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Harvey Esajas, Martin and a wheelchair

(story published in the book ‘Campioni Oltre’, published by Neos Edizioni between the end of 2021 and the beginning of 2022)

by Enrico Fonte

The smell of corn flakes and toast has already invaded the whole house. After all, the little house where Martin and his mother Sara have lived since their father Peter abandoned them is not very big. But for the two of them and the little dog Minnie, a half-breed who has the air of a rather nice little girl, it is enough. Sara, a postman by profession, would not have time to take care of a more spacious home. She also works Saturdays from 4 to 10 a.m. When she ‘gets off’, she rushes home, has a bite to eat and heads off with Martin to the football pitch for the midday game featuring the neighbourhood ‘youngsters’. In the northern suburbs of Amsterdam, every detail smacks of Holland: long tree-lined boulevards, lush green lawns and a thousand intersecting roads, with a bustle of cyclists that feels like being in the middle of a northern classic. And, then, a few drops of water every day. Everyone knows everyone and the Saturday game, even if there are ‘only’ kids on the field, is a ritual that brings the whole community together.

“I have frequented the pitch for more than half a century, it is practically my home,” says Hans, the caretaker, speaking to a passer-by, who observes him as he opens the entrance gate, waiting for the match, “I have seen three generations of Dutchmen grow up here and the man who would become the strongest centre forward in history, Marco van Basten, even played a match here. You could see a mile away that he was from another planet’. Martin, on the other hand, is expected at breakfast. “Come to the table. The milk is warm and I have also brought you the blueberry jam you like so much’. It is Clara, the grandmother, who speaks. She has been in the house for a few hours, since Sara left for work. Martin does not answer. Clara starts to get impatient and tries again, this time raising her voice, but still nothing. So she heads for Martin’s room. The door is wide open. She enters: beside the Ajax flag is a framed shirt. It is Feyenoord’s and bears the number 8: Harvey Esajas wore it on the day of his debut in the Dutch Serie A. A true relic, as Esajas even managed to score on that day, and not against just any team, as the opponent on duty was the feared Ajax, where Harvey had grown up, football-wise. Further along, on the coffee table, there is also a framed photo: Martin can be seen embracing Esajas.

How many times have I told you not to play with that ball,’ Clara exclaims, pointing to the ball that tipped the pram over, after helping her grandson up from the ground. ‘Grandma, at least let me play here…’ snorts Martin, annoyed, tears in his eyes. The garden of the new house, as it had been that of the previous one, is his training ground but also his stadium. On that green turf, in perfect (so to speak…) solitude, he scored goals against the greatest goalkeepers on the planet, dribbled past the toughest opponents, served up delicious assists. He was also an AC Milan player. Even if only for a handful of minutes, just like his idol, Esajas. It’s all a dream. A dream, the Milan dream, that often returns in the thoughts of Martin, who sees in Esajas a kind of reference point. After the rupture of his Achilles tendon, which effectively barred him permanently from high-level football, Harvey had lost himself both as a footballer and as a man. Weighing over 100 kilos, he worked in a nightclub and a restaurant for a living. At one point, in 2004, came the unexpected call from his friend Seedorf, whom he had met in his youth team days at Ajax, and the invitation to train with AC Milan. An opportunity that Esajas had understood as a challenge, especially with himself.

And he had won it. After months of killer training and an iron diet, he had managed to win a place in the team and even the chance to play a handful of minutes in an Italian Cup match. A fairytale with a happy ending that, in Martin’s eyes, has only one meaning: sport can make the impossible possible. An awareness heightened after the young Amsterdam boy met Esajas on the sidelines of an Ajax old-timers’ match. It was on that occasion that the photo was taken that now sits on Martin’s desk; it was on that occasion that Martin confessed a dream to his idol: ‘One day I would like to be able to play a real football match with my teammates for whom I cheer every Saturday. There has to be a way…’. Yes, because Martin, because of his wheelchair, has never been able to tread on a real football pitch. He has always had to stop on the sidelines. That’s what he does every Saturday: he arrives at the pitch, chats with Hans and then goes to the locker room to greet his teammates. Before kick-off, he stands beside the coach and starts to cheer the team. How many times has he refrained from invading the pitch… After the decisive goal scored by his team against their historic rivals from the neighbouring district, he did not hold back and ran with his wheelchair into the middle of the pitch to celebrate the day’s hero. Today, however, promises to be an ordinary Saturday.

After the fright of the tumble in the garden has passed, Martin returns to the kitchen: his grandmother’s sweet breakfast cheers him up and the morning flies by in a flash. Sara returns and it is time to move to the camp. Hans greets Martin with a smile that has something special about it. “Hello champion,” Hans begins, “Are we winning today?”. Martin has put away the morning’s anger and replies, “If you and I played for sure…”. “I’d better tidy up the locker room, you, rather, get dressed… Today is a special day,” Hans retorts. Martin smiles, taking no notice of the words. In the changing room, however, there is indeed something different than usual. Hans, at the end of the benches that the kids use to undress and put on their game uniforms, has created a space for Martin. There is even a sign with his name on it, and on the chair nearby is a T-shirt: it has the number 8 on it. “What are you doing, Martin, not wearing it? I told you today is a special day…,’ says the caretaker. Martin has understood what’s going on: he will, as always, be the mascot, but this time he can wear the team shirt. He thinks to himself that he has earned it with all that support he has given to the team, so he puts it on. Meanwhile, his teammates arrive. Then it is the turn of the coach, but he is not alone. He is followed by a mysterious companion. He has his hood pulled down over his eyes.

As soon as he enters the locker room he lifts it up and reveals his identity: he is Harvey Esajas. Martin shoots with his wheelchair. It is an incredible surprise. The emotion is too great and the boy bursts into endless tears in Harvey’s arms. The coach takes the floor: ‘Today, following us from the sidelines, along with Martin, there will be another special fan of ours: the great Harvey Esajas, former Ajax, Feyenoord and AC Milan player. At that instant there is a knock at the door. It is the referee. It is already time for the reading of the list. Once the formalities are over, it’s off to the pitch. Martin, still in disbelief at this surprise, wearing the team’s number 8 shirt, walks with his idol to the long side of the pitch, next to the bench. There he stops the wheelchair and begins to comment on the game with Harvey. It is a special day on all fronts, because Martin’s team is already leading 4-0 after one hour of play. One only waits for the final whistle to celebrate with Martin and Harvey. But three minutes from the end, with the ball out for a lateral foul, the coach turns to Harvey and tells him: ‘It’s time.

Harvey winks back at him and calls the referee to ask for a change. He then turns to Martin: “Boy, this is your moment!”. Esajas moves to the bench, retrieves a special protection he had hidden before entering the locker room and mounts it on Martin’s wheelchair. “We got a special permit from the federation and today you can, exceptionally, play too. And get ready, because this is only the beginning; next year you will play a whole championship,’ the former pro explains to him before sending him onto the pitch. In the stands, everyone stands up, even the parents of the opposing children, applause breaks out and it is incredibly warm. Sara jumps for joy together with Minnie. Hans continues to stare at Martin, heedless of the tears that are streaming down his face.

Those three minutes with Martin on the pitch are already in history, as well as in the heart of the little boy. And Harvey is also in history, because he kept his promise: through I-Sport Special, the social inclusion foundation he founded with his wife Diana, he started a wheelchair football team that participates in local championships. And guess who the captain is? Martin! A special gesture for champions, like Martin, who are extremely special.