I check my watch – 19:52. Late. Bloody late today of all days. They’ve never left me hanging before. I check my watch again – Still 19:52. I’m not sure what I expected. I glance through the crowd of fans, a sea of different shades of red being funnelled towards the turnstiles of the San Siro. And then I see them both striding towards me, donned in red SC Angrense 17/18 home shirts, with their dark red and green Portuguese scarves raised above their heads in greeting.
“What time do you call this?” I shout.
“TIME TO WIN THE EUROS!” Bellows Gonçalo Reyes, the more round-faced of the two, although looking noticeably less youthful than he did now that he’s in his 30s. The shorter, more weathered looking Gonçalo Valadão smiles and half-cheers in agreement. I shake my head.
“First time you’ve ever been late, Hurley.” I tut towards the former.
“Not late!” He replies sternly, as the pair reach the entrance I’m waiting by. Hurley grabs the watch on my wrist and raises it so that I can see. “8 minutes to!” He corrects me.
“Fine.” I concede. “Near enough though.” I turn to Valadão. “How’s the Under 19’s lark, meu Capitão?”
“Shit.” He growls through a thick accent. “It is shit. I am shit at it.”
“Great.” I’m not sure how to respond to that. “How very… Erm… Honest. Listen, we should go sit down. Where’s-” I’m cut off by the sound of concrete being fed into a blender just behind my two former players. Upon closer inspection though, the sound is revealed as a laugh, the source of which is a man with an unbelievably saggy, leathery face. What little grey hair once remained on top of his sun-damaged head is gone, presumably burnt off in the fierce Terceira heat. His features are somewhat hidden under the thick folds of skin while he too is kitted out in Angrense red. It doesn’t take me long to identify my former club’s groundsman.
“Alright, Nuno?” I call. He continues to laugh like a vacuum cleaner sucking up a gravel driveway. It’s uncanny. “Go on.” I sigh. “Get it out of the way.” He gradually stops laughing, then lifts a flap of skin in order to wipe a tear from one of his tiny eyes.
“You fail, Inglês!” He croaks, before immediately bursting back into laughter.
“Excellent. I have certainly missed that.” I reply absently, while checking my watch. 19:52. “We’d better get up to our seats.” I turn to walk into the stadium, but Nuno grabs my shoulder.
“You look exactly like that… Uh… Aquele gerente Francês.” He says, still shaking with laughter. “The shit one.”
“Ah another zinger, nice one.” I nod. “And you look like Darth Vader under the mask, you scary bastard. And by the way, do I not get any credit for being the France manager? Is that not impressive? That 7 years ago we were all in the Portuguese gutter and now I’m-”
“I thought you got sacked?” Asks Hurley bluntly.
“Well… Yes, but still. I was just the France manager. Incredibly recently.” The three of them stare blankly at me. “World Champions France.” I clarify.
“And you got to the Semi-Finals of the Euros.” Chuckles Nuno. “You’re worse than Valadão.”
“Well that’s… You can’t…” I splutter. “The Semi-Finals is still fucking impressive, surely!”
“With France?” Grunts Valadão. “I would have won it.”
“Oh well clearly you would have!” I reply, my voice an octave higher than I intended it to be. “You’re wasted farming talent for Borba to flog in the January sales then, aren’t you?”
“I also think I would have won it.” Says Hurley, thoughtfully.
“Obviously you would!” I reply with a snort of hysterical laughter. “Obviously the one goal you scored in three seasons in Poland proves beyond a doubt that you’d thrive in a Managerial career outside Portugal!”
“I would also have won it.” Agrees Nuno.
“This is insane!” I cry, but Nuno, now stoney faced, squeezes my shoulder, looks me square in the eyes and lifts a leathery finger up to my lips to silence me. It smells faintly of cabbage.
“You see, Inglês: To win, you must start with a solid defence; A foundation upon which to build.” He removes his finger from my face and mimes building something with one hand on top of the flat palm of the other. Hurley and Valadão nod stoically in agreement.
“A second ago,” I hiss, “You didn’t even know the English for ‘Manager’. How the fuck do… In fact no, you’re not an authority on football management, Nuno, you’re a pissing groundsman!”
“He’s right.” Grumbles Valadão. “You must also adapt to your oppositions’ styles as I do. For was it not Sun Tzu who said ‘If you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be put at risk even in a hundred battles, but if you only know yourself, but not your opponent, you may win or may lose.'” I stare, transfixed and horrified as the three of them continue to nod silently away like Churchill dogs on the parcel shelf.
“I don’t have the foggiest fucking clue what Sun Tzu said.” I moan. “How… First of all, when did you all get so good at English?” Valadão frowns.
“Um pouco.” He says, touching his thumb and forefinger together.
“No not ‘um pouco’! You just fucking quoted Sun Tzu!”
“Sun Tzu was Chinese, not English, Inglês.” Chuckles Nuno.
“I KNOW!” I shout manically. “And you do know the English for ‘English’ then, do you? Fantastic! How am I the only one who seems to think that this entire interaction is madness?!” I claw my face with my fingertips, before reaching into my coat and withdrawing 3 tickets, which I shove roughly into their hands. “I regret sorting these for you if I’m honest.” I sigh. Nuno eyes his ticket and clears his throat.
“You are forgetting something I think, Inglês.” I reach a hand back into my coat and pull out a matchday programme, which he grabs eagerly before flipping it over to stare at the squad lists. Nuno grins and wraps an arm around my shoulder, before marching me towards the door.
“Let us go up.” He says. “You will see how a real nation plays football, Inglês.”
“Fine.” I sigh.
“Who is Renato Sanches?” He asks, regarding the programme with confusion.
“I might murder you at some point over the next 90 minutes, Nuno.” I reply. “And we’re late now too.”
“No, still 8 minutes until kick off!” Chirps Hurley. I check my watch and sure enough, it reads 19:52. Somehow. Maybe time’s stopped. Or maybe I’ve finally been driven right over the border into Crazytown in a cabbage-scented car full of Portuguese backseat-drivers. “And put yours on!” The midfielder adds, shoving a folded shirt into my hands. I grab the bright red jersey by the shoulders and hold it out in front of me, allowing it to unfurl and reveal the SC Angrense badge emblazoned upon the chest. I grin.
It’s been 5 eventful years since I’ve seen Hurley and 6 since I’ve seen the others. They’ve showed up without a word of thanks for the tickets, they’ve belittled me, insulted me and condescended to me. The important thing now is to not let any of them realise how fucking happy I am to see them.