“I’m putting together a collection of short stories for charity. Would you like to write one?” asked Sebastian Dominguez.

“A story? Wouldn’t it be easier if we just played in a charity match?” replied Pablo Aimar.

The quip was rooted in the ex-Benfica star’s incredulity at the question he had just been asked. He may even have briefly suspected that the Newell’s Old Boys centre-back, who earned several caps for the Argentinian national side, had momentarily lost his mind. And perhaps he had, just a little, because sometimes to dream big and break down barriers, an ability to think outside the box is required.

In fact, Dominguez simply wanted to share his dream with Aimar: to publish a book containing stories written by footballers and coaches, the proceeds from which would all go to charity. In the end, he convinced his compatriot to come on board. He also managed to persuade many others to join the project, which saw 25 stories compiled into a collection entitled Pelota de papel (“Paper Ball”), which went on to become one of Argentina’s biggest literary hits of 2016.

Javier Mascherano, Jorge Sampaoli, Jorge Valdano, Nicolas Burdisso and Fernando Cavenaghi, among others, were all encouraged to write their own stories. Aimar, who retired in 2015, was one of the first to be contacted, when the idea was still taking shape in the heads of Dominguez, his friend Mariano Soso, the former Sporting Cristal coach, and the Uruguayan footballers who originally came up with the idea, Jorge Cazulo and Agustin Lucas.

“We were keen to get Aimar, and Nahuel Guzman, the Argentinian international goalkeeper – players with whom we had close relationships – and we found that after ten days or so, we already had eight or nine stories. And from that point on we stepped up our efforts,” Dominguez told FIFA.com.

“After chats with Agustin Lucas and Juanky Jurado, a journalist friend who compiled the book, we decided to give it the structure that is has today: a writer would provide a footballer with a beginning, the footballer would write the rest of the story – which would be related to football in some way – and an illustrator would add pictures.”

The choice to plough ahead eventually resulted in a project that involved no fewer than 73 people, who worked together to bring out a book that is already on its fifth edition, and of which 18,000 copies have been sold. It was initially published in Argentina and Uruguay, and will soon be available in Mexico, and in e-book format, which will enable it to be downloaded (in Spanish) anywhere in the world. 

All proceeds go to the Fundacion SI, a charitable foundation the main objective of which is to promote the social inclusion of Argentina’s most vulnerable communities, and to the Fundacion Pro Derechos, a Uruguayan pro-democracy group.

In addition, the book has been distributed to youth academy lodgings, hospitals and schools. The reason? “So that young kids, instead of turning on a video game, are introduced to reading, which is extremely important for their education,” explained Dominguez.

Alongside the charitable aspect, there is also a wish for vindication at the heart of the book – a desire to represent footballers in a more complete fashion. “Although players generally come from rather humble beginnings and find a form of salvation in professional football, if you dig around, you’ll find a bit of everything,” said Dominguez. 

“Cazulo, for example, is quite a cultured person, and the same goes for a whole pile of guys. Although I didn’t push for it, Agustin and Cazulo insisted that the book should project a different image of footballers, and that it should help to remove this label we seem to have of being complete idiots.”

Creative struggles
Ariel Scher is one of the most respected journalists in Argentina; he is also a writer. He took over the editing of the stories, which involved some hand-holding for some of the writers and some final tweaks for others, such as Mascherano, who wrote a tale about the late Tito Vilanova without ever naming him.

“They’re stories that filled me with emotion,” said Scher at a recent event promoting the book in Buenos Aires, where members of the public were granted access if they donated a toy. “Dominguez wrote a story in which there are two dimensions: what happens and what doesn’t happen. That’s very difficult to do. Mascherano’s is a very moving story, one that shows how literature can portray a life experience so wonderfully well.

“Aimar’s deals with one of life’s most important elements: family. I couldn’t write with the fondness he does. There are other stories that play about with time. Cavenaghi, among others, went down that road. Burdisso wrote a great story, with a really solid structure. He’s such a perfectionist that I woke up every morning to a new e-mail from him – we literally discussed every word. Years ago, we would have dreamt about doing this book without necessarily seeing it through. They have helped us to break down a lot of stereotypes.”

According to the players, they found the creative process to be something of a trial. “There were a few days where my mind was blank, but then I started to get something down on paper. It’s a bit of an adventure in that you don’t know how it’s going to turn out,” Aimar told FIFA.com.

“For a long time, the pressure to write actually prevented me from writing at all,” recalled Cavenaghi. “One afternoon I was in the car just thinking, and a story popped into my head out of nowhere. It was a really nice experience, and what’s fantastic is that it benefits others.”

Aimar is now ready to give it another try. “For the vast majority of us, it was our first writing experience. I really hope it won’t be the last,” he said. Dominguez, in keeping with his role of dressing-room leader, is enthusiastically pushing for a second instalment. “We believe that we can’t just stop there. We’re raring to go,” he concluded.