Edited by Gary Oswald

Sea Lion Press

222pp/$6.96/December 2023

If We'd Just Got That Penalty

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

Gary Oswald has edited the anthology If We'd Just Got That Penalty, which explores the world of sport through alternate history. In some cases, the focus is very much on the individual sporting event or people participating, without exploring the larger world. Other stories take a more holistic view. The variety of sports explored by the authors demonstrate the universality of sport, with many of the more obvious sports ignored in favor of less known athletic endeavors.

A world in which buzkashi is a major international sport is definitely a world in which sporting history has taken a different turn. Jared Kavanagh postulated such a world in "Goats and Circles," which outlines W.G. Paterson's attempts to field a New England buzkashi team to face off against a team put up by the neighboring United States. Although Kavanagh doesn't explain the specifics of how the United States fractured in his timeline, it doesn't matter for the story and he provides enough context that the reader can understand the difference between the countries of New England and the United States. Set during the time the Civil War was occurring in our own timeline, the story explores race relations in the alternate timeline and also notes that even if the U.S. is tarred with the brush of slaveholding, not everyone in the U.S. approves of it, just as not everyone in New England agrees that the races should be equal.

Editor Gary Oswald falls into one of the traps of alternate history in "Vodou Props," which is about the attempt to field a Haitian rugby team in a world in which Hispaniola has divided into four different Haitian countries. Oswald has clearly thought through the historical scenario that led to the world he envisioned and he shares it, in detail, to the detriment of the story. While the machinations of putting together a Haitian rugby team are interesting, there is too much background information and the point of the story often feels as if it has been lost against the background information.

Behind professional sports is big and complex business, which is the basis for Callum Taylor's "The Whyte Knight." Unfortunately, business dealings don't always make for the most interesting of stories and Taylor focuses on the backstabbing and financial concerns behind the purchase of a failing football team, the Rangers F.C., in this story, which has Craig Whyte attempting to save the team from the insolvency that it faced in the early 2010s. Taylor's decision to report all of the doings rather than focus on the characters' interactions serves distances the reader from the story.

Blaise Burtulato's "Lamenting One's Luck" almost feels like a combination of the previous stories in the collection as it relates Ando Naomori's attempts to build an international kickball league based on the ancient Chinese sport cuju and its spinoffs. Burtulato gets into the nitty gritty of the negotiations to put together the league and expand it to different areas, showing Ando talking to different people to impress upon them why the league could be successful. Burtulato makes it clear that the building of the league isn't just a business deal for Ando, but a personal one as well as he is a former player, which gives the story added emotional weight.

David Flin expects the reader to have some familiarity with test match cricket in "A Black and White Case," which offers a look at the Marylebone Cricket Club and its attempts to integrate. As with many of the stories in If We'd Just Got That Penalty, the story is more narrative reporting than a story that offers the view through the eyes of Basil D’Oliveira, the South African at the center of the attempt to integrate, or Colin Cowdrey, the team's captain who was perfectly happy with the status quo.

In "Expect a Bit of Fighting," Jason Sharp offers a view of workers from various backgrounds who are locked out of their factory by ownership who wants to force them to take a cut in pay. While standing around all day waiting for management to make them an offer, the workers begin to play the sports of their different cultures, teaching each other the new games and new rules, occasionally talking about the histories of their games. Negotiations eventually begin when a representative from the factory's ownership attempts to bribe some of the workers and the locked out men begin to use their new found knowledge of different sports against the ownership. Although "Expect a Bit of Fighting" doesn't have an alternate history vibe, it is one of the stronger works in the anthology.

As an alternate history story, Jared Kavanagh's "The Red and the Grey" demonstrates one of the problems with creating a lengthy post-change history. At a certain point, it may technically be an alternate history, but it loses the feeling of alternate history because it is set in a world that is too different from our own world. Kavanagh creates a new version of football, bringing in aspects of football fan culture around his new sport to look at the manner in which football offers people a sense of tribalism and belonging. The fan bases he depicts take hooliganisms to heights that it may not have seen since the Nika riots destroyed Constantinople in 532.

Mark Ciccone looks at a world in which the Nazis won World War II and the world has returned to a semblance of normal in "Tor-to-Toe." Eschewing the major topics, he focuses on the 1952 Olympics, taking place in Germany. The US delegation seems designed to hold the mirror up to German racism by including such African-American athletes as Jesse Owens and Joe Louis, the latter of whom re-connects with German boxer Max Schmeling, who fought each other in two bouts in 1936 and 1938. Although the two men became friendly after their fights, Ciccone places them on opposite sides of a political divide, although when trouble breaks out, the American Olympians must rely on the friendship between Louis and Schmeling to remain safe.

Peter S. Randall offers up "Phoenix Club" in a post-apocalyptic world in which London has been reduced to a no-man's land of ashes. It tells the story of a washed-up football player who knows the he is about to have his career cut short, only to learn that he has been selected to coach a new club that is being set up to play in London, in an effort to bolster national morale and show that London is a viable city once again. Randall doesn't particularly flesh out his background, which could be set in some future England or possibly in the past following a nuclear war. He doesn't show the Londoners' reactions to once again having their own football club. What he does do is offer sports as a symbol of hope and continuity, whether it is the professional club the main character is being set to start or the pick-up games that it may inspire.

"Those Who Can Hear the Music" offers a world in which Charles Lindbergh has been elected President of the United States and Fascism has descended on the country, with African-Americans, Jews, and other minorities given second class citizenship or worse. In this world, the music and dancing that came out of Harlem, even if appropriated and watered down by white Americans, is seen as both a told of the government as well as a means to protest against the government and maintain a sense of dignity among those who dance the original form of the Lindy Hop. The plotting and planning of the characters to subvert the role they have been conscripted into is handled well and even if their rebellion appears to be limited, it also shows a triumph of the individual.

Roller derby got its start in 1922, and although it gained popularity in the 1930 and 40s, it never really broke out beyond a niche sport. In Ryan Fleming's "The Grandmomma of Them All," roller derby fills the place that professional wrestling does in our own world, drawing huge crowds and bring televised for huge ratings. Told from the point of view of Dana, a member of the security detail at Madison Square Gardens during a huge match, the story indicates that not everyone is happy with the money and audiences roller derby is bringing in

David Flin offers an alternative London to the one Randall offered with "The Beautiful Game." The sport is still football, but in this story, Flin focuses on the individual players who made up one of the great teams. They formed a team from independent London that was so good that the English team couldn't avoid playing them. The story has a nostalgic slant to it as Flin's narrator is looking back on their glory days and reflecting the post-sports life of the players, even as he attempts to maintain a position in the sport and ensure that it continues.

Many of the stories in If We Had Just Got That Penalty do not read like alternate history. They either don't explore the impacts of the changes wrought by the sporting events in the broader world or don't lay out the changes that led to the world in which the sport is played in enough detail to make it feel like an alternate history. Similarly, while sports stories can offer up a commentary on humanity, many of the stories in this anthology are so focused, that they seem to occur devoid of any connection to a world outside the match being described. The stronger stories do not fall into this trap and do tie the sports to the human condition.

Jared Kavanagh Goats and Circles
Gary Oswald Vodou Props
Callum Taylor The Whyte Knight
Blaise Burtulato Lamenting One's Luck
David Flin A Black and White Case
Jason Sharp Expect a Bit of Fighting
Jared Kavanagh The Red and the Grey
Mark Ciccone Toe-to-Toe
Peter S. Randall Phoenix Club
Alex Wallace Those Who Can Hear the Music
Ryan Fleming The Grandmomma of Them All
David Flin The Beautiful Game
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