Author: Guede Mazaka
“Because these wings are no longer wings to fly
* * *
There’s one thing José Mourinho does that really gets to you, the seasoned professional, the survivor of the Communism-to-capitalism transition, the friend of Roman fucking Abramovich who is so important Putin will reprimand him instead of signing an arrest warrant in order to get more of his time. It is: on the day that the team-sheet comes out, Mourinho calls the ones who’ve made it out to the pitch and leaves the one who didn’t to sit in the dressing-room, alone and awkward in street-clothes.
It’s usually one. Sometimes you have—had—company of the likes of Gérémi and Mikel, but more often than not, separate, special training will have been arranged for them and you alone are left in Chelsea’s palatial room, smelling the ever-present odors of sweat and rubber and wood and looking at the shiny floor between your expensive Italian shoes, the echo of comradely laughter still carrying down to you. You’re never there for more than a few minutes before one of the assistants—the functionaries, you tend to think now with all the venom your childhood in grey Ukraine can give that word—comes in, but Mourinho knows what he’s doing. He honestly makes the mind-games of Berlusconi look like a street-side trickster with three nutshells and a dried pea.
But you know what he’s doing. You know exactly the kind of reactions he’s hoping to provoke, you know why, and you know how unwarranted it all is. You’re thirty and you’ve experienced plenty of disappointment—with an English team already; you remember fucking Liverpool in 2005—and you can keep your head up. Not to mention that you know your body and what it can do, and you also know when it’s failing you. You don’t need some stupid Portuguese jerk to make you sit in an empty room like a child to know you’re doing badly. You take pride in your skills; you don’t need the empty feeling in your belly and the leadenness in your legs to increase even more with every second that marks off how much less Mourinho thinks of you.
You think he’s an arrogant shit as you sit there. You think you’re better than this. You think you’re going to turn him on his damn head and someday make him sit in the empty room, outside of everything that really matters.
You think, deep down, in that one second—always so perfectly calculated, damn him—when you still don’t hear any footsteps and you’re beginning to think no one’s even been told you’re still here—that you just wish he’d tell you what he wants.
* * *
“But it’s useful, what he says. He has a good eye. He picks out things…it’s like with the training Klinsi brought into the national team, and it was all bizarre at first but then you start to notice things you’d never notice with the old system. Because it’s new, you see.”
Language barriers are the least important, Andriy’s always found. And his conclusion is reaffirmed every time he even attempts to suggest to Ballack that Mourinho might be less than ideal. That they both speak Russian doesn’t mean that Michael can see in the slightest the way Mourinho torments players for no reason, the way he abrades their confidence and eats away at their minds before they even step onto the pitch. No—Michael came at the same time Andriy did and under similarly ridiculous monetary terms, and the English press thinks he’s nearly as crap a footballer but the way he talks, he might as well be married to Mourinho. He glows.
“Like the other day, I was wondering why I have so much trouble here with corners and—oh, excuse me.” Michael’s head turns, and then the rest of him trots off in that direction before he’s even finished telling Andriy he’s abandoning their conversation.
And for who? For the little dark rat in his puffy gray coat coming out onto the pitch, his eyes darting here and there as he sizes up who might have crumbs today, who can’t pay for his attention, who could do with a bite on the backside.
Andriy has to duck his head quick to hide his smile; for all his faults, Mourinho isn’t a blind man. Though when Andriy raises his head again and sees Michael with head bent demurely over Mourinho, hands busily gesturing as the other man silently listens. Michael with the flashing, shy smile and Mourinho with the curt nods and standoffish posture. Michael, leaning ever closer, hands almost brushing Mourinho’s jacket, and Mourinho humorless and stiff. And Andriy almost wishes he were blind. For all the good his eyes are to him: he doesn’t see what Michael does, and what he doesn’t see, he can’t work with.
He turns away, back to the ball at his feet, and kicks at it. He can see that, and…he can watch as it lands nearly two meters from where he’d meant it to, damn it all. He can’t see a thing.
Though he can hear. Biting back a grimace, he turns towards the rat.
* * *
Every goal-scorer goes through a rut. Every player goes through a rut. Thirty isn’t the same as twenty-three. The English league is the toughest and the hardest to adjust to. England is a nasty country to adjust to, period.
They’re all fucking excuses, and to be honest they utterly disgust you. You might have been feted in Milan for years and turned into the pampered hero of the Rossoneri, but you never thought you got there because you didn’t work and fight and earn every inch of it. You know how to dig in your heels and forge through hard times; you know there’s nothing that can be said that stands up to actual fruitful effort.
In other words, you’re trying your heart out. Yes, you loved Milan. Yes, the Italian style came easily to you. Yes, leaving that city was like leaving the warm, vibrant, nurturing home you never really had even before the Chernobyl evacuations. But there was a before Milan and you do not believe you are so small as to be limited by a single city who, to be really honest, you cannot believe was totally honest in its football during all your years there. You were proud of what you did, you will defend to the death your effort and the effort of your teammates, but—
--where you grew up, the measure of growth was when you were tall enough to see past the official proclamations to the concrete-block, poisoned-earth truth. You know a liar when you see one.
You’re not a liar. You say, “I believe that I can be a success in England with Chelsea,” and you mean it. You say, “I didn’t do it just for the money,” and you mean it. And maybe you don’t feel like dignifying those asses with, “I didn’t do it because my wife henpecked me into it, you bastards,” but if you did, you’d mean it too. Because you are Andriy Shevchenko, and you were before AC Milan ever looked twice at you, and you are better than weather, bad tackles, new countries and unlucky stretches.
You are Andriy fucking Shevchenko and you can’t tap in from a fucking yard away.
* * *
Lampard misses all the damn time. He takes stupid chances when he could pass to teammates in better positions. He’s a friendly man off the pitch, but sometimes Andriy wishes he could take him aside and…and…and somehow explain physics to him, even though Andriy has barely had any formal physics himself. It’s just the angles and the speed and the bend that Lampard attempts that are ridiculous. All the parts of a shot, basically.
And fine, Andriy can barely even watch his misses here because they are so laughable but he’s been here for months, Lampard for years. But during post-match breakdowns, he gets a cold litany of everything he’s done wrong, sometimes with a side of comparison to Didier, and Frank gets a squeeze on the shoulder as he sulks behind Terry. At Milan the staff would take each player aside and—
--this isn’t Milan. Andriy rolls his shoulders to take out the strain and, when told he can go, instead grabs a ball and goes back out for extra practice. For whatever reason, Mourinho appears to believe that Andriy doesn’t deserve the extra effort, the one-on-one, or perhaps believes that so much money somehow buys machines, who merely need orders fed into them, instead of men. But Andriy doesn’t, and if that’s how it’s going to be, he can take care of himself. He doesn’t need a Portuguese rat to watch him and make sure he’s practicing the right way.
He comes in long after everyone else has gone home, or so he believes, and he’s showered and walking out when he hears sobbing. Ugly, muffled, wet noises and surely it’s not in Lampard’s voice, surely it isn’t coming from Mourinho’s office. But the hall lights are dimmed and the only oblong of brightness in it is leaking from one door.
There’s just the dark scruff of Lampard’s head, its defiant spikes of hair crushed beneath a cradling hand as it bows onto Mourinho’s shoulder. The breadth of his shoulders as they slump, the restless desperate grasp of his hands as they move blindly from Mourinho’s sides to his arms and even to his knee. Though they always find a reassuring pat, a kiss on the cheek, kiss on the temple, kiss on something that Andriy can’t see because Lampard’s head has turned to be in the way.
Lampard at least started last weekend. He at least got his name up with the shots on goal. He at least—and his so-called efforts left Michael, easy-going calm Michael, muttering beneath his breath about wasted shots and missed passes, and yet at the end of the day, before the one man here to whom almost means nothing, to whom braggadocio is nothing, he gets the comforting shoulder. Sometimes now Andriy wonders if it’s even worth showing up to training.
* * *
You’re not his pet. You were one at Milan, at Kiev, in Ukraine always. But you were offered it, as one of many honors for what you did, and you accepted it. You never had it foisted upon you, and you certainly never begged for it in choked, mumbling spates. If that’s what he wants, if that’s how he keeps his players trailing after him, these men who’ve proved themselves hundreds of times over away from him, in the thick of rough swears and hard elbows and roaring hateful crowds, then you can do without it.
Crying is ugly, no matter if it’s become fashionable for even uncouth Englishmen nowadays. It sucks out your gut and leaves only a hollow eating out your spine, it turns your face swollen against your hands, it burns your fingertips with hot tears and leaves your eyes scarred with violent red webs in the whites. It’s horrible and weakening and you hate it every time it happens to you. It’s like a flood; you can’t stop it when it wants to come, but can only let it wash you away.
You used to be fine with people seeing it happen because no matter how disgusting it was for you, you knew they appreciated the depth of emotion behind it and you knew they were crying as well. Shared pain is lesser pain. Is even a kind of twisted relief, sometimes. But never with Mourinho, never in his eyes: you can feel their judgmental weight like a curtain of metal coming between you and the rest of the world, closing you in with nothing, and that’s when your head is up and your eyes are clear. So you’ll be damned if he ever sees you otherwise. Him or the others, because no matter how they smile and gently correct your English, no matter how they keep feeding you passes despite your slow feet—they’re his, through and through. Crying in front of them is the same—no, is worse, because the pet is lower than the master.
You hate crying alone. But you do, nearly every day after he’s had his word with you, and nobody ever offers you a shoulder.
* * *
Terry could probably kick Mourinho straight out of the stadium if he wanted to. Indestructible, indefatigable captain, the rock on which Chelsea is built, the snarling never-sleeping lion at the back, and here he is acting like an idiot. Sticking balls beneath his shirt and telling funny stories from what Andriy presumes was his fiancée’s pregnancy, leaping on unsuspecting teammates, dipping Lampard into movie-star smooches.
To be honest, it’s endearing. Maybe Andriy doesn’t need any demystifying of the club—Chelsea’s only been working at that for the last few years and it shows—but he still appreciates the loose atmosphere, the unspoken permission to be something other than what their role dictates, to be fun. He eventually gets dragged into it and then enjoys it, pretending he’s going to lob the ball to the moon, knuckling foreheads with John. If nothing else, he thinks he can’t really quarrel with his teammates. And then perhaps, because football is a team sport and thus when one rises, all rise, they will be the difference.
“Gaffer!” John shouts, his arm falling from Andriy’s shoulders.
Mourinho has appeared at the touchline, his overcoat billowing so much that only his face and the peppered gray of his hair can be seen. He’s dwarfed by his assistant, by Didier and Mikel tussling over a ball just to his left, but already Andriy can see it, the way the world sinks around him so one inevitably falls to his level, the way the team swings about till it centers on him. And why? Why Mourinho, why not Terry? It was that way before Mourinho came.
And Terry, he of all people, happily acquiesces to this theft of his place. In fact he serves it up to Mourinho. He leads the way by going over and hanging off the man’s shoulder, silly grin now accentuated by a faintly anxious question in his eyes as he clowns about for Mourinho. Before he was a man, playing among men; now he is a dog, capering at the feet of an unsmiling—
Mourinho’s head turns. His mouth twitches, then splits away from his teeth so he gives a Gorgon’s smile. Terry seems to take this as encouragement and laughs, his arm sliding quickly around the other man’s waist, and like an old-style tsar at the hounds, Mourinho bestows a light cuff to the back of Terry’s head. So Terry the chip of granite, Terry the unyielding captain, bends before it like a flower stem before the wind, eyes soft and thankful.
The rest of the team soon lines up in hope of their own chastising dollop of affection, not seeming to know or care that it’s crumbs compared to what they deserve, to what they’ve earned. Andriy keeps his distance, though he knows Mourinho will neither forget or let it pass. Let the staff whisper, let his teammates leave him, let Roman waste more of his precious time and energy trying to bridge the gap—special coaches and special attention will only help Andriy avoid being the one to walk over. And he swore a long time ago that he wouldn’t be that. He will work his body into the ground, bear the tabloid slander, have his heart crushed day after day, but he won’t give everything up to that man. Not for a smile and a clap of the hand on his shoulder every now and then.
Is it, he wonders as he watches Terry drop easily to sit at Mourinho’s feet, really worth it? Is there something in Mourinho’s touch that waves away sore muscles, age-slowed pace, unwelcome media attention? Why do they all end up craving it so? What is it that the man has?
Of course Andriy doesn’t need to wonder if he’ll ever know the truth to that.
* * *
You have scored. Maybe your numbers don’t soar with the birds as they once did, but only in your paycheck do you have a series of zeroes following you. And moreover, you’ve scored in important games. You saved Chelsea’s ass in the Champions League, which is the one time that the name actually reflects the reality. Maybe it’s still not happening as often as it should, but it is happening and you are feeling a change.
But you still end up sitting in that dressing room more often than not. You’re not the only one with the slow start, but Lassana gets time to work himself to match-fitness. Mikel gets starts. All you need is time on the field, time to get acquainted with the flow of the game, but instead you get a half-hour there, ten minutes here, and how you’re supposed to put together a picture from all these partial snap-shots is beyond you. You’re still not one of his damn untouchables, and as far as you’re concerned, it’s not from trying to avoid touches on your end. Mourinho just never gives you the chance to make one.
* * *
Didier’s been limping for the past ten minutes, hand glued to his lower back and face setting into a rictus of pain. He can’t continue—he doesn’t want to continue and he’s already signaled this to the bench and the rest of them can’t help shooting looks that way as well the longer he stays out. He does flop as easily as a seal at the zoo, but that doesn’t describe his overall tenacity at all. If he thinks he needs to come off, it’s because he’s in imminent danger of a career-crippling injury.
But Mourinho keeps him in, and this has to be the greatest evidence so far that all those long one-on-one advising sessions, those late-night comforting and those indulgent smiles are all simply play. In reality, Mourinho doesn’t—
--he’s made a substitution, all right, but it’s for Andriy. For a moment he thinks the number is wrong and he blinks the sweat from his eyes, but it doesn’t change. He drops his head, both to hide his expression and to check the number on his shorts, and it still doesn’t change things. Packed stadium, everybody watching Drogba drag himself about the pitch like a dying horse trying to desperately to get back to its stable, and Mourinho is substituting Andriy. How Andriy gets off the field without making a scene, he’s not sure. But he does know he doesn’t even try to make nice this time.
And he does know that afterwards, he purposefully lingers to hear what Mourinho has to say to Drogba. Didier wasn’t happy at all about it either, Andriy knows. He made a beeline for Mourinho in the dressing room and tapped the other man on the shoulder and now they’re off to the side, with Didier gesturing frequently to his back. Once he even turns and lifts up his shirt, and Mourinho, the faker, puts his hand gingerly on the spot with a furrowed, serious expression.
His hand is still there when something he says makes Didier pivot quickly back to face him, winding Mourinho’s arm around himself like thread around a spool. Didier’s hands move farther, gesticulate faster, and Mourinho nods and his mouth moves about so many lies. So many, and they have to be that because Didier’s shoulders are dropping. He’s relaxing, his hands have stopped waving about and are falling to his sides, except he pulls his right back up to slung it around Mourinho’s shoulders. Mourinho gives the other man’s back a pat, then somehow has Drogba bending lower towards him without doing anything to effect that himself. And like some forgiving priest, he kisses Didier on the forehead. As if that’ll help when Didier can’t sleep tonight for all the reminders this match has left imprinted on him. As if Drogba was the one needing forgiveness for being human. As if Mourinho had the power to absolve.
As if Andriy didn’t wish that somebody, somewhere, did.
* * *
You have this recurring dream where Mourinho shows up, like having him around during the day wasn’t bad enough. And the two of you are fucking, like you aren’t happily married and have ever taken much of an interest in alternatives past the odd drunken fumble. Despite the Milan dressing room’s best attempts at otherwise.
In the funny way that dreams have, you know you’re dead sober when you press your sweaty hands down the front of his suit, watching him watch you levelly, coolly, and as usual you’re angry about that. Angry about failing, angry about doing it in front of him, angry that you care. You speak to him in the harsh, bitter words of your native tongue and he understands because to him, language is nothing. Words are nothing—deeds are everything.
It must be after a match or something because your back and your legs hurt, and you’re covered in dirt and grass stains while he stands there impeccably kept. You smear green streaks over his clothes before you rip them off, you tread hard on his feet till the cleats of your shoes scratch clear through the leader and leave the tops of his feet bleeding. Except that’s an image that reminds you too much of something else, someone else that Mourinho won’t be in a thousand years because he never makes a sacrifice of himself. Never—
You throw yourself at his feet and lick them clean, angry suddenly transformed into the sharp jaggedness of despair, of knowing that your chances are slipping away. Your tongue circles his ankle, teases it like a whore; your clothes itch between the filth and the unsettled nerves and you rip your shirt over your head as you work up to his knees, your mouth full of expensive heavy cotton that crams in like a gag so there, if talking won’t do it then there, there’s no words possible now.
There’s your bared neck, there’s your back turned up to him and is this what he wanted? Is this what the others do, is this what they’ve risked to have him gather up their shattered pieces and remake them into success? Your knees are leaden and anchor you to the ground as his cock swells in your mouth, and you suck till your throat is raw and you can feel the blood running down it, and all you’re asking for is his hand on your neck, accepting the bend.
When you look up, all you see is a great expanse of blue, blue, the blue of his shirt and the blue of Chelsea, royal and demanding, wiping out all other colors from your mind. And you acknowledge this, your mouth works out an apology around his cock for ever believing that you could stand above and apart from your club, from any club because that is the cardinal sin here. Mea culpa, mea culpa, I’ve been too long with myself and I forgot about you.
The scene cuts to a new one—sometimes there are others leaning on your wrists as they stretch out your sinews, and sometimes there’s just him, not needing anything to hold you down as he fucks you till your teeth rattle, till your toes curl and your legs draw up by themselves, as if he holds the key with which to tighten their springs. You’re weeping and his hot breath scars the back of your neck like a hand, his hands themselves like brands on your hips. You’re crying and he’s telling you something, something important and meaningful and just for you, because you’re special, because he sees you and knows you need it, and then his fingers touch your nape and your leg swings out—
--the ball goes soaring past the left post, on the wrong side, another miss. And you breathe, so shocked in the middle of the cold, empty pitch that you are freezing in place. And you know nobody’s coming to get you, because he says no and they are his and you aren’t.
* * *
It’s no assistant this time, but José Mourinho himself. He stands there, narrow-eyed, hands slotted precisely into his trouser-pockets, elbows angled to hold back the fall of the deafening, hollow silence that comes when he goes. And to hold back his coat; as always, the elite and the pragmatic go hand-and-hand together around him.
“The physios say you can’t go to Liverpool.” They tell me you’re going to let me down again, Mourinho really says. His tone is flat, almost bored, but the dark circles under his eyes jump out at Andriy, and so does the way he presses his foot to the door-jamb, as if leaching support from it. “It’s a Champions League game.”
“I know.” Because they’ve all but lost the title race, because this legend of the quadruple has soared out of reach and so Chelsea at least must have the prize they’ve never had, must at least rewrite history that much. Because Mourinho needs at least that to salve the wounds of being the one being dropped because he is not wanted, and not because he doesn’t want to be there anymore. “I want…to play, but they…they say…it’s too…”
Mourinho’s eyes flick down to Andriy’s legs, then rise back up. He shrugs, slow and meaningless, not even caring that much. “Well, I trust my doctors. I’m sorry for you.”
No, he isn’t. No, he’s mad and for a moment Andriy wants to scream that he has no right, that if he’d done more then maybe Andriy would have had more left by now, would’ve been able to draw on some reserve and step up. Andriy wants to say, You’re leaving and I’m not. You lost to me. He wants to say, You wanted me, I know you did. You wanted me but it was I who didn’t want you.
Instead he says, “If you say I don’t play…I don’t play. You decide.” Because that is the rock-bottom, terrible truth. Because he really hasn’t done a damn thing here, unlike what the tabloids say. He’s never had Roman’s ear about Mourinho, not really; probably nobody has ever had anything about Mourinho because Mourinho is the ultimate package, self-contained and self-controlling.
“I’ll see you at training when we’re back,” Mourinho says, putting a twist on those last two words.
Andriy rises from the bench, breath suddenly sharp in his mouth, but Mourinho’s already spun on his heel and left. No extra moments, movements, because he knows everything in advance. He knows he’s leaving, and he knows ‘back’ is just an illusion, and he knows its cruelty because he can’t leave—because in fact Andriy has not won, either in earning Mourinho’s good graces or proving that he can do without them. Because if he leaves, he takes everything with him and then there’s nothing here at Chelsea for Andriy, and that’s worse than a loss. Because—
--he’s already left. Mourinho, wanting for nothing. And Andriy, wanting for everything.