“Trust me, I’ve wanted to punch you in the face a time or five.”
When the man you worshipped as a kid becomes your coach, it’s supposed to be the greatest thing in the world. Keywords: supposed to.
It didn’t take a week for twenty-seven-year-old Sal Casillas to wonder what she’d seen in the international soccer icon—why she’d ever had his posters on her wall, or ever envisioned marrying him and having super-playing soccer babies.
Sal had long ago gotten over the worst non-break-up in the history of imaginary relationships with a man that hadn’t known she’d existed. So she isn’t prepared for this version of Reiner Kulti who shows up to her team’s season: a quiet, reclusive, shadow of the explosive, passionate man he’d once been.
Nothing could have prepared her for the man she got to know.
Or the murderous urges he brought out in her.
“Sal, please don’t make me visit you in jail. Orange isn’t your color.”
This was going to be the longest season of her life.
A seven year old football nut (I won’t call it soccer because I am not American and everybody other than Americans calls the sport football because see, foot meets ball is football) Sal watches the debut of a nineteen year old German footballer Reiner Kulti on TV, watches him score an impossible goal and take his team to victory, and she is hooked for life. Literally. To football and to Reiner Kulti.
Sal did what the best of us with a childhood obsession, that stretches into teenage, do. Covered her bedroom walls with Kulti’s posters, wrote him fan letters declaring she was his #1 fan, had an imaginary relationship with him and informed her parents that one day she, Salome Casillas, was going to marry Reiner Kulti. Sal dreamed of playing with Kulti one day, no matter how out of the world her dreams looked like. So with the single minded focus of a girl on a mission, she played football, put her heart, soul and life into it, till her dream took a life of it’s own.
Of course, while Sal was busy perfecting her game, Reiner Kulti rose as an international superstar and became a world renown celebrity. He married when Sal was seventeen and in anger, she tore down all his posters from her walls. Then Kulti got divorced (but the damage was already done for the passionate teenager in love/hate with him), won more world cups and player of tournaments, allegedly got injured and retired. All in the course of 20 years.
The story starts however, with an announcement of a new assistant coach for a twenty seven year old Sal’s WPL soccer team- the Pipers. In a fun twist of fate, the new coach is none other than Reiner Kulti. But, and that was a big juicy but, Kulti is nothing like Sal and everyone knows and expects him to be. He is silent, distant and uninterested. Long past her childhood crush, the most aggravating thing for Sal now is, he does not even want to play football with any of them.
Thus starts ACT 2 of Sal and Kulti’s story (Kulti of course has no idea of Sal’s obsessive ACT 1).
Reiner Kulti is rude, infuriatingly taciturn and generally an ass. Sal, when she can’t take it anymore, calls him out on it. The after effects are good and bad. Kulti starts paying attention to the team. Which is good. He takes a special interest in Sal. That starts the bad (initially at least). Because when Kulti really starts coaching, he is relentless.
He kept going. “Twenty-three, this.” “Twenty-three, that.” Twenty-three, twenty-three, twenty-three…
Shoot me in the face, twenty-three.
There wasn’t affection in his tone, much less pride.
Every single time I looked at him when he called my number, his face was set in a rough expression. Glowering. He was glowering at me.
But my favorite thing that came out of his mouth was “Is that how girls play soccer?”
I’d heard that one before. It still got me every time.
But if what he wanted, was for me and the team to show him just how girls played, he got his wish. We were all out for blood.
Tough love apart, over a period of time, Sal and Kulti form a tentative friendship when Kulti unexpectedly starts spending time outside practice with Sal, starting with Sal kicking a ball to Kulti and him kicking it to a goal (not) followed by a one on one match between the two when Reiner Kulti plays football for the first time in two years.
For all his standoffish rudeness, Reiner ‘the King’ Kulti is not as uninterested as he comes off to be. His interest in Sal’s career comes through in how he rips her a new one and threatens to bench her when she does not play as well as she can in a match. He protects her, even if no one sees it. He stands by her and through sheer stubbornness that rivals Sal, fights to be her friend even when she doesn’t want him (outwardly of course).
He might have started pulling on the shortest of short ends of his hair in what was a mix of annoyance and frustration. “Yes, goddamnit, get mad! If my coach had ever even hinted at taking me out of a game, I would have lost it. You’re the best player on the team—“
I’d swear on my life that my heart stopped beating. Had he just said what I think he said?
“You’re one of the best I’ve ever seen, period, man or woman. What kills me is that you are a complete fucking pushover who’s hung up on worthless words in front of a person that doesn’t matter.” His cheeks were flushed. “Grow some balls, Casillas. Fight me for this. Fight anyone that tries to take this away from you,”
The friendship becomes deeper. It thrives. Over the course of a season, Sal comes to know the real Reiner Kulti, not the superstar, not the celebrity. Sal pulls Kulti out of his iron barricades, inch by glacial inch. The silent German makes his way into Sal’s heart, inch by precious inch. Their relationship grows over sharing runs and workouts, sharing games, sharing ice packs and arnica oil, sharing meals. Oh and small rebellions against their PR department and team managers after pictures of them start appearing in the press and Sal is threatened that she’d be traded with another team if she doesn’t keep a low profile. But by then, Sal is fighting for this burgeoning but fragile bond too.
Best thing about the heroine, Salome Casillas doesn’t do anything by halves. When she breaks her walls for Kulti, down the walls go with aplomb. She realizes she never really stopped loving her idol ‘the King’ and now, he means much more to her than a distant dream.
And by the Gods Reiner Kulti doesn’t half ass stuff as well! He loves Sal back with an intensity that took my breath away. He is tenacious, protective, possessive, obnoxiously honest, devious, a little needy and amazing with Sal and her family.
Yep! I swooned. I fell in love with Kulti too. Who wouldn’t? Reiner Kulti has now joined the ranks of my best book boyfriends. With honors!
Things I loved about Mariana Zapata’s Kulti-
- Salome is the best kind of heroine- never quits, works harder than possible, fights with the bitchiest of them and still has honor. She is completely awesome. Reiner Kulti is pretty awesome too. Together they are a force to be reckoned with.
- This is the best slow burn romance I have read.
- Sal’s relationship with her family. Both her parents are involved and loving. Her dad is a drama queen but her best friend. Her mom wanted something other than football for Sal, but supports her nonetheless. Her older brother Eric, also a footballer, is protective as brother should be. There is even a pest of a younger teen sister. They all talk to each other, matter in each other’s life and are as close knit as they can be while living cities apart.
- The book beautifully pictures the lives of athletes, one who is a superstar in contrast to the one who is as good but not valued as much as the other one. The sacrifices they make, the discipline they self impose, the everyday pain and sweat of keeping their bodies in top form to keep up their relevance, even the early bed times and careful food selections, everything reads genuine and real.
- The humor. Sal’s inner voice is hilarious.
- All characters are well written, well fleshed out and fun to read.
Things I didn’t like about Mariana Zapata’s Kulti-
- Not a damn thing…