Part two of ‘Fourteen’, a fictionalisation of the 1974 World Cup final. If you missed part one you can find it here.
The dining room of the hotel was full of Dutch players – all dressed in orange tracksuits – studiously negotiating a late breakfast of cold meats and assorted fruit. Well-lit but sterile, the place smelled vaguely of detergent and gave its patrons the rather unappetising feeling that they were eating in the canteen of an anonymous psychiatric hospital. The walls were too white, the floors too washed and the windows too clear. The place reeked of sanitation.
Johan sat opposite a tousle-haired Johnny Rep and struggled to eat an apple that was well past its best, its skin shrivelling at the poles like a crudely preserved skull. Nobody spoke; the silence only intermittently broken by the strangled shrieks of stainless steel on porcelain, the muffled shouts of kitchen staff in distant rooms.
Bleary-eyed and furrowed, Rep wore the expression of a man who was failing in his attempts to forget his impending responsibilities. He ate with an awkward consciousness, his usually affable demeanour replaced by a tersely observed solitude. The morning’s equivocations were underlining its abnormality.
Some chewed, some gazed, and, after a time, some began to talk. The ice had melted slowly in the glass.
“Could you pass the butter?”
“Do you want another drink?”
“Are there no more pears?”
At the back of the room sat Jan Jongbloed and Ruud Geels, two men whose natural reclusiveness had been overcome by nervous excitement. Bonded through their outsider status and lack of Ajax connections, the two players now broke the room’s stilted atmosphere with a conversation that filled the air.
“…Müller will look to shoot at every opportunity…”
“…But Beckenbauer’s the threat from deep. He’s the supply line we need to constrict.”
“The manager’s right about that, but I still think we should double up on Müller. We can’t afford him any space at all…”
Seemingly unaware of the silence and searing eyes around them, the pair continued to talk for some minutes before Johan sensed the irritation of his colleagues and decided to intervene.
“Jan, Ruud. Save your breath, we don’t need this now. Clear your heads and relax for a while.”
The two players looked up at their captain and briefly glanced at one another before returning to their plates of salami. The atmosphere was becoming increasingly alien, an unspoken febrility underpinning a growing angst amongst men who were about to have their physical and philosophical creeds tested in the most pressurised of environments. Johan longed for this veil of tremulousness to be lifted, prayed for it to be no more than a fleeting moment of collective adjustment.
Relative stillness returned to the dining room before the glass doors swung open and a diminutive man, wrinkled and bald, stepped into the room. He was much older than the players, perhaps in his mid-fifties, and his tracksuit – threadbare at the elbows – showed signs of age. The players set their gaze upon him.
“Gentlemen, your bags have been loaded onto the bus. The manager wants you all ready to go in five minutes. Five minutes.”
His voice had a shrill quality to it when he negotiated vowels, his larynx desperately trying to compensate for his lack of physical stature. He waited a moment in the doorway before turning on his heels and marching back out, players draining their glasses before rising from their seats and following him into the lobby. The most virulent nerves had begun to be eased by the familiarity of routine.
“Good old Arnie,” Geels said dryly. “He always has been the boss’ rottweiler.”
The players assembled in the courtyard at the front of the hotel where their bus waited for them. An unremarkable machine, it’s oversized windows and green livery gave it the look of a beached submarine, as if it might not trust itself on four wheels. The driver, an overweight man missing several teeth and sporting coffee stains down the front of his rather tight-fitting shirt, climbed into the vehicle and motioned for the athletes to come aboard. Murmuring between themselves, the players scraped down the aisle and took their seats.
A cacophony of fumbling, the shuffled angularity that accompanies the search for comfort. At the front of the bus, unnoticed by the players, a besuited man had taken his seat. Poised, his dark hair combed neatly back, Rinus Michels could have been on his way to any faceless corporate event had it not been for the steely resolution in his eyes. As he had sat in his room that morning going over the final details in his mind, the concept of defeat had not entered his thinking. Blessed with convictions as strong as a crusader, Michels’ confidence was unassuming but total.
The bus coughed into life and began to roll slowly down the driveway. Curtains were pulled across the windows, the light shut out.
From his position on the back seat Ruud Krol searched his pockets for a few moments before producing a cassette from his jacket. It was passed forward to the driver who reluctantly agreed to play it, the machine crackling and spluttering with white noise before sparking into life. Guitar chords rushed to fill the space.
“The Outsiders? Again?” A voice chimed in the dark.
The bus wound its away through the Munich suburbs, nameless buildings standing guard as the bus was swallowed by the streets of Karlsfeld, the alien structure of the ectoplasmic Olympic Stadium rising into view. Johan’s thoughts turned to the distant future, to legacy.
He bought a poison sugar lump
At the cafe in the slum,
Put it in the old man’s tea
And waited patiently.
Daddy died on Saturday,
They had a ball on Sunday.
Had the funeral on Monday,
They didn’t pray.