He dreamed of her in the night. When he woke, she was there with him too. In that lucid state of semi-sleeping her voice was almost with him in the room. He needed only to close his eyes to travel back to England, back to their home. He recalled her habit of running her finger in languid circles through his chest hair, reading comments from his ballooning social media feeds, amused by the spurting growth of fame.
She would read the declarations of love he received – from men as well as women – and the offers of lovemaking to the sisters and girlfriends of some grateful fans. She would read the reminders that he is not as good as other players; the reminders that he is nowhere near as good as the greatest players from history. The weekly accusations of cheating. The countless demands that he should donate his wages to the NHS, or other worthy causes. The death threats too.
She said she wasn’t scared, she was just fascinated to see it all unfold. Football is a crucible. He had become a symbol, part of a white-hot expression of passion and identity. His feet give joy to hundreds of thousands. It makes many enemies too. Isn’t that crazy?
He had recalled laughing one time. She had presumed offence, pulling herself up on her elbows with an air of affront. He had kissed her and assured that nothing was wrong, it was just… England is one thing. This summer will be another. The World Cup…
He had got called up. They had even asked him to captain. That was a question with only one answer. His successes had become his homeland’s too. Come June, Farhang would play football with 81 million pairs of feet.
Dawn light broke tentatively through the canopy. The last seventy-two hours had been crazy: Shuttled from Manchester to London. A flight. A heavily photographed day in Tehran with the president and the state media. He joined the team yesterday evening. They took a private flight to Moscow, a train south to a city called Rostov, a fleet of private limousines had taken them even deeper in this enormous country, to a city called Grozny – Chechnya – and finally to a hotel around two in the morning.
They were still staring. These slightly irritating chaperones. He doesn’t remember their names. Privately he calls them Tall Guy, Spot-Mullet and One-Eye. They were wearing the same shirts as last night, when they met him at Rostov. Counterfeit shirts with Jahangir 10 spelt incorrectly on the reverse. He doesn’t mind though. He has known hard times, has known poverty. These roads were rougher than a warzone.
Spot-Mullet leaned forward to show Farhang the goal he scored in March, the scorpion kick that won firstly the Manchester derby, then later the goal of the season. The moment, some said, that Manchester United won the league. Spot-Mullet grinned and offered his outstretched fist for a bump.
“Jahangir 10,” he said in a high-pitched voice, “Manchester United. Goal!”
He had shown him the goal several times over last night and said much the same words. He had his photo taken with all three of them, over and over, his teammates watching listlessly on from the sides. This morning, they were all left back at the hotel, allowed to sleep. Their host was not interested in meeting them, they were told. Their host wanted only Farhang Jahangir.
Spot-Mullet beckoned Farhang forward once again, to say he played too. He was a midfielder. He began asking for help getting a trial with a European club when the others laid into him, confirming in broken English that not only was Spot-Mullet a player without talent, he was also twenty-eight now, and a drunk too. Tall Guy pointed over to One-Eye.
“This man… this one…. he could play,” said Tall Guy.
One-Eye told him to shut up. They rode in silence awhile. Spot-Mullet giggled nervously.
“Would you like to know what happened?” he asked.
“Shut fuck up,” replied One-Eye, angrily pushing Spot-Mullet. The three of them chattered heatedly in their language, gesticulating back and forth.
Farhang was tired and was not so interested to learn what happened. He offered a bland smile and looked out of the window at the passing of the trees. In the end, Spot-Mullet won the debate and regained his attention by poking a knee.
“What happened. Our President made new Chechnyan league. He made his own club with own money, hired best players in all of Chechnya, few Russians. He registers as player himself. He plays sometimes when can. They start well, winning the league. Then they got stupid. Drink and women. So, he fires coach and makes his brother-in-law new coach. Two weeks before league ends, they are fourth, even if they win both games, they can only finish second, in his league, in his country. The competition was cancelled. Now there is no club, and no league. Some people go missing, some people have less eyes than they used to.”
Their host was a stocky man dressed head to toe in combat fatigues. A red headband could be glimpsed through the thick copper hair that seemed to ring wildly from everywhere on his head except for the eyeballs. As they disembarked from the limousine, the host broke into a broad smile, pointed Farhang out, and shouted his name to the retinue of bodyguards that waited outside the building.
Tall Guy slapped Farhang’s shoulder in an overly familiar way and urged him forwards. The host grabbed Farhang in a crushing bear hug. He introduced himself, his name was Yusprov, President of Chechnya and a huge fan of Manchester United, of Cristiano Ronaldo, now also of Farhang Jahangir, the best playmaker at the club since Paul Scholes. The photo op was orchestrated, the poses struck, arms around each other, as they smiled to the camera.
Yusprov reiterated the season’s numbers – 19 goals and 23 assists – as Manchester United won their first title post-Alex Ferguson.
“Farhang Jahangir. No. 10. In your first season at United, you are club player of the season, league winner, and league player of the season. You are world-class my brother, world-class. A legend in making.”
Yusprov slapped Farhang’s back hard and told him he was hungry.
Inside was a large room with an abandoned reception desk and several large screens. Yusprov lead the entourage through into a hallway, where he summoned a large elevator. They squeezed in and rode silently to the fourth floor. The doors opened into a corridor, towards a box room where two girls waited, holding the doors open, dressed in bikinis and false smiles.
A table had been laid out by the window with fruit, juice, and water. Yusprov put his arm around Farhang and directed him to the window. Below, a football pitch was being hosed and trimmed by several groundmen. Two small stands flanked the pitch at either goal end, possibly both able to accommodate a thousand or two thousand observers. Yusprov said that he loved football, that he built all of this himself, from his own money. Forty million euros to build this ground and clubhouse.
“One day I will make a team and start a league here – who knows, perhaps in partnership with Farhang Jahangir and Manchester United!” he roared to his entourage. There were notes of real hope breaking through the weak joke. “Have you met Cristiano Ronaldo?” he asked. Farhang hadn’t. “That’s a shame my friend. What a man! What a player! What a body!”
The bikini girls brought through the breakfast. A platter of boiled eggs and cured meats, tomato salad, hot lamb sausages and flatbreads, jars of pickles, bottles of lager and shots of vodka. Farhang declined the alcohol, keeping mainly to fruits and bread and trying a little lamb sausage out of curiosity. Yusprov spoke throughout breakfast, enquiring about the season, the personalities of teammates and opponents. The others at the table listened in rapturous silence. They drank and ate voraciously, throwing back vodka, shovelling down food, each stifling quiet belches tinged with the scent of pickles and beer.
Yusprov wondered if this player, and this manager, were, “how you say… Dick heads?” He asked if one of Farhang’s teammates was homosexual. Farhang did not know. “He runs like there is a cock up his ass,” laughed Yusprov, slapping the table and throwing back his beer.
The bikini girls brought drinks through, topping up glasses. One of them asked Farhang if he wanted a drink, now that he had lined his stomach. She was pretty. She had a twinkle in her eye, an invitation towards temptation. He shook his head and looked back to his plate. He was thinking of his fiancé, and of his faith. Yusprov bellowed with laughter.
“He cannot look at her! Either he really likes her, or she disgusts him! Which do we think it is?”
The table took their cue and joined in the laughter. The girl walked away. When Farhang looked back to Yusprov, he was leaning mischievously on one elbow. There was something almost boyish about his face, for the most fleeting of moments, it was almost endearing.
“If you see a girl you like, if you see girls you like, you tell me. We have beds downstairs. Or I can have girls sent to your hotel later. Everything on me, yes?”
“Thank you for your hospitality sir,” replied Farhang, “but I have a fiancée waiting back home.”
“And?” Yusprov stared until it was just uncomfortable, he then relented and slapped his shoulders hard enough that it hurt. “My friend! It is up to you. This is not England, there are no newspapers and girly gossip magazines here. Here you want fuck, you fuck, it is simple!” He raised his beer glass and clinked it against Farhang’s juice.
“Thank you. Really though, I am fine, thank you.”
“You don’t want fuck? Are you calling our women ugly?” Yusprov demanded with a display of pantomime affront that he barely maintained for a whole second. “Or can it be that you are the homosexual?”
The entire table erupted in laughter.
The Iranian FA had assured the team, Iran and Chechnya were both friends of Putin. They were more than safe. They would be looked after lavishly. This was a World Cup to relax and enjoy.
“I am a Muslim,” said Farhang, somewhat apologetically when the laughter subsided.
The statement suffocated the mirth. Chechnya has its own Islamic tradition, the voices of ancestors no doubt filtered through the minds of the hosts.
“My friend, it was just a funny joke,” said Yusprov. “Twice Chechnya fought for independence. The first time, my family even lead the fight. We fought Jihad. My father was an Imam. I remember once wanting to be just like him.” He leaned closer and whispered, “my hands are dripping with blood. In another life, I ordered the deaths of many Russian soldiers. I killed many myself. All for the faith. During the second war, my family saw sense. We do not beat Russia. We work with them. Allahu Akbar. But Putin is great also, he gives strength to both of our countries.”
“I wonder sometimes,” Spot-Mullet tentatively opined, “is it actually better to be homosexual than to be Muslim? There is no pussy either way, but at least the homosexual man can still drink beer!”
A murmur of laughter rippled around the table. Farhang was unable to laugh. Yusprov studied him intensively. He misdiagnosed Farhang’s silence, mistaking self-consciousness for offence.
“You say a silly thing,” declared Yusprov pushing aside his plate and leaning forwards in his chair. “You are saying that if it came to it, you would be willing to suck penis for a beer. Farhang,” he asked, turning back. “Farhang, would you like this to happen? The degradation of this infidel? I am sure we can provide a penis for this man to suck.”
Farhang did not know what to say.
“Not a man’s penis,” stressed Yusprov. “We have no faggots here. But we do have animals. Pig penis. Goat penis. Bull’s penis… My friend – name your penis!”
There was nothing boyish nor mischievous about his face any longer, it seemed there was nothing hypothetical or ironical about his offer.
“We would not be watching!” Yusprov thundered after Farhang remained silent for too long. “But this man insults the faith. He says it is better to suck a penis than to worship Allah. Who are we to spare him damnation? One word from you, and I will grant justice.”
Spot-Mullet was talking fast, backtracking in his own tongue until he was slapped into silence by one of Yusprov’s bodyguards.
When Farhang eventually found his voice, he used it to tell Yusprov that the man was only joking, and that was fine.
Yusprov seemed disappointed by this reply. He tipped back a shot of vodka and scratched an eyebrow. “Another joke,” he declared as he took to his feet. “Now, let’s play football!”
Those on Yusprov’s team wore white shirts. The opposition played in blue. Five-a-side. Before kick-off, there were photographs. Team hustles, Yusprov had a desk brought out and he simulated ‘signing’ Farhang to his team. They then played keep-ups for the camera, the two of them. Yusprov was unable to control the ball for long and was displeased by the look of obvious concentration and fluster in the photographs. After several abortive attempts, he kicked the ball away in frustration and pointed to the pitch.
“Let’s go! First team to ten,” he declared.
The pace was slow. Yusprov positioned himself as a goal-hanging centre forward. All three other teammates passed to Farhang the moment they received the ball. He would then create chances for Yusprov. The opposition defence compensated for their president’s obvious lack of speed by hanging back, pretending to be torn between rushing back to goal or closing him down. Still, he missed more than he scored. His touch and control were awful and in front of goal he had the composure of a starving dog. Twenty dull minutes later, they were 8-0 up, the cameras capturing it all. Yusprov ran to them at times, peeling off to celebrate wildly, pulling Farhang along for further photographs.
“Like Ronaldo!” he shouted, whipping off his top and flexing a torso too thick with ginger hair to discern any muscular definition. “What a player he is! What a man! What a body!”
He tugged at Farhang’s shirt too until he sheepishly yielded. And then they stood together, topless and flexing.
“C-R-7,” shouted back the photographer, clapping and laughing.
“Let me try the scorpion kick,” requested Yusprov before one kick off.
Farhang dribbled forward obligingly, leaving a defender on the floor with some quick footwork as Yusprov cheered. He turned and floated the ball, backwards and up.
Yusprov threw himself enthusiastically forward, but could barely raise his leg halfway high enough, and came nowhere near to connecting. He lay face down on the turf. No one laughed. The opposition duly stroked the ball between each other as their president took to his feet. Those photographs would not be used.
The ball was passed up field. One-Eye collected it and quickly pirouetted away from a white shirt in defence. One-Eye sprinted with it towards the open goal and put it comfortably away. 8-1. Yusprov was not impressed. As they put the ball back for kick-off, Yusprov joked about One-Eye’s ability to judge distance and space correctly as everyone laughed. He added quietly that perhaps he should’ve taken his other eye too.
The mood was darkening. Farhang took it upon himself to put on a show, distracting Yusprov by dribbling and feigning, flicks and turns. Farhang scored once, just for him, and ran to the President for a double-palmed high-five for the cameras. It put the smile back on the Yusprov’s face. Finally, Farhang laid on the winner, putting the ball so cleanly in front of the goal that even Yusprov could not fail to knock it over the line.
“Great game everyone. 10-1!” Yusprov said it with a straight face. The victory had been beyond hollow. The President seemed to have genuinely enjoyed it.
Farhang lingered in his shower cubical for longer than he normally would. When he eventually emerged, they were all waiting for him. Yusprov boasted that his clubhouse had invested in shower cubicles, because no man wants to see another man naked.
“I am needed back with the team,” Farhang said as forcefully as polite could be. “We must train and practice together. Our first match is in four days.”
“Of course, of course,” Yusprov replied. “I want to show just one more thing to you. After this, I will have you taken back.”
He took Farhang down corridors, deeper into the clubhouse. As they reached a large set of double doors, Yusprov turned to him, his eyes alight with excitement.
“Here, football is a big sport,” said Yusprov, “but not number one sport. Here, above all else, we value strength and endurance. We play a proper man’s sport, something that soft western countries would tell you is wrong, while their men wear dresses and makeup in public and marry each other. From here, no phones and no photos. Understood?”
“Good. First, a question. The question. Lionel Messi or Ronaldo, who is best?”
“Ronaldo is unbelievable,” Farhang replied. “But Messi is even better. He turns football into art.”
“My friend, I agree and disagree,” said Yusprov. “Come, come.”
Yusprov opened the door to a boxing gym. Inside the ring an enormous man of around six-foot-eight lounged against the ropes. A small crowd of young men were gathered around. As Farhang and Yusprov entered the gym, the crowd cheered and applauded wildly. Many among them were wearing counterfeit Manchester United shirts, some twisted round to show Farhang his surname printed on their backs. Yusprov ushered Farhang and their entourage onto a stage area, raised to the level of the ring.
“The man in the ring is called Alex,” said Yusprov, looking like an excited boy once more. “He is a champion.”
As they took their seats, unseen speakers began blasting US hip hop, full of swagger and aggression. The crowd began to cheer as another large man stepped into the ring. The fighters began inching forwards, their fists up. They did not wear any protective gear or gloves, there was no referee. Farhang pointed all of this out to Yusprov.
“A real man’s sport,” the President replied, as the first kicks and punches were exchanged.
When one took the other in a clinch, Farhang was shocked to see them headbutting each other, spitting, kneeing and kicking out in primal duel. The contest took less than two minutes. One of the fighters was caught by the full force of a punch, he slowed in a daze. Yusprov’s champion took full advantage, throwing his opponent to the floor before kicking him in the head until he was unconscious.
“Here, Alex is Ronaldo. He fights with the spirit of Putin,” Yusprov declaimed, taking to his feet to applaud.
Farhang was surprised to see One-Eye step into the ring to next face Alex. At least a full foot shorter and of a much slighter build, he seemed visibly cowed in the face of the mismatch.
“He wanted to impress you earlier,” Yusprov giggled, noting Farhang’s confusion. “I told him if he wants to impress out guest so much, he will fight Alex.”
One-Eye trembled as he approached and threw forward a cautious jab. Five seconds and three punches later, he was unconscious. Yusprov laughed so hard he was crying.
The fighting did not end there. Different fighters entered the ring. Two always walked in, one always walked out.
On the eighth fight, or perhaps the ninth, one fighter had another pinned to the floor. He was punching the floored man in the head when he gave a cry of pain and shock that gave way to a scream as the floored man twisted the knife he had plunged into his assailant’s side. The floored man pulled himself free as the stabbed man fell on his good side to observe the wound.
Farhang hoped it would all be over now at least, and yet the floored man was looking directly at Yusprov, who was not stopping anything.
“What do you think?” asked the President.
“Surely this is too far,” Farhang urged, pointing at the knife.
“I meant, like Roman Emperor, what do you think? Thumbs-up? Thumbs-down?”
Farhang turned in his chair. The president was staring back at him, his eyes fixed and unblinking. After long moments he slapped his knee with a note of false laughter.
“Another funny joke of course. The knife is too far. That man will be removed and disciplined and the other will receive medical care.”
He clicked at the floored man with a sly wink. The floored man was escorted from the marquee, the stabbed man lifted onto a stretcher and lifted out. Yusprov stood and brushed idly at his legs.
“Fighting is our number one sport. It keeps us from turning weak, he said. However, I understand that in football, training is your strength, and you need to be strong for the World Cup. Let me walk you to the car.”
They passed silently through the club house and back towards the car park. The limousine driver stubbed out his cigarette, entered the vehicle and started the engine.
“Thank you for your hospitality,” said Farhang quietly as the door was opened for him.
“My friend, it is my pleasure,” replied Yusprov as he grabbed Farhang’s shoulders. “Tomorrow I will take you shooting. We have rifles, we have shotguns, grenade launchers and RPG’s. If you think target practise is too easy for a man of your skills, then perhaps we can find something that moves. I promise that for as long as you are in Grozny, you are my number one guest. And we have many days together yet.”
Farhang hoped he was smiling as he stepped inside the limousine. He began to close the door before Yusprov grabbed it, leaving Farhang stuck half-in and half-out of the vehicle.
“My friend, one last thing. You said earlier Messi is better than Ronaldo. I said I agreed and disagreed. You see, Messi is better player, but one day, Ronaldo will win. One day Messi will find he has gotten old, and slow, that he is fading away. Then it will become clear that the other guy was never beat, the other guy waited his turn, and stayed sharp. Have you Ronaldo’s body at 35? Sometimes I think of it and I say to myself, that… that’s what Putin is. The West is crumbling under its arrogance and decadence. It is fat and complacent. Trump is a relegation manager, and Putin is the Balon D’or. You live in the Premier League country. It has many good players and managers. All just following the money, even you my friend. That country was stupid enough to make itself weaker, greedy enough that it sells itself off, piece by piece, until one day, it is not the Premier League anymore. Ronaldo is strong. He does not get complacent. That is why he will win one day, my friend. And that day is getting close now.”
Jake Kendall is a Creative Writing graduate from the University of Edinburgh. You can follow his work @jakendallox
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