“You want what?”, said the tourist agent, visibly confused.
“An open ticket to any of these countries”, the young man sitting in front of her replied.
“But… well, for starters, that’s not how an open ticket works. And secondly, you can’t just fly away to any given country. We’re in a pandemic, there are controls to pass, and paperwork to be done… it…it just doesn’t work like that”.
The young man seemed to think about it for a second…
“Ok”, he said, “Then get me on the next plane to…”
He opened his phone and flicked through it for a moment.
The tourist agent sighed.
“Ok then.”, she replied.
A few hours before, the same young man was taping a sheet of paper to the wall. There’s an incoherent drawing on it. As he stepped back, an image formed. It was a map of the world, that he has drawn, piece by piece, on several pieces. The shape of the different continents and countries wasn’t perfect, but the marking of coordinates was very precisely done.
All the papers were taped to a giant styrofoam board; where the light hits them directly, you can see the writing on the back, faintly showing through. They’re rejection letters; from writing jobs, from jobs in football, even one from a banking job.
After a few seconds of admiring his work, the young man grabbed a set of precision screwdrivers and opened the case. There were eleven, shiny new tools, ranging from 1mm to 8mm. He took the smallest of the set and threw it at the board. The tool hit somewhere near Ireland and stayed nailed to the board. Happy with his work, the young man threw every screwdriver, until the entire set was marking spots on the map.
He approached the map and took note of the eleven spots.
53°13’04″N 88°33’10″W, in the Canadian province of Ontario.
7°13’56″N 64°33’37″W, but a stone’s throw away from the Orinoco River in Venezuela.
17°12’48″S 68°01’32″W, on the Bolivian Andes.
34°08’56″S 55°43’45″W, a few kilometres north of Montevideo, Uruguay.
52°37’42″N 10°03’00″W, just off the coast of Ireland.
42°22’34″N 13°00’47″E, right in the middle of Italy.
43°43’52″N 19°25’58″E, just inside the border of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
31°51’03″S 21°29’05″E, bang in the middle of South Africa.
3°16’06″N 103°47’12″E, on the South China Sea, near Malaysia.
7°29’09″S 107°18’50″E, on Java Island, Indonesia.
33°06’23″S 127°19’00″E, on the Great Australian Bight.
The young man packed away his notepad and picked up his bags. His apartment in Buenos Aires was bare, stripped of anything that wasn’t attached to a wall as he had sold everything he didn’t need or couldn’t carry. Now, all he had was his life savings, some clothes for all weathers and 11 countries on 6 continents. His mind was set, he was about to embark on a football journey. The young man, of course, was me.
Truth be told, the adventure could’ve started a bit closer to home. Indonesia was over 15,000 kilometres away, almost exactly on the other side of the world. It was going to take four flights to take me there, and over 40 hours. For a man that had never taken a flight in his life, it was as stressful a first trip as you could have.
As I waited for my fourth and final flight at Abu Dhabi airport, hands holding my head, back aching like never before, I spotted a man silently cursing at a laptop screen; the unequivocal sign of a Football Manager player. He was a young man, no older than me. Encouraged by the sight of a familiar element when about to immerse myself in a foreign culture and language, I approached him.
“Is that FM”, I said. I took a chance. I don’t regularly talk to strangers, but what was the worst thing that could happen? Either it was or it wasn’t; either he understood or he gave a confused look.
“Yeah, you play it?”, he replied.
“Lots. Who are you managing?”
“My local side. I’m from Indonesia. You?”.
“Argentina. I’m Fernando by the way”.
“Abdul”, he said.
“So, how’s the save going?”
“Atrocious. I can’t get my team to play like I want”
“Well, I’ve written a few tactics guides, do you mind if I take a look?”, I asked.
He showed me his save, and we started talking about the game. By the time we were boarding the plane, the conversation had turned to the real life game.
“You seem to know quite a bit about football”, he said.
“Only what I could pick from reading and playing”
“So, if you don’t mind me asking, what are you coming to Indonesia for?”, he asked.
“I’m on my football journey”, I replied. “It sounds silly, I know, but I wanted to experience the world and the game. Write about it, groundhop, see what it’s like elsewhere. Options back home were limited, so I went for it. I don’t know how it’s gonna turn up, I’ve got nobody in Jakarta, but that part of the charm”.
“Maybe I should hire you”, he said.
“What do you work on?”
“Many things, but in this case I mean the football club I own”
“What’s it called?”, I asked.
“You’re kidding… Persik? The one you were managing on FM?”
“Yes, my local side”.
“You local side is a top tier club you own”, I laughed. “Well, I guess I could help around with the cones…”
“No, I meant coaching”, he replied.
I laughed out so hard some passengers turned to look.
“You have to be joking”, I said. He was looking me straight in the eyes; he wasn’t joking. “But I have no experience, no qualifications…”
“You know football, my man. That’s all I need. Besides, we’re in a relegation battle. We need fresh ideas”
“I don’t know man…”
“Look, you’ll have support. Our assistant coach is a good man, he’s a former player, he’ll help you out. Worst case scenario, we get relegated and you got a good paycheck for a few months… but it won’t get to that. I’ve got a good feeling about you”.
I sighed. It looked like I didn’t have much choice. By the time the plane landed in Jakarta, I had a job as a football manager.
The city of Kediri, where Persik is based, is on the eastern side of Java Island, some 600 kilometres from Jakarta. There was no airport there, so Abdul arranged for us to take a flight to Surabaya, the largest city in the region. From there, we took a car to our destination.
“How come you can arrange transportation so easily?”, I asked Abdul.
With a faint smile, he explained who he actually was. It turned out he wasn’t just some cool guy playing FM in an airport, but a member of the Indonesian congress. I felt a bit cheated, for some reason.
“Would you have approached me if you knew?”, he asked.
“Perhaps not, you’re right”.
It was another 120 kilometres in the car to Kediri. I was surprised by no matter how far we got from Surabaya, the city never seemed to end. At every turn, no matter how many trees and grass you could see, there was always a collection of houses to be found, maybe lost in the distance or so close you could wonder why they were there.
When we entered the city, on the other hand, I was surprised by how the greenery remained in the landscape. It seemed like every big avenue and every corner was adorned with trees on the side, a boulevard, or even small plants on enormous pots.
We stopped outside the entrance to a hotel. There were, of course, trees everywhere. A young woman approached the car and opened the door on my side.
“This your stop”, said Abdul. “This is Rachel Hutapea, she’ll be helping you get settled”.
Without me noticing, the driver had put my bags out of the car.
“I’m busy now, I’m sorry I can’t stay, but Rachel will help you with anything you need. And the contract”.
He closed the window of the car before I could say anything. Right before the car drove off he lowered it just enough so I could see his eyes.
“And don’t get too clever, she’s actually your boss”.
Rachel was, in any case, too smart to be fooled by me. She was attentive, energetic and driven, far more so than I ever was.
“Ok, let’s get you into checked in”, she said after shaking my hand. We started walking towards the entrance. “I apologise for the crudeness of it all, Abdul gave me very little notice”
“It’s ok, I very got to meet him…”
“I suspect you don’t speak Bahasa Indonesia”
“I figured. We’ll need a translator then. Are we expecting any members of your staff to arrive later?”, she asked.
“I wasn’t a football coach when I stepped on the plane”, I said, “So no”
She stopped for a second, the ridiculousness of it all probably proving a bit too much.
“Well…that’s… convenient, I guess”
“Abdul mentioned the Assistant Manager”.
“Johan? I guess he could help you… just so we are clear, do you have any football expertise at all?”
“I’m a failed journalist and amateur player… but I’ve read a lot of books”, I replied.
“That’ll have to do”, she said. This time she didn’t even flinch.
The first night was an odd one. I kept waking up at random moments, still a bit confused with it all. Had I just agreed to coach a football team on the other side of the world? Was I really there? It was so ridiculous it could’ve been a dream. Every time, without a doubt, I got to realize I was actually there. It wasn’t the sounds of the city that made it real, or the new bed, or even back pain of having spent most of the last forty-eight hours travelling. It was simply the fact that I turned left and failed to find my night table; the hotel had put theirs on the right of the bed.
At 8:30 I got a wake-up call. The concierge apologized when he heard my irritated voice, explaining had been set up by Rachel. The moment I hung up, my cellphone started ringing; it was an unknown number. I hadn’t had time (or the willpower) to add it to contacts, but I knew exactly who it was.
“Oh, you’re up. That’s good. How soon can I pick you up?”
“Give me five?”
“That’s good. Hurry up, I’m downstairs”
“Where?”, I asked, still barely awake.
“At the hotel”.
I got ready and met her at the entrance. She informed me we were going to the stadium, where I’d meet my translator and sign the contract. She had also set up a lawyer for me, as I didn’t know anyone in the country.
“His payment will come out as a percentage of your signing bonus, so you can be assured he won’t be screwing you over for us”, she explained.
The stadium was on the other side of the river, a bit away from the city centre. I quickly figured out that the streets were just as busy as on “my” side. Bikes and cars bustled around, tearing leaves from the flower plants on the pots that adorned the boulevard. It was a 20,000 capacity, and yet you would miss it if they didn’t tell you how to find it. All across the front, different shops and bars covered the stands from the view. There was just one access, a big blue door, with a sign that spelt Brawijaya Stadium in big white letters.
We entered a small room, barely bigger than my single bedroom apartment back home. Two men were waiting for us, who introduced themselves as Susilo Tri Indrajaya, my lawyer, and Asa Saraan, my new translator. Mr Indrajaya was reviewing the contract the club was offering, which he found extremely acceptable; it ran until the end of the year (less than 5 months from then). He commented the terms to me but I was clueless and signed without much fuss.
“Well, that does it”, said Rachel.
“What now?”, I asked.
“Now you manage and coach a team”, she replied.