, or you were picturing it in your mind’s eye, inspired by the able call of a radio announcer. You were trained to be able to see it, to imagine it. Soccer is not easy to narrate, of course, complicated by its large field, its speed, its unpredictability. The best players are often those who move in the most unexpected ways, those creatives who roam far out of position when their instinct demands it. How to describe a deft pass with the outside of the foot done at full speed, or a defender losing his balance, fooled by a subtle, almost imperceptible feint of the hips? And even this is only part of the challenge: Any description of a game for radio had to be both precise and global. You narrated the play itself, but also what might come next: not only who had the ball, but also where his teammates were in relation, his opponents, the shifting array of options.
I’ve thought a lot about that night at the municipal theater. Perhaps it’s impossible to re-create the innocence of a crowd that could cheer wildly as a child stood onstage describing an imaginary match, an imaginary goal. These are different times. Goals, as a currency, have been devalued, of course. In 2010, you can watch them all day long—goals scored in the leagues of Japan or Belgium or Paraguay or Ghana; goals scored off volleys, headers, own goals, goals that feel like accidents or works of art, or somewhere in between. You can feed yourself an endless diet of scoring, but this is so far from the game my father played and fell in love with as a boy—so far from the game he narrated—that it is completely unrecognizable. That night, my father convinced the audience that the match he was describing was real; and, in a real match, goals are the exception, and almost always a surprise. The crowd erupted, celebrating this concocted goal for a simple reason. He had them so enthralled with the game that they hadn’t expected it.
My father was a student of the art of calling soccer, and everyone knew he had a gift. It wasn’t long before he was being invited up to the stadium press box on Sundays; occasionally, they even gave the kid a mic. In 1956, the legendary announcer Óscar Soto Solis left Arequipa to try his luck in the capital; and Radio Continental, the most powerful station in southern Peru, was suddenly without its emblematic voice. Within months,they’d found a successor: my father. In the space of two years, he’d gone from calling neighborhood games to imaginary matches to being live on the air from Melgar Stadium every Sunday. He was only 14.
My father kept his job at Radio Continental for four years, until his studies became too demanding. It was in 1960 that Soto Solis returned from Lima—the hometown legend never had much success in the capital. This was the right moment for my father to step away. The veteran announcer took back his old spot, and my father dedicated his full attention to college.
Naturally, when I hear my old man’s radio stories, I get nostalgic for something I never experienced. Hearing a game on the radio may not be richer than watching it on television, but there’s no question that these are two different experiences. A well-called match on the radio will allow you to see parts of the game you wouldn’t pay attention to otherwise. A good announcer will notice for you—the spacing between midfielders, a goalie dangerously off his line, a frustrated striker waiting impatiently for a ball.
By the time television had arrived in Arequipa, my father had already moved to the capital to continue his education. I asked him about it, not too long ago; about this transition, its effect on the game, and on the imaginations of fans. Was something lost?
My father thought about it, but not long. After all, he loved the sport. He loved being near the action. And he was, more than anything else, supremely confident in his ability to transmit that love, no matter the medium: “If there’d been television at the time,” he said, “then of course, I would’ve been on television.”
Daniel Alarcón is the author of the novel Lost City Radio, winner of the 2009 International Literature Award. His most recent book, The Secret Miracle, was published in April.