“Come on man, you’re leaving me hanging here”, I said.
“I’m sorry boss, it’s just I don’t know if it’s a good move for me right now”, replied the voice on the other side of the phone.
“José, it’s been almost ten years, you can call me by my name”
“I’m sorry, force of habit… but anyways…”
“Come on, you speak the language, don’t you?”, I insisted.
“Well, I speak German… and a bit of Dutch, but Afrikaans isn’t exactly the same language. I don’t know how useful I’ll be to you.”
“It’ll be better than zero language.”
“Besides, don’t they speak English there as well…?”
“I need a translator and a helping hand… and the pay will be better”
“You know the pay isn’t my main concern. I like teaching kids football here”, he replied, “Can’t Rachel just sort you out with another translator? I’m sure she knows people there”
Sigh number two.
“Rachel and I… aren’t on talking terms”, I started, and then added before he asked more about it, “Come on José, it’ll be you and me, like the good old days. You like teaching those kids how to kick a ball? Well this is one of the best youth sides in the country…”
There was nothing but silence on the line
“Come on man. Come here and if you don’t love it after a few weeks I’ll talk with Abdul and they’ll take you back over there, I’m sure of it”, I insisted.
“Come on man… I need you. I need someone I know over here”.
“Ok boss, I’ll hop on a plane”
“You’re the best thing since Thierry Henry… I’ll ask someone here to send you the tickets and the whole shebang”
And as soon as José hung up I released my third sigh.
The sun fell down as the press conference started. July 1, 2028. It was a Saturday in fact, but as I explained to the Mariners board, it made no sense to wait any longer. As my contract entered its final year, I told my employers that I was putting an end to the “Romero era” at Grahame Park.
A few hours before, I called an emergency meeting with the players to let them confirm what I suspect many had suspected. Having already done it at Persik, I was a bit better at keeping my emotions in check, but the fact that our relationship had already been strained made it trickier. When I finished my bit, Simone came up to me to shake my hand and thank me for our time together; and yet in his eyes I could see the odd resolve and relief that this was all for the better. I agreed.
After that, the nothing.
Nothing to do.
Since my Gosford apartment was paid until the end of the year, I made plans to stay until the end of the year, but quickly dropped them. Walking the same streets, going to the same shops, visiting the same bars and cafeterias felt like a strange extension of my time there. I was the same and they were the same but all felt distant and artificial, like I was experiencing it through a plexiglass window at a fancy exhibition.
Unsure of what to do next or where to go, I stuck around Sydney, writing short columns for the newspapers and doing the occasional TV appearance, waiting for the days to pass and my next job to come, before deciding to move back home, back to Buenos Aires.
Around those I decided I actually had a “club type” I wanted to work with. Having greatly enjoyed my experience with the Mariners and their fantastic youth teams, I sought out to take on clubs with similar structures. “Can’t repeat the past? Why, of course you can!” said Jay Gatsby and I love that book.
Of course, that limited the number of clubs I’d theoretically be interested in working with. Without Rachel and her seemingly unlimited business contacts, I was left with nothing but myself and my internet connection to find a new job. The moment people figured out we were going our separate ways I had a line of agents looking to sign me, but in the end I decided to go on my own. I asked a friend of mine who was a lawyer to check any contracts I signed and went on my merry way.
Over time, I developed an interest in South African football. For a long time I had wondered how football was lived there, the only African nation to host the FIFA World Cup, and the country having been part of my original dartboard list, it felt like a move in the right direction. Doing my research I came to the conclusion I had six potential jobs there. The big three: Mamelodi Sundowns, Kaizer Chiefs and Orlando Pirates, followed by SuperSport, Cape Town City and Cape Town Spurs. I made sure to make contact with all the right people, and then bid my time.
On December 15, 2028, Thabo Senong, the manager of Cape Town City was fired due to bad results, and I made my move. The Managing Director of the club was a guy called Alex Mokoena, and he was thrilled and surprised in equal parts with my interest in the club. I was, of course, nowhere near the list of candidates before they received my application, but by then I already had the credentials to pretty much push my weight into any job apart from a top job in Europe.
The interviews were fairly short, with me confirming I had taken an interest due to their commitment to youth development and facilities, and that I was eager to manage in the country. A little over two weeks later I was officially announced as the new manager. Standing there, once again by the microphones and the flashes, it all became a bit of blur of blue and gold, just as it had been. Same colours, different everything.
It wasn’t until I was introduced to the players that I realised I was on my own for the first time. No safety net like in Indonesia, no Rachel to help me like in Australia. On my very own, on my bloody own. As soon as I was out of the dressing room, I took my phone and marked the first number that came to mind… well, the second one.
With José by my side and feeling less like a fish out of water, I started working on how to take the team out of their downward spiral. The South African Premier League is a 16 team competition, with 30 games spread over what they call four “periods”. It’s played from August to December and then you have a small break in January and early February until the competition returns and goes on until late May/early June.
Taking over in January was a great advantage as I was able to pick up a rested squad, while also having the chance to run a small “preseason”. To my amazement, most matchdays are on Wednesday, which meant I had to adjust my tactical periodization routines to a Thursday to Wednesday schedule, instead of the normal Monday to Sunday.
After watching the squad train and having had Mr Mokoena’s assistant fetch me the recordings of the games they had played in the first half of the season, I decided we were going to play a high press in a skewed 4-4-2. I would be the most adventurous I’d ever been since I started coaching, but I felt my team was up to it. By the time we were closing in on my official debut, I was on my flow…
“You didn’t really need me here, did you?” José asked me once during a training season.
We were watching the under 19s, who were under his control while he also helped me with first team issues.
“Of course I do, what do you mean?”
“Come on boss, you’re thriving here. Set the training all by yourself, did the coaches interviews on your own… I mean, I only need one hand to count the number of times you’ve needed me as a translator”
“José… it’s not…”
“I don’t blame you. And I like it here. I’m grateful you asked me to come. But you didn’t need me. It’s not the same as it was. That’s all I’m saying”.
“We always need people we trust close to us amigo, always”.
“Which leads me to… you need to talk with Rachel”
“I don’t think I can do that. Or that she’d like me to…”
“What the hell happened between you? You always give me half answers with that”
“My head got too big and I said things I shouldn’t have”.
“Well, that’s half an apology right there”.
Our league debut came on February 7, 2029. We received TS Sporting at the Cape Town Stadium. It was a fantastic venue, which had hosted a number of world cup games in 2010, including the semi final between Uruguay and The Netherlands. All of that made it look a bit ridiculous with just six thousand people. “We’re gonna have to up those gates”, I said to myself.
Contrary to my Mariners debut, this went like a dream. We were leading just 15 minutes in and only received a shot on target in the 82nd, when one of my centrebacks missed a header and left a clear chance for them. We were 3-0 by then, so it was no biggie. Still I chewed gum like a Carlo Ancelotti on steroids, the ever lingering reminder of my smoking withdrawal.
Two more wins, against Chippa United and Amazulu came before we were set to close my first month in charge with a double header against Swallows FC. First at home for the Nedbank Cup, South Africa’s biggest national cup, and then away for the league. They were flying high at the time, not that far off the title race, so it was set to be a big clash, but smelling the opportunity to get silverware, I was happy to go at it.
We ran them absolutely rugged and they got away with just a 1-0 loss. It would have been worrying had it been a two legged series, but that was all there was to it, so I was happy overall. The second match was a much different situation, with us nowhere to be found and them getting chance after change. It was looking like we were going to be left off the hook when they scored twice in 6 minutes late in the second half, and they could’ve even had a third. It was my first defeat as Cape Town City manager.
It was the beginning of the end. It was the end of the beginning. It was our biggest loss. It was our biggest win. That loss would become the first of a run of seven matches without wins. It was also the kickstarter of a cup run that kept us hanging by a thread throughout the dark months of March and April.
While our league form sank like the Titanic, we hosted Maritzburg United for the Second Round. The CT Stadium was once again rather empty, with around ten percent of seats with someone on top, but the team still produced big moments, and we won 2-0, goals by Fagrie Lakay and the man who was quickly becoming my favourite at the club, Sanele Gaxa.
“On to the quarters we go!”, I said to myself
“You should talk to her”, they replied.
Next up it was Baroka, a club from Polokwane, a city far in the north of the country. Luckily, it was a home fixture once again, and once again we ran rampant. A 60th minute goal by winger Celimpilo Ngema put us ahead, and we made it 2-0 courtesy of academy man Sibongiseni Mkhize. Baroka got one back for suspense, but it proved too little, too late.
“On to the semis we go!”, I said to myself
“You have to talk to her”, they replied.
The semis were played in a neutral ground, bringing our home cup mojo to a stop, but the league form took up. As the opener for the all crucial month of May, we got a surprise 3-0 win against Orlando Pirates at home, and just three days later went to Johannesburg’s Ellis Park to take on Kaizer Chiefs. It was a tense affair, and one where any team could have taken it, but luckily for us Celimpilo Ngema got a put back after a saved header from Lakay and on we went.
“On to the final we go!”, I said to myself
“You need to talk to her”, the voices in my head replied.
The final came as our second to last match of the season. With little to play for, a run of two wins and two draws had confirmed our status as 9th in the league, and it was only our distance to 8th placed Orlando Pirates which was at stake. That being the case, I rested the whole squad before the finals, meaning our kids could only manage a 1-1 draw away at Baroka.
I decided to talk to the players before the final, which would pit us against Mamelodi Sundowns in the Peter Mokaba Stadium (which meant another trip to Polokwane), but I struggled to make my case. I felt it meant a lot more to me than it did to them; I saw it as a first step, as a bit of closure to the way things had ended in Australia. Somewhere along the talk I realised I was talking to them like they were Simone and Brandon and Wikelman and the rest. Same colours, different everything. There would be time, there would be a moment, to fully get to know these players, to fully care for them, but for the time I just needed some closure.
When I walked out of the dressing room, my eyes were still a bit cloudy, a bit teared off…
“There you are”, said someone.
I couldn’t believe it.
“What are you doing here?”, I asked.
“José… Why don’t we leave it at that?”
“He said something about your head getting too big… looks normal to me”
“I’ve had it reduced in size”
Silence was horrible
“Save it”, she said. “I wouldn’t be here if I needed to hear it. I know it”
“Just promise me you’re winning this”
“Do you have the slightest idea how hard it was to convince the groundskeeper here to lend me a shovel?, said Rachel.
We won the final, two goals by Sanele Gaxa.