Somewhere over the Atlantic
(All conversations have been translated from Portuguese to English.)
Lucio Torres walked across the empty tarmac, agent, and manager in toe, towards their chartered flight. They were on their way to join up with his teammates on their preseason tour of America. Players his age were supposed to be nearing the twilight of their career, but he had just enjoyed the best season of his life. His performance had earned him an extra week of vacation and he needed it. After years of living in a larger-than-life shadow of a legendary striker, Joaquin Mendes, he had his team.
“New plane?” Lucio asked Ivo Alves, his manager, as he approached the sleek Gulfstream G700, that looked brand new.
“Looks like it,” Ivo responded.
Ivo had been with Lucio since he first moved to Europe as a teenager. They played briefly together with the reserve team before a nasty injury put the final nail in Ivo’s playing days. Quickly, he transitioned into representation, and Lucio was his first client. Still a wet behind the ear’s Brazilian teenager who was suddenly flush with forty grand a week was already getting himself in trouble. Ivo helped him become a professional and in return a quality five percent.
Lucio smiled. If he was not paying for the flight, he didn’t care. His wife had dragged them on a quite extensive holiday, hitting all the popular spots vacation spots of the uber rich. It was supposed to be relaxing. However, between his three-year-old becoming an emotional terrorist and promotional events squeezed in by his team, it felt like work. He was glad to be getting back to training. He enjoyed the structure and organization it provided. Downtime allowed too much time for his mind to wonder and struggle with questions he didn’t want to think about, like what was next?
They boarded G700, took their seats, the flight attendant took their breakfast orders from a quite extensive menu, Lucio reclined his chair, and tried to drift away. After a few minutes, Lucio removed his padded eye mask with built in white noise headphones and out the window. They were not moving. This was a private airfield. They were the only plane or people he’d seen, so it’s not like they were waiting for clearance. He glanced up at the sky and saw not a cloud. He motioned to his agent. Let’s get rolling. But he shook his head and his brow furrowed. When he noticed Lucio still studying him, he held five fingers up, then stood up and turned away from him. Something’s going on. Lucio didn’t like it.
Elsewhere, even earlier in the morning.
Joaquin Mendes exhaled and stepped into the cryotherapy room he had installed in his temporary home. He almost always travelled with an impressive collection of personal fitness and body maintenance items. Quick three-minute session this morning after his 5 AM workout would supercharge his recovery. Normal people focused on the subzero temperatures or the ticking clock that displayed over the door, but Joaquin had other things on his mind. He had just endured a dreadful season, and the offseason hadn’t been going much better. His agent and lifelong friend had convinced him to rejoin his one of his previous clubs with this romanticized story of coming home and restoring the club its former glory.
A love story it was not. It was an unmitigated disaster. Personally, he felt he did everything he could, but his teammates, coaching and style were not up to his level. Replaying in his head, as fridge air assaulted every pore on his body, were the many times he rescued the club from certain doom. Usually caused by a combination of shoddy defending and poor midfield play. It was obvious he had done all he could to drag them to respectability, but even that was not enough. To make matters worse, the club had done nothing to bring in new players, instead insisting on saddling him with a new coach, system, and more un-refined youngsters. The man was not a babysitter; he was a winner. He knew he had to get out. With no Champions League football, Mendes knew his target of another Ballon D’Or was unobtainable. He clinched his teeth and seethed with anger.
A series of beeps let Joaquin know it was time to get out. He stepped out and marveled at his Adonis physique in the mirror. Flexing and turning slowly around and inspecting every perfect angle. The hours he spent in the gym were on full display. He knew he was the epitome of what an athlete should look like. Mendes might have basked longer, but his private phone rang. It was his agent, and he answered it. It had become a necessity carry at least 2 phones. One, for trivial matters and his team to manage his social, and a second, which was private. This time it was his family line, which he changed every six months and only known to immediate family and his agent.
“Are you sure it’s the only way?” Joaquin said.
“Fine, I am thirty minutes away. Will they wait?” Joaquin continued and nodded at the response.
He entered his walk-in closet and spent an extra five minutes he didn’t have to pick out an outfit. Carefully, he matched his watch and socks with a clean pair of sneakers. He mused to himself how strangely OCD he was about making sure his accessories matched. Mendes had a few quirks or flaws, if any, but this was one. He trusted his agent would stand in front of the plane to make sure they didn’t leave without him.
He rode the elevator down to his private garage and selected the keys to his Lamborghini Countach LPI 800-4. A poster of the legendary car this modern version was based on was 12-year-old Joaquin's most prized possession, so when it was announced they were doing a remake, he was first in line. Another reason the offseason had been exasperating was the waiting. When Mendes wanted a new team, there was a queue that formed the moment they leaked the word. Today, he was auditioning like some second-rate role player. On the way, he called his manager to make sure there was someone to take the car back to his house once he was on the plane and let then let his wife know he had to leave for a few days to seal his next transfer.
From the inside of the plane, Lucio noticed a bright red sports car as it tore ass through the gates and sped towards the plane. It stopped abruptly next to another luxury SUV he didn’t notice had arrived. The car door opened and an overly tan man emerged. Lucio did a double take. There was no way he was seeing this right now. He heard his agent clear his throat behind him and he spun his chair around.
“Before you start, just hear me out,” Pearce Craig, his agent said.
Not a great way to start any conversation, he thought to himself. Did Mendes want to come back? Was this the start of the worst second blind date in the history of step-ups? The club had focused their recruiting on young players. Why on Earth would they bring him back? He motioned to Pearce to get on with it.
“His club is in the States as well. He’s just hitching a ride, with the merger his representation is now part of the team,” Craig said.
“Just hitching a ride?” Lucio replied.
“Yea, just a ride,” Craig answered.
“He’s not gonna pitch me on a reunion. I know he’s miserable in that rainy, gloom, factory town. But we all were happy to be rid of him,” Lucio said.
His mind flashed back to Mendes, stealing all the headlines while they questioned him for his lack of goals and production. Someone had to do the yeoman’s work. He wasn’t going to. Then to Mendes’ being berated on the pitch for playing a ball to his weaker left foot and maybe half a yard behind him. Those were never as bad as the tantrums that occurred when he wasn’t played the ball at all. It rivaled those only Lucio’s toddler, the terrorist, in intensity and spite. He waved his agent away and spun his chair around and put on his face mask and wondered how long he could hold in his piss.
Outside the plane, his agent, Felix Carvalho, and his assistant greeted Mendes. He didn’t recognize her. They exchanged pleasantries and headed for the plane. He climbed the stairs to see Lucio occupied the first two captains’ armchairs with a sleeping mask on. It was early, and they had been waiting. He might be asleep. They had twelve hours before landing. At some point, he would emerge. Mendes sat not too close but still in range; he wanted Lucio to come to him. Next, he flagged down the attendant and asked for some poached eggs with coffee and then dismissed her. Mendes watched as the two agents moved to the back of the plane and sat over a small table and started into the most animated whisper conversation he’d ever seen. Within a few moments, they were airborne.
A few hours later.
The plane jostled slightly as it pushed through a patch of rough air somewhere over the Atlantic; the motion shook Lucio awake. After a lengthy internal debate of whether he should take off the mask and acknowledge the elephant in the room or just pretend to sleep for another few hours. His bladder overruled all, and he took the mask off. Lucio made his way through the cabin to the lavatory and relieved himself, then asked the flight attendant to bring him anything she had left to snack on back to his seat. As he passed Mendes, he gave a subtle head nod and proceeded back to his seat.
About mid-way through his snack, if you could call a ham, egg and cheese sandwich and two tapiocas a snack, he felt a hand on his shoulder.
“Can I sit?” Mendes said as he motioned to the captain's seat across from him.
Lucio motioned for him to have at it as he cut a piece of the crepe like tapioca and took a bite.
“Good to see you, old friend,” Mendes said as he sat down.
“You too, looking fit as ever,” Lucio replied as he took a sip of his Mate tea.
“Hard work pays off,” he replied as a briefly flexed his biceps, “So how’s the family?”
“Great, time off is wonderful, but after spending two weeks travelling with a 3- and 7-year-old, I am ready to get back dealing with people my age,” Lucio said. “I mean, I love my kids, but right now they are at that age where I can’t stand them.”
“That’s what the nannies are for,” Mendes said in a tone that teetered between seriousness and joking.
“That’s what I tell the misses, but she doesn’t want the help,” Lucio said as he ate the last bite, “and you know what they say, ‘happy wife, happy life’ so who I am to argue.”
“Hell of a season, and you were in the form of your life, gotta be feeling great going into this year, Right?” Mendes said.
“Remarkable group of guys. We had a bond that no matter what seemed to happen we knew we could bounce back. Plus the league competition was shite, so we could coast the second half of the year,” Lucio said as shifted his weight back into the chair and studied Mendes. He was sitting proud, chest out and intently focused on Lucio, his eyes studying his mannerisms, looking for any sort of tell.
“More trophies in the same cabinet, you every think about something new, getting bored in the league?” Mendes said as he casually looked away for the first time.
“I have three more years on my deal, play for the biggest club in the world and live in a great city. I am not pushed to test myself as much as you are, I have reached the peak, why would I go down into the village looking for a fistfight,” Lucio said as he raised his hand above his head like a mountain top, “I don’t concern myself with everything going on down here.” He then motioned to the tray table in front of him and the left-over food scraps.
“Fair point. It’s been hard not putting on that white kit. I hope your agent pushed for a bit of a bump after this season?” Mendes said again with that quasi-joke-serious tone.
Lucio laughed and responded, “Never crossed my mind, it’s not like they would come to me and ask me to take a pay cut if I played like a dog for a season, so I extend them the same courtesy.”
“Can you imagine if they did!” Mendes said, “But at least you’re still the highest earner at the club?”
“Nope,” Lucio said, and he knew Mendes knew that statement not to be true, but he was driving at something. Probably trying to sow some seeds of discontent.
“When I signed my deal, it was, but things happened. New players come in, others get new contracts on different terms and based on loads of factors that are out of my control, so it’s the natural course others will pass you,” Lucio said with a smile.
“But it means something in the locker room,” Mendes said. “The top guy should be the top paid.”
“The amount on your check doesn’t correspond to your place in the team. Like I said, different factors. I am pretty sure Chelsea’s top earners are not even starters, just better agents,” Lucio said as he sat forward in his chair, “Ok, you don’t make small talk and sure as hell do no share flights. What’s the ask?”
Lucio had grown tired of this charade and cut through the bullshit. Mendes smiled and shrugged his shoulders. He pursed his lips. Lucio could tell the direct question slightly surprised him and he now needed to re-formulate his approach.
“I want to come back,” Mendes said after a few moments of contemplation.
“Great, I am sure the club will do what’s best for them,” Lucio said, “Player of your stature, I am sure they are interested, along with LOADS of others. Why come back?”
“Wife has family in the city, kids love the schools, and the club is still the pinnacle of European Club football, who wouldn’t want to play there.” Mendes said.
“But you left all of that once before?” Lucio said, nearly cutting him off.
“I wanted a new challenge,” Mendes said quickly.
“Right, nothing about your contract, and those felony tax charges,” Lucio replied.
“We are getting off topic,” Mendes said as he rolled his head around on his shoulder. “If the club wants me back, are you good with me being back?”
“I don’t make personnel decisions,” Lucio said.
“Your captain and a powerful figure in the locker room, you hold a lot of pull,” Mendes said.
“Maybe I do in the locker room, but the club was around well before me and will be there well after me.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means they are going to always do what is best for them, not me or any player,” Lucio said as he leaned forward towards Mendes, “So what little pull I might have over the locker room, I don’t have shit over the front office, and I don’t care too. I lace up my boots and I do my job. I trust the people above me to make the right decisions and I trust the gaffer to put me in the best possible position to succeed. If that’s with you on the team, then great.”
Mendes reclined in his chair and debated his next sentence extremely carefully.
“So if they have agreed to a deal, you're good with me coming back?” Mendes finally said.
“Sure, but what are you expecting?” Lucio said subtly puffing out his chest.
“What do you mean?”
“System has changed, like all of football, we press, we defend from the front more,” Lucio said and purposefully hesitated before continuing, “and I play more centrally.”
“I will do whatever the team needs,” Mendes said with a growing smile. “I just want to get out of my current hell.”
“Well, again, I don’t have a say or make these kinds of decisions, but to your question,” Lucio said with reluctance, “Yea, I have no problem with you coming back.”
“Great!” Mendes said, and he tried to make small talk for another few minutes before excusing himself and headed to the back of the plane to speak with his agent. No sooner than he left, did Pearce magically appear in the seat across from him.
“He can’t be serious?” Lucio said in a hushed whisper.
“His agent seems to think your approval is the only thing holding up this deal,” Pearce said, glancing over Lucio’s shoulder towards Mendes and team.
“Totally against their current policies. No way are they going to spend money on a 37-year-old,” Lucio said, shaking his head. “And why does everything thing the director or anyone upstairs listen to me? Have you been spreading rumors?”
“No,” Pearce said with a laugh, “The deal would be a free or a loan. He’s probably going to buy out his own contract and then take a hefty pay cut. And you might not think it, but before the rumors came out, the club called me to take your temperature on the signing.”
“Well, that makes me feel good, but I really could not care less. I never had a problem with him,” Lucio said. “I mean, did I enjoy playing with him? No. But a problem with him, never. So what’s changed?”
“Last season, mate, you jumped from a star to the best 9 in the game and won all the hardware,” Pearce said, like a genuine agent.
Lucio laughed and shook his head. He knew he had a fantastic year, but when his agent, usually stingy with praise, gushed so matter of fact-ly it made his day.
“Fuck it, and fuck him,” Lucio said, “However, I know a few guys hated him, and I don’t want his ass ruining the confidence of the kids, so fuck him. Block the move if it ever happens.”
A few minutes earlier, on the other end of the plane.
Mendes walked back like a conquering hero. He sat down confidently in front of his agent and said, “He’s good. Let’s get it going.”
“Great, I am working on the exit, but we might have to pay to terminate the contract,” Felix said as he fired off texts to his sources and others.
“Thought it was a loan, no fee,” Mendes said as his smile turned to a frown.
“Still working, but buy out might be better.”
“Not sure. Don’t worry about that. We will make it all back.”
“Your right, just need to get back a decent side,” Mendes said as he smiled again.
“What did he say about playing time and positions?” Felix said, not looking up from his phone with his fingers furiously typing.
“I told him I would do what the team needs,” Mendes said. “He brought it, all team first shit, and they will be. Then after a few sessions and games. Everyone will know I am better and I will take the role.”
Felix stopped texting and looked up from his phone. Exhaled deeply before speaking.
“I need you to know this deal will not guarantee a starting spot or some of your other perks in the past and will be the lowest weekly wage in 10 years,” Felix said.
“I am Joaquin Mendes, you don’t have to put in writing that I should start, I start, because I am the best,” Mendes said, “And that hasn’t changed.”
“The King has returned,” Felix said with a smile and went back to work on his phone.