Simon Masters was not taking the match against Mitchell's Plain United lightly, any other assistant coach in his position would have settled for a draw or the excuse that he was in charge of a second string team. The Rustlers Sporting Club, assistant coach was not the kind of man who settled for second best and he had convinced the youngsters and fringe players under him that this was their opportunity to prove themselves. The Mpumalanga Province side were favourites to gain promotion from the National First Division to the Premier Soccer League, yet despite their closest rivals for top spot having lost their game, he planned to win and remind people that he was the man who had once come close to winning the Tunisian league.
Simon had enjoyed a successful, though controversy-riddled playing career in Brazil and later in his career the lower echelons of French football. In France he had acquired his European coaching qualifications and a decent command of the French language. As a coach, he had earned a reputation for making full use of young players at the sides he managed, a thrifty policy that impressed his employers at Le Mans. From the second tier of French professional football, he had been lured to Tunisia where he led C.S Sfaxienne to the top of the league only to be ousted following a fall out of epic proportion with the directors. A section of the media had dubbed him the nearly man of South African football, the self-proclaimed experts pointed out that he could have played in the top European leagues, that he could have coached at the highest but had in typical Simon Masters fashion, flattered to deceive. He was certain that they had laughed their lungs out when he joined Rustlers Sporting Club as an assistant to his former mentor and not as a replacement. They would laugh out of the other side of the heads when he was done with Mitchells' Plain.
Rustlers Sporting Club was enjoying a purple patch under billionaire chairman B. Hamlet Bacon; the semi-retired crooner had enabled the long serving coach to hold onto key players for the first time in the history of a club that had become known as the nursery of star footballers. Jorge Brocchi, the Colombian tactician widely known as the father of Rustlers' style of play had recommended his then out-of-work former protégé , as his first choice as assistant coach to replace his long serving assistant who had gone back to doing what he loved the most, grooming youngsters in the academy. Brocchi envisioned Masters as an ideal successor; he had the experience of playing in Brazil and had achieved everything from continental to world championship medals while there. If any man could inspire the players and command their respect it was Simon, with a semi-final clash with Premier Soccer League leaders, treble hunting Ajax Cape Town, Brocchi decided to rest along with his first choice players ahead of his and Rustlers second appearance at this stage of the South African equivalent of the English F. A Cup.
The eccentric Colombian tactician had arrived in South Africa convinced that his vision of hybrid formation that blended Italian commitment to strong defence, South American tactical awareness and typically South African arrogance on the ball. He had started out in what was then a ramshackle soccer academy in the bush, moulding the youth teams according to the formation he wanted. There was a gym in what was once a tractor shed, a breeding ground, for the type of powerful brutes that had become synonymous with the heart of Rustlers' defence. Brocchi knew how to make the best of limited resources, he had faced similar challenges in the rural parts of Colombia, but, as he often reminded his players, a state of the training facility full of lazy, sissies was just as good as nothing at all.
Over time, improvements were made to Rustlers base, the aptly named, Ranch boasted well manicured training grounds as well many of the innovations one would associate with one of giants of the local game. The club were devoted to their youth programme, which had for many years been a major source of revenue or personnel to replace those swooped up by other clubs. They lived on the Ranch, shared meals together, studied and endured the Spartan training preseason training together. A Young Gun, as Rustlers colts were known, had to perform academically to keep his place at the Ranch. He sacrificed videogames, idle time at malls or experimenting with drugs and alcohol with the hope of one day having his name added to the list of graduates who had gone through the ranks to play for the Stallions. One such graduate was Reuben Bacon a hard tackling central midfielder, who in spite of his privileged background, epitomised the talent, grit and sheer determination that had earned him a place in the starting eleven just months after his eighteenth birthday.
Bacon would not sit out of the Mitchells Plain encounter; Masters had moved him into a more central role in order to showcase his ability to knock the ball around. The boy had the ability to play in attacking roles; it was his tenacity that pencilled him into the defensive role that he relished. He wiped the sweat off his brow with the back of his left arm and shared a joke with another young prospect. Injury to the first choice left back had paved the way for Khaya Ndlovu to slot into the defence, at just sixteen years of age. Khaya was a marvel when given the space to run at opponents and not easily intimidated on the field, though off it he was a tad reclusive, often paging through one of his textbooks. He'll be overseas by the time he turns twenty one! Masters predicted. Nobody knew what he did with his money; there had been no shopping spree or celebration to mark his debut and the bonuses that came with time on the field. He was hungry; his type would never stop until they reached the top or were forced into retirement by injury. Simon hoped that he stayed focused on that bigger picture and steered clear of the soccer groupies that would inevitably jostle for his attention.
Star quality was written all over ever DVD that contained footage of Louis Barrow, Brocchi called him "Little Pele"; he certainly had skill power and goal scoring ability with either foot. His hands were as rough as a bricklayers' as he clasped Simons hand after giving the defence a torrid time. Barrow was always busy, he was either playing a game of basketball, tinkering with electrical appliances, in the gym or playing his keyboard. A friendly character with his curly mane that reminded his team mates of the Brazilian David Luis, Louis with his Herculean strength, either used his skills to go past his marker or he went right through them.
"I'll show the boss what I can do Simon, he'll be singing those Gladys Knight songs all the way back from Cape Town!" It was a matter of fact statement delivered by a youngster who could run onto the field and seemingly fade into anonymity, only to pounce suddenly and score cracking goals. There were other times, when he would enter the fray as a late substitute and somehow conjure up two goals, as he had in what had seemed to be destined to be a goalless draw against Jomo Cosmos. Brocchi would do his own version of the a Gladys Knight song which Louis imitated to perfection whenever the coach was out of earshot, "I'm a-leaving on a uh-midnight train to uh-Georgia" Simon had heard hysterical laughter and as he had crept up to see what the reason behind it was, he had found himself laughing at the young strikers ability to mimic people. "Hey you ref-uh-ree you need-uh spectacles, you are uh fool-uh!" Simon grinned at Louis and patted him on the back as he recalled the comical impersonation that he had walked in on.
As the players went off to shower, Simon and Jorge shared a quiet word on the field. The ageing South American with his bottle-black hair, streaked with grey was smiling broadly as he looked from one goalpost to the next.
"Did you see Ratty today?" Ratty was the name given to Lerato Mudau by his teammates, the pint sized winger had galloped along both flanks and displayed his ability to pass accurately. Simon silently nodded in reply, what the boy lacked in stature paled in comparison to his pace and stamina. Unlike Kippie Booysen, the first choice right winger, Mudau spent less time dribbling and instead relied on his excellent first touch to bring the ball under control before whipping it into gaps in the opposition defence.
"I think I can use him against Ajax on the weekend. With him running the way that he does, the Ajax fullback will have to defend and not join the attack as he normally does!"
"You'll have to explain that to Kippie...'' Simon did not want to have a star sulking because he was on the bench in a match against a team from his hometown.
"I have mentioned it to him in private, you know me by now! Everybody will expect Kippie, Ajax will have plans on how to cope with him and when Lerato has worn them down, we push Kippie on to make their tired legs dance." Brocchi smiled broadly, he could speak as if no task was too daunting for his players, he had the knack of taking a man aside and convincing him that he was the best player in the world for the job that he was assigned to do on the given day. Simon was accustomed to those pep-talks, the manager had a quiet fatherly manner that made going one on one against any opponent seem as easy as telling a child "Don't worry, just pedal, I'm keeping the bike steady!"
"Let's pray that he doesn't have a bad game tomorrow, it would dent his confidence ahead of the weekend." Simon spoke from experience, teenagers could grow over-confident after a few solid performances and when the inevitable bad day at the office arrived, they found themselves trying to over-compensate in the following game and played even worse. He had gone through a similar bad patch and Brocchi gave him a knowing wink.
"Good players will bounce back, you were one of the babies that did, each time something life threw at you knocked you onto your backside!" Something in his tone hinted that the old man was talking about more than events that had taken place when Simon was a young pup under his tutelage. He realised that he was being given an opportunity to remind South Africa that he was still a highly qualified coach, that he had the experience to win games and he was going to prove it to them live on television.
Later in the evening, as he prepared to relax in bed and listen to music on his laptop, Simon was disturbed by the vibrating of his mobile phone. This was one invention that made it difficult to avoid people, which was probably why he had gone to the extent of answering calls when he was on the toilet. Answering calls on the toilet, he reflected was merely a case of allowing the same smelly stuff into your ear while you expelling it into the toilet bowl. He got off the bed and answered.
"Masters!" He said with authority
"Hi coach, are you still awake?" The sports journalist cooed. He fought back a sarcastic reply.
"Yes I was actually getting ready for bed, how are you?"
"Alone?" The woman was starting to irritate him with her questions.
"What do you mean "alone"?"
"I'm booked into the same hotel...So if you'd like a bit of company, let me know which room you're in!"
"What happened to the Holiday Inn?" He was not going to give in to her charms so easily; perhaps she had followed the stories of his pre-match escapades in Brazil as a schoolgirl and was eager to indulge in such with him as often as she could. When a man had amassed fortune and fame, it was difficult to discern between women interested in Simon Masters the celebrity or Simon Masters the man. She was after the man, of that he was certain and perhaps that was why she always called at odd hours when work commitments kept them apart. Old habits, she had said, had a tendency of dying hard. He opened the door and seeing her clad in a trench opened the floodgates for a torrent of flashbacks from several similar encounters in Sao Paolo, Belo Horizonte, Paris and Marseille.
"Old habits, bloody hell...." He said as he locked the door behind her.
The following evening, Simon nodded appreciatively as the players went about stamping their authority on the game. Rustlers held onto the ball for large chunks of the first half and pinned Mitchells' Plain in their own half of the field. Khaya was wreaking havoc on the left flank, operating as if he were a winger, slinging in crosses and bombarding the opposition with long range shots at goal. He was having one of those games where even the youngest soccer fans could notice that he was too good to be playing in the National First Division; he defended well and was very seldom caught out of position. It made the job easier for the coaching staff when a player had practically grown up playing in the same position as the one they now occupied, there were fewer errors compared to midfielders who had been converted into fullbacks and somewhere in the heat of the match found themselves drifting into midfield or making the kind of mistakes at the back, that conceded goals.
There were no goals at the break, Rustlers had wasted a few easy scoring opportunities and the Mitchells' Plain United goalkeeper had made two stunning saves to deny Khaya and Louis respectively. Their efforts did not impress Simon; a second half rally from the Capetonians would have paltry crowd and inevitable brass band behind them. It was time to do his part in the dressing and he stalked off the field in silence ahead of the players.
"I want to know what you think about your opponents today! Can you beat them?" He demanded from the players.
"Yes sir!" Reuben Bacon was first to reply, he had captained most of the youth teams he had played for and he was not earmarked as a future captain of the senior squad as a token of appreciation to his father, the chairman.
"So come on gents pull up your socks, don't score the goal in your mind first. Put the ball in the back of the net and then you can worry about how you're going to celebrate the goal!" He focused his attention on Louis and Tucker Sithole, the young strikers had wasted chances and he was going to have to haul one of them off to give Pepe Falcone a run. Falcone had recently returned from injury and the Johannesburg born hit-man was eager to get back to his scoring ways and to add to the ten goals he had scored before twisting his ankle.
"Right! This isn't rocket science, just focus on what you did right and show South Africa and the rest of Africa that's watching tonight, just how much better you are than this guy....who is with me?"
There was a roar of affirmation from the players and they broke into song for the final minutes of the break. Some clubs feared that Rustlers used muthi, African sorcery, in the dressing room. There was culture of coming out from the break with a warlike chant that intimidated opponents, particularly the superstitious ones. Reuben led the players into the tunnel and gave a rousing war cry which, when taken up by the rest of the team startled the assistant referee. It was a pity; Simon noted with a chuckle, that the cameras had not captured that incident.
Rustlers had wrestled control away from what had been a spirited Mitchells' Plain fight back and Mudau was quick play a high ball onto the edge of the penalty area. The cross was the staple diet for a well-schooled striker of Louis' calibre. He jumped and rather than wait for the ball to hit his head, attacked it with a powerful nod that had the goalkeeper cursing in despair. Rustlers one, Mitchells' Plain nil. Simon was off his seat, applauding briefly, then, quickly urging the players to be vigilant. Goals were often conceded when players assumed that the match was already won and he was having none of that.
The introduction of Falcone into the game had an immediate impact as "The man from Little Italy", was quickest to pounce on the ball as Reuben Bacon had seen his effort beat the goalkeeper but rebound back into play off the goalpost. Falcone instinctively volleyed the ball into the back of the net with his left foot for the second goal as Rustlers looked firm favourites to win the match. The players passed the ball with a swagger in their step as they probed and prodded the opposition, in search of a third goal to crush any glimmer of hope for a fight back. The third goal arrived after Louis charged at the defence and with every eye in the stadium on him, flicked the ball into the path of an unhindered Falcone who buried one of the easiest goals he would ever score. The Mitchells' Plain coach ranted and raved at his defenders' lack of concentration.
Simon cleared his parched throat as he shouted a few instructions of his own, with ten minutes remaining it would take a miracle for the home team to come back into the game. The players responded to his instructions by displaying some extravagant ball skills, Reuben actually knelt before receiving a pass from Mudau. It was the beginning of a cheeky display of trickery from the youngster, he was back on his feet before an opponent could get close to him, a small pocket of Rustlers fans cheered wildly as he feigned a pass to the left and instead allowed the ball to roll into the path of a teammate with a nonchalant flick of his foot. Khaya, not to be outdone dribbled his marker and actually walked away from the ball followed by his bamboozled opponent, before turning back and picking out Louis, unmarked on the edge of the eighteen yard box. The young striker struck a blistering shot that sent the ball through legs of the bemused 'keeper.
With less than a minute remaining Louis confirmed why there was such a big fuss about him. He received a pass from Reuben and took on three defenders en route to the goalposts. He evaded one sliding tackle and managed to keep the ball at his feet as the two centre backs rushed to close him down. He turned on the pace and ran straight at them, it was inevitable for him to either try to go left or right or even shoot at goal. Nobody expected him to pause suddenly, then veer to the right which he did as e lobbed the ball over the goalkeeper who was off his line. The Mitchells' Plain United coach applauded, no longer bothered about rebuking his charges. It was a great goal by a rising star and Louis deserved the praise.
After the match Simon went through the pre-match interview, elated and full of praise for the players. He looked into the camera as he spoke, enabling his detractors to take a good look at him.
"We've been rotating the squad to cope with our league and cup commitments, so it would have been easy for us to drop points today, but I'm proud of the players. With this kind of commitment I can't see Rustlers Sporting Club staying in the NFD for one more season!" He rapped, trying not to make too much eye contact.
"Congratulations once again Simon and the all the best..." She was very professional and it would take a clairvoyant to suggest that they were involved. He moved on to speak to somebody else; there was still a press conference to endure, then would be able to call it a day. The Cape Town trip was drawing to its conclusion, he had secured the win and even if they lost in the cup on the weekend, they were two wins away from claiming the title of National First Division champions. He greeted the small contingent Rustlers fans; they would be back on Saturday, along with thousands of their peers, converts and admirers. That was football, everybody loved a winner, some supporters changed allegiance according to which club was the odds on favourite to win the most silverware.
"Hey coach, these mosquitoes in Cape Town really had a go at you!" She touched a mark on his neck that he had not paid any attention to in the morning. He blushed realising why at breakfast time; Brocchi had twice inquired whether he had slept well. He chuckled, with a shake of his head; he admitted to himself that he liked her company.
"Maybe the mosquito would like some dinner, I know nice place at the Waterfront!" He noticed her surprise, they had at his insistence, agreed to keep their relationship out of the public eye.
"Uh.... huh! Tired of hotel food?" She put on a faux American accent
"Yeah and I figure, if any of your former classmates from University see us together, they'll figure that you're the love biter and not someone else."