It didn’t take me long to figure out that what I had on my hands was not exactly Brazil, 1970 vintage.
“Come on, boys,” I said, trying to get into the swing of the whole football captaincy thing and doing an admittedly lame job of it. “If we beat these fuckers we can all go home, yeah?”
I’d awoken at around five AM (my room had been supplied with a digital clock radio during my chat with the Mullah as I discovered upon my return. Sadly, we were out of range of any possible station so all I received through it was static). I managed to wait until six before I started knocking on doors. By twenty after I had everyone available assembled in front of the makeshift motel the Pashtuns had built.
“We’re doing what now?” Bakar asked, incredulous like the rest of them when I told the canny assortment of British hacks and our two American “friends” agglomerated in front of that comedy slice of fake Americana the unconscious purpose of our visit to Badakhshan, which as it turns out was this little slap up footie match we were all about to take unwilling part in.
“I realise it’s fucking stupid but that’s the way it goes,” I said to the rag tag bunch in front of me, most of them still rubbing the sleep out of their eyes.
“So he’s going to kill us if we don’t play. That’s what Devosh said?” Burns, the drunken, fish-eyed Scot asked me insistently.
“That’s what he told me,” I replied, stretching the truth by a factor of eleven. After a few grumbles from the rest we soon got started on a practice session, the only we’d have before kick off. All the journos were present, as were both of the Americans; Khalid was not, nor was Pia, the latter’s absence definitively unnerving me. Badria was there, as was Bastard Barry. He had his arm around Bads, so their little romance seemed to be still in bloom.
“I’d just like to say for the record that I am indeed sorry to all of you,” Parsons blubbered to the group in his grating Indiana farm boy accent, trying to get himself off the hook for hoodwinking us to march towards our own deaths with a simple compunctious statement, delivered like a snivelling adolescent.
“Shut the fuck up, Parsons,” I said, speaking for all of the journalists present. Then, following some truly embarrassing dicking about involving watching grown men fall on their arses, I assigned everyone positions: I put Bastard Barry in goal as I figured he was someone who was used to getting shit thrown at him. My back four consisted of Cleary on the right (because he was a streaky bolt of piss) and Badria at left back (because she’s a girl and if I remember my playground misogyny correctly that’s the done thing). My centre halves were Burns and Higgins because that’s what you do with two fat pieces of crap who can’t run for toffee. In midfield, I put Jerry out on the right for lack of anywhere else to place him (hoping Cleary could cover a lot of ground) and in the engine room would be Parsons and me. On the left wing I put Chapman, simply because I enjoyed the irony so much (he writes for the Daily Mail). Up front were Bakar and Wills who had played together as a pair of strikers in countless pub team matches. And that was my lot, no subs available. How delightful.
We kicked the ball provided by our host (left symbolically on its own in the dirt about twenty metres from the door of my room) for about two hours. I tried to organise some drills but they were such a mortifying shower of shite that in the end I resorted to simply playing five a side. Everyone was completely knackered by the end of the session and all I was the wiser for was that, Bakar and Wills aside, what I had in front of me was almost certainly the worst pub football side in the known universe.
“Where is the actual match taking place?” Cleary asked pertinently as we broke up to go our separate ways pre-match. I only then realised I had no answer to his question.
“I guess we’ll find out soon enough,” came the sardonic Chapman from behind me. I noticed then that Barry and Badria went to the same room together, still arm in arm. As I attempted to abscond to the safety of my own motel room I was occluded by Parsons.
“We really need to talk,” he said. I rolled my eyes and made as much of a show of how much of an arsehole I thought he was before relenting.
“Fine, Parsons. Your time starts now.”
He sat down on the edge of the precipice between the motel pathway and the desert sand. He made puppy dog eyes in the hopes that I’d take a seat beside him. For brevity’s sake, I did so.
“I know where your girl is,” Parsons said. I turned to him in sudden desperation.
“She’s just fine. As you probably already know, she’s an ISI agent. One of her fellow operatives got her out of here before the Mullah could terminate her.”
“Hang about, ISI agent?”
Parsons looked at me as if I were an idiot.
“You surely must have at least suspected.”
“Is she back in Pakistan?”
“My sources tell me she was last seen in Islamabad.”
“Your sources? You’ve been in the same fucking weird faux motel in the middle of Badakhshan as I have for the last week have you not?”
“CIA training. I construct make a two-way radio out of almost any common household item. This time it was the soap wrapper, a leg of one of the chairs and some of the wiring from the light fixture.”
There was no point in further entertaining Parsons in his A Team-esque delusions. The American twat then rubbed his nose in a particular way that reminded me of his own chemical enslavement.
“Did they feed you drugs under the door?” I asked him. His gut reaction was to deny everything, a conditioning borne from years of being an addict. He then relaxed just as quickly, realising there was information to be imparted between us that may be mutually beneficial.
“They shove vodka under yours?”
“In ever diminishing amounts, day after day.”
“I got heroin in a similar drip drab way.”
Parsons looked philosophically towards one of the nearby mountains and added:
“It feels kind of weird to be clean.”
“I guess it does. So are we done here?”
Parsons simply nodded. I got up and entered my room alone. What felt like a few minutes later (but that can only be because I must have fallen asleep as the digital clock radio read 11:48) my door was flung open with a hint of malevolence. There stood Sranth and He-Man, both of them dressed in football uniforms from the early 1980’s: tiny, tight lycra shorts that barely covered their scrotums fully and polyester, stripped tops with huge black collars. I had to concentrate to avoid vomiting.
“Time to play, boss,” Sranth said. I simply nodded and arose.
“What are we supposed to play in then?” I asked him as we departed, waving my hands over my body to emphasise exactly what I was querying. Sranth looked slightly baffled but it quickly clicked in.
“The Mullah will be providing you and your team with resplendent uniforms,” he said in that cheerful yet slightly malicious way he said absolutely everything. I joined the rest of my gang out in front of the motel.
Once everyone was convoked, Sranth, He-Man, the boy with rickets and some other peons I’d never seen before, all of them dressed in matching football outfits and armed to the teeth, marched us forward down the barrel their guns. The M14s had now been ditched for the more traditional AK47. I wanted to ask about the weapons upgrade but it didn’t feel like the atmosphere was right. We trudged towards and right past the Roman amphitheatre that had us all still stumped. As we walked beyond the (faux?/real?) classical building another large structure loomed in the near distance. As we got closer, it began to resemble more and more a reasonably large football stadium, the type you might see in the second tier of English football. In fact, it resembled an English ground remarkably, as if Crewe Alexandria’s home stadium had been uprooted and dropped in Badakhshan.
“Fucking maniac has built his own football ground,” Chapman said, genuinely awestruck. I hadn’t noticed the prick at my elbow prior to this remark. I was about to say something snarky back at him but Higgs made his own intervention into the conversation.
“In the middle of one of the most remote parts of the globe. Why would anyone wish to do such a thing?” the old hack pondered aloud. Soon enough we were upon the building itself and up close it was even more eerie just how accurately built the stadium actually was in terms of aping an English football ground. There was a Bovril stand, as a for instance.
“Jesus wept,” Bakar said as we were led onto the pitch itself. The Indy man was expressing his first impressions of the side we were about to face – and things did not look good. Dressed in the same 1970’s style uniforms as our captors were two blokes who appeared to be on loan from Real Madrid’s B-side. Each of them was about 6’3 or 6’4 and built like a brick shithouse. They were doing drills down one end of the pitch that would make Premier League scouts curls their eyebrows.
“This is bloody unfair, Devosh bringing in ringers,” Burns added before he himself realised the absurdity of the comment. Nothing about this situation was fair, that was pretty much the whole bleeding point.
“Put these on,” Sranth said to us collectively as some of the other thugs passed around blue football kits that were thankfully both less retro and less revealing than the ones worn by our soon to be opponents. Shorn of options, we had to get undressed and into our uniforms right there on the pitch. I extracted my mobile phone, my passport and whatever else was in my jacket pocket and placed them in the front pockets of my shorts. Who knew what was coming next and I felt it best to remain prepared. None of us were given boots, which meant that we all had to play in whatever footwear we’d shown up at the stadium in. I was wearing the moon boots I usually wore on my Afghanistan treks, which was reasonably all right, but for Chapman and his deck shoes and Cleary in his black numbers that looked appropriate for a funeral, things were almost certainly going to be a lot more slippy out there. I wondered where the hell Devosh was when, speak of the devil.
“All prepared, Mr Cohen?” the Mullah asked, his teeth actually seeming to somehow have gotten both bigger and brighter overnight.
“Yeah, that two hours you gave me to get everything organised was highly generous. Feeling full of optimism.”
“That is the spirit I was looking for,” he said, either misunderstanding or more likely running roughshod over my sarcasm. Devosh then turned his attentions away from me and towards the very small crowd dotted around the stands. It was the kids from the madrassa again. I then turned back towards my own troops only to see Burnsie puking all over the pitch.
“What the hell?” I wondered aloud as Burns spat the last few chunks of regurgitated rust coloured gruel from his mouth. My vomiting centre back answered my question by pointing, and following where his finger led me to I saw at the edge of the pitch what appeared to be a decapitated human head on the end of a wooden stick. It came from what looked to have been a middle-aged man, a little bit Kyrgyz looking. However, something about the head struck me as off and I don’t mean in the most usual sense that statement would apply to a lifeless, bodiless crown. By the time I arrived in front of the so-called decapitated head the suspicions I had been formulating during my journey hypostatised. Thus, I decided I had the greatest opportunity of all time to wind up most of the British foreign press good and proper. I walked up to the head on a pole and ran my tongue, full faced and open, along its decrepit cheek. I turned back right on queue to see Burns syncope, utterly rigid during his unconscious fall to Earth, like a laptop window being hurriedly shut by its user. As he landed, a loud thud was heard that almost certainly would have gotten a chuckle from the assembled had they not been completely affronted themselves by my recent epiglottal stunt. They were all staring at me as if I’d just punched the Queen in the face with a knuckle-duster on. Except for Burnsie, obviously, who had now regained consciousness and was staring at the turf like an infant overwhelmed by the closeness of his mother’s teat.
“Jesus Christ, Cohen, that was really fucked up,” Chapman said with what was practically wonder in his voice. It was worth it just for that. I cracked a huge smile at my impending teammates.
“It’s a fake, you morons,” I announced. “It’s made of marzipan.”
This confused the pack of journos even more than my tongue related jape. Wills and Bakar, ever the duo, wandered up together with a dazed look in their eyes, their hands out in front of them as if they were finding their way in the dark. They both began touching the marzipan human head replica.
“Cohen’s right. It is a phony,” Bakar finally said in amazement. I walked up and took another bite out of the confectionary apex.
“Does it really taste that good?” Wills asked me, looking slightly disgusted.
“It’s got a shitload of scotch in it,” I replied. This was all Burnsie needed to hear. He hauled his fat arse off the grass as if there was a string attached to his coccyx and some divine puppet master had just yanked it with all his might. He tackled the baton that the candied vertex sat upon and once on the ground began devouring the boozy marzipan treat as if he were an Ethiopian war refugee who hadn’t seen a meal for a week and a half.
Everyone’s attentions were then turned towards the amateur opening ceremony that Devosh had devised for this event: some cheap fireworks that appeared to have been obtained from a Pakistani market town to go beside some decidedly dodgy dancing (in every sense of the word) from a handful of the madrassa children. The kiddies and low-grade explosives ordinance having reached its premature denouement (the fireworks seemed to have gotten damp somehow), the officials marched to the centre of the pitch in order to signal the match was about to kick off. The referees were dressed in what appeared to be fairly routine FIFA kit, the only thing seeming slightly out of place being their enormous beards, bushy and bristling even by Afghan standards. I motioned to my teammates who all took up their assigned places. Then I walked up to greet Devosh in the middle as there seemed to be a shaking of the respective captains’ hands expected.
“May God be with you and yours, Mr Cohen.”
He looked at me square on with those cold, dead, sociopathic eyes as he said this.
“Same here,” was my extremely lame response as I found myself unwillingly intimidated by the mad Mullah’s salutation. Wills took my place over the ball; the match was about to start. The whistle then blew and Wills kicked the ball back to me. I looked around and saw the two Real Madrid blokes rushing towards. I passed the ball off to Cleary on the left who immediately lost the ball to Sranth, who it has to be said put in a nice tackle. That was pretty much the last we saw of the ball for the next fifteen minutes. He-Man was like a fibrous Pele, motoring through everyone with the ball seemingly glued to his feet. Devosh himself could play a bit and the kid with rickets turned out to be some sort of Garrincha-like prodigy, his wobbly legs a blur as he outran everyone on the pitch. Poor Bastard Barry never had a chance; at the end of that first spell of play the Terrorist XI were up 4-0 already. The kids from the madrassa sat in the stands were going ape shit the whole time.
“Jesus, Higgins pull your finger out of your arse!” I shouted across the pitch as Barry salvaged the ball from the back of the net following the thumping fourth goal; less than sixty seconds later, he was fishing it out again as Garrincha Rickets Boy put an inch perfect cross into He-Man who kicked the ball into the net so hard I thought it might explode.
“And Burnsie! Try looking up once in a while!” I continued in shouty captain mode. I then picked on my strikers, which was perhaps somewhat unfair not to mention ill judged.
“Come on, Bakar, get your feet out of your arsehole. Weren’t you a prospect for Watford?”
“It was Bradford, Cohen. And perhaps you pricks could get your feet on the ball for a change.”
Bakar’s sensible suggestion wasn’t about to be taken up by any of our lot in a hurry. If anything, Devosh’s boys stepped it up a notch or two after that fifth goal; Garrincha pulled off an overhead bicycle kick from about twenty yards out to score a brilliant goal that Barry didn’t even bother to move for; Devosh almost scored a brilliant goal from a corner but his beard got in the way. Half time couldn’t come quick enough for the Fleet Street XI, at which point the Mullah’s men were up 9-0.
As captain it fell upon my shoulders to try and lift my teammates. I had them gather round me on the sidelines near another fake human head made from marzipan that must have been placed where it was at some point during the first half play. It smelled invitingly of fake banana flavouring and peach schnapps. Burns couldn’t resist a bite. I asked him to break me off a piece before launching into my pep talk.
“That was fucking terrible, folks,” was the way I chose to begin, perhaps the wrong tactic in retrospect.
“Can I just say, Cohen, you are almost as terrible a football captain as you are an investigative journalist,” Chapman said with a chuckle, his mojo oddly regained by being a part of our collective failure as a footballing side.
“Who figured out the heads were fakes, huh?” I shouted defensively as I took a large bite of marzipan. “Wasn’t any of you arseholes, was it now?”
“You’re overcompensating,” Bakar said at me and then, embarrassingly for all involved, decided to step into the captain’s seat himself. Turning to the whole team he announced:
“Right, you lot, here’s what we do: any time any of you get sight of the ball just lump it forward to Jonny or me. I reckon that’s our best chance. We can do this, lads.”
Bakar’s bid to usurp the leadership fell flat, fortunately.
“You would say that, Bakar. You two think you’re George Best and Denis Law; I’ve seen this shit before on Hackney Marshes during press games,” Burns put in. Chapman was even more corrosive.
“So we’re going down the Route One, Wimbledon bullshit routine, are we? If we’re going to lose can we at least not conform to horrid English stereotypes while we’re at it?”
But Bastard Barry’s comments summed the situation up best.
“We’re fucked so there’s no point in worrying about tactics,” he said. He then turned to me and added:
“I’m sorry, sir.”
“For what?” I asked him.
“I feel like I’ve let you down.”
I was about to try and soothe the ego of my goalkeeper but just then the ref managed to navigate his whistle through his immense beard to indicate the second half was due to commence.
We all took our places again, like unwilling actors in some terrible play at the Edinburgh festival we’d found ourselves trapped in, as Devosh knocked the ball to He-Man to begin the second half to the delighted cheers of the assembled madrassa children. Thirty seconds later, Barry was picking the ball out of the net for the tenth time. Stupidly, I lost my rag with him.
“Oh for fuck’s sakes, Bastard, your job is to stop the thing not to direct it safely past the goal line!”
“It’s not his fucking fault, Cohen!” Wills screamed at me, the opposing side’s score going into double digits obviously triggering his breaking point. And from there it just steamrollered further downhill. About half an hour into the second half, Devosh and his crew were dicking us by an eye-watering 28-0. They had taken to trying to score from the half way line for fun and attempting to head the ball in from outside the box. It was only this frivolity that kept us from a more ignominious defeat. Final Score: Badakhshan All Stars 33, London Hacks 0.
While the Afghan men in lycra shorts all hugged one another to celebrate their victory, Devosh marched towards me, absolutely livid.
“You did not even try!” he shouted so loudly in my face his teammates stopped celebrating at once to see what was going on. I noticed then for the first time that a gaggle of the kids from the stands were now on the pitch holding military rifles. As Devosh glowered at me from close range, the children with guns began to march threateningly towards me.
“I bring you here for sport and you break like a woman!” the Mullah continued, getting ever more worked up.
“We did try! We just happen to be shit at football!” I shouted back in an ill-fated attempt to calm him down. He retreated from me for a moment, not far, just a few feet so that he could pace agitatedly in front of me, pulling at his beard the whole time. One of the kids cocked the rifle in his hands; the rest all followed suit. I took time to count the youthful gunmen in my midst – there were fourteen of them now.
All of the journos were silent, deathly so. What occurred next was unexpected. Cleary, of all people, suddenly decided to grow a pair.
“Well I believe we’ve heard quite enough from this beardy prick, and I think we should all leave,” the previously cowardly journo said snootily while marching determinedly towards Devosh. We all held our breath, waiting for the Mullah’s next move. But just then, the cavalry arrived.
“Shit, it’s the fucking Americans,” Devosh said in a dismembered voice, barely able to take in what he was seeing. Which was two Sherman tanks, several military lorries and a large battalion of US marines running towards us in what was the mother of all football pitch invasions. Nevertheless, the Mullah had the good sense to recover his wits and leg it with the rest of his teammates who took off in the opposite direction, climbing over the now empty stands (the madrassa kids must have seen the Americans coming and fled already) and out the back entrance to the pitch. As several young, blond, corn fed yanks with crew cuts tried to chase the terrorist cum footballers down, a soldier who appeared by his lapels to be a captain sauntered towards me slowly.
“Jesus, thank Christ you guys finally showed up. I was…”
My sentence was cut short by punch to the mouth, delivered by the clean cut American marine in question.
“You got that Arab good, Hoss!” I heard another yank accent yelp from about ten feet away and closing. I was about to stand up and protest but I was met with another five knuckle sandwich.
“That’s for 9/11, baby!” shouted the pugilistic captain who had twice now attempted to take my teeth out. I decided against another attempt to clear my name and instead just resolved to keep my head down for the time being.
“The accomplices are escaping from the area! Hot pursuit! Hot pursuit!” the captain hysterically screamed as I took the time to look through my fingers and see poor Barry getting wholloped by some Aryan poster child himself.
“Fucking A-rab! How do you like a taste of your own medicine, huh?” the American private shrieked semi-hysterically as he kicked Bastard in the ribs. I suppose you can’t blame the poor, stupid Midwesterners for being confused. They’d probably never seen a Jew before. And I suppose we do sort of look like Arabs, at least to people with no functioning frontal lobes to speak of. Barry and I were rounded up and, with our hands cuffed behind our backs, were thrown onto the back of an armoured vehicle. I lost all feeling in my right arm, the one I had landed on after the first sucker punch. The large lorry I was in the back of, along with eight American marines of various ages, races, sizes and ranks began to roll off, destination obviously unbeknownst to me. I thought of enquiring after this but knew the most likely response would be another punch in the chops. I scanned the mostly young faces of the assembled marines. One of them looked like he had Downs Syndrome. Do they let people with missing chromosomes serve in the American military? Logic would dictate not but there was the empirical proof to the contrary starting me right in the face, literally.
“I think this guy’s a fagoot,” the Downs Syndrome looking soldier said and that’s not a typo: I was accused of fagootry, whatever the hell that meant. At this point I figured, even if it got me a kick in the guts, I had to straighten the situation out.
“Look guys, I think there’s been a misunderstanding here,” I said. “I’m one of the good guys.”
No one said shit while a man I hadn’t noticed to that point, an older, silver haired fox walked slowly towards me.
“Are you Daniel Cohen?” he asked me. Hearing my name shocked the hell out of me.
“I’m Lance Corporal Williams. I have to inform you, sir, that you are under arrest.”
I laughed unwittingly. The whole situation was now officially beyond the ridiculous.
“For what? Is being kidnapped by the Taliban a crime now?”
“I’m under no obligation to tell you any of this, but what the hell: you’re suspected of being a Balochi separatist,” the Lance Corporal responded. I chuckled with wild abandon at this allegation. The CIA shit. Laghran. Todd, the flaming fagoot. Some shit never gets old.
“Of course, of course. I’m often confused with being Balochi, yeah, happens all the time,” I said sarcastically as the Lance Corporal turned and walked away.
“I thought he was an Arab,” the Downs Syndrome soldier commented.
“No, no, he’s not an Arab. He’s a nice man,” the soldier beside him said, an elucidation that was either a satirical jibe at John McCain’s 2008 election campaign or was just to be taken at face value. Given the stupidity of the source I concluded it had to be the latter.