Goals and Relegation

Striker Boy – by Jonny Zucker, Green Bean Books, 2020 (reprint of 2010 edition)

Nat Levy is a thirteen-year-old British boy who has spent the seven years since his mother’s death traveling the world with his bereaved father, Dave.  Wherever they live, Brazil, France, Germany, or elsewhere, their peripatetic existence is tied to soccer.  Dave had hoped for a professional career in the sport, but the demands of life had denied him that dream. Now he has transferred his hopes onto his incredibly gifted son, hoping to derive “nachas,” Yiddish for joyful pride, from Nat’s triumphs at soccer after deciding to finally return to England.  Green Bean Books has reissued this novel in tribute to the late Jonny Zucker, and to raise money for his family.

Striker Boy is truly a family book.  The story is structured around short, action-filled chapters, each with an intriguing title.  Middle-grade and young adult readers, as well as adult sports fans, will undoubtedly become engrossed in the details of specific soccer matches, as well as the complex rules of the sport that determine whether Nat’s Hatton Rangers will be relegated to a less prestigious division due to their uneven performance.  A mystery involving the dark side of the professional sports world complicates the picture of a boy and his father struggling to remake their lives. Both kids and parents will also be drawn into the book’s examination of family relationships.  Where does parental protectiveness need to recede and allow children to negotiate the difficulties of growing up?  How may a parent’s unfulfilled dreams grow to take over a child’s life, imposing expectations that eventually erase the boundaries between the two generations?  The line between Nat’s own goals and those of his dad become dangerously blurred.

This novel of soccer and parent-child relationships is also about the long life of grief.  Dave has never come to terms with his wife’s death; his emotional devastation has caused him to remain constantly in motion so that his son never been part of a community.  Nat has never attended school and his bar mitzvah was the result of a hasty negotiation with a Paris rabbi.  Nat confesses that, after his mother’s death in an accident, his “whole world had caved in and buried him alive.”  Even more expressively, and in language to which kids will easily relate, he sums up his feelings about the move back to England: “Rubbish home, rubbish school, rubbish soccer team – can life get any worse?” There is a fairy-tale quality to Nat’s unbelievable good luck when his talents are recognized, but, as in fairy tales, this rapid turn in his young life may be too good to be true.

Readers, depending upon their expectations, may be surprised by the book’s resolution. Nat, Dave, the brotherhood of the soccer team and powerful ambitions of its management, all lead to detours in Nat and Dave’s journey towards reassembling the pieces of their life together.  As the team’s manager exhorts his players, “Don’t forget what’s at stake…So this isn’t an ordinary football match. It’s a battle for survival.” Indeed!

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