Football stadiums and theatres are strange places emptied. Just as the hallways of the Berliner Ensemble are filled by the dominant presence of Helena Weigel when there is no-one around to see her or to smell her cigarette smoke, in stadiums goals scored long ago are played out, tragedies unfolded again and again, and otherwise forgotten moments of joy sending a thrumming of stored up energy through concrete and steel.
Now it was empty you could see every scar and gauge, tear and divot torn out of the Stadio Municipal pitch. You could see where Rani Khedira had made a last gasp lunge to rob Andre Horta of the ball as Union tried to claw themselves back into a game they were losing. You could see where Frederik Rönnow had stood up against the onrushing Simon Banza; where Diogo Leite clattered Al Musrati in retaliation for Al Musrati’s flooring of Sheraldo Becker.
It looked like a drawing of an ancient battlefield when seen from the top of that monumental stadium, cleaved out of the granite itself, sunken into the bedrock of the Earth. A Portuguese journalist remarked later that it was lucky the lift worked, because using it was like ascending up from some Viking purgatory, and when it broke, everything was plunged into chaos. “And it breaks,” he said with a smile and a shake of the head, “all the time.”
The Union fans had finally been allowed to go on their way, the only traces of their having been there at all were in the traces of black on the stand where some had started a fire at the front, its ugly, thick black smoke betraying the presense of at least one plastic chair inside the flames. Many of them had been up for the best part of a day. They had been kettled in before they were allowed into the stadium and held behind so they couldn’t leave after the game had ended, after their hearts had been broken. Their planes in the morning would be delayed at best, cancelled at worst, and their team had also lost. Their toils brought to mind Albert King.
If it wasn’t for bad luck, they’d have no luck at all.
All that remained was a few people – laboriously unplugging and then coiling up mile after mile of cable, packing broadcast equipment into heavy metal boxes – and a thousand and one cicadas, drawn to the floodlights, chirping calls of love and of wisdom, and hurling the foulest of insults at each other across the dark night sky.
The nets had been folded back, the scoreboard showed blue fuzz on a sharp black background, recalling a time, a long time ago, when you’d wake up to find that TV had long since ended for the night.
Later, in the dining room of the hotel the last remaining players sat in grim silence, everybody did, the only sound was that of the silver cutlery clanking on white porcelain like a stone inside a washing machine. There was the occasional scraping of a plate, the clink of a bottle of water catching the top of the wine glass it was being poured into. But a screen the size of the wall was showing a rolling sports channel. It flitted between the news of Roger Federer retiring as if he was a head of state and the Europa League highlights. The players were all in bed by the time it was the turn of Union’s loss to be summarised, to be passed over as if it was just another game in just another tournament.
Like it wasn’t The Most Important Thing In The World right now.
A couple of waiters on seemingly permanent station passed coolly though, refiling salad bowls, replacing water bottles respectfully, with the minimum of fuss. And the TV showed Leite hitting the post with a header, and Julian Ryerson and Jordan Siebatcheu’s shots rolling just, agonisingly, minutely wide of a goalmouth that looked so small when they struck a ball towards it, but so big when there was no-one there to look.
The news ultimately rolled on to another game and to someone else’s misfortune, and the knowledge that Malmö’s players were probably in another hotel dining room like this in a different country but in a similar sullen silence watching St. Gilloise’s third go in, as if it hadn’t already been playing on the rolling news in their heads for the couple of hours since anyway, was of scant consolation.
Union themselves hadn’t been unlucky to lose, not really. But neither would they have been lucky to win. As their second loss to a single, preventable goal in two games so far in the group stage of this tournament wasn’t really naivety either. Nor was it the result of being comprehensively outplayed – dismantled – although one could argue that St. Gilloise did just that against them in a few places last week. It was neither the fault of destiny nor hubris, nor was it some kind of great cosmic joke. It wasn’t pre-determined, and it wasn’t really deserved, and it certainly wasn’t the best thing that had ever happened, but then neither was it the worst.
And it was this stuff that filled the gaps in the dining room where the chatter had been when the TV showed Frederik Rönnow palming a speculative, if viciously hit, low drive by Iuri Medeiros from a long way out, that he could only palm away into the trajectory of Vitinha who hit it hard and rising ever upwards, over the despairing keepers suddenly prone body.
That silence seeped and squirted into the corners of where the excitement and anticipation had been over the previous two days like insulating foam into a cavity wall.
It’s inconceivable, really, the amount of pressure on the players, placed upon those callow shoulders by a world at large that demands greatness, perfection and utter ruthlessness in the pursuit of glory. Ted Williams, the great baseball hitter once said “I’m glad it’s over… I wouldn’t go back to being 18 or 19 years old, knowing what was in store…”
Williams was as famous for being a prick as he was for hitting a ball harder and further than anyone ever had before, but he had a point. He also had a famously volatile relationship with his fans. It may not change the greater point, but at least the Unioner have got their players’ backs when it comes down to it.
But the players had regained that look in their eyes they had before in the morning as they boarded the bus back to the airport. They have another game on Sunday, Wolfsburg, they are still top of the Bundesliga; they had no doubt been told, as if they weren’t already aware, they needed to retrain, or at least retain their focus.
There was no group photo as everyone boarded the plane this time around. Dirk Zingler and Urs Fischer were still sat at the front, and the players still sat at the back, and everybody else sat in the middle, mostly trying to think of something to say.