January 27, 2012
Blinding sun, sweltering heat, gritty, swirling, gusting wind, and no sign of relief as endless dunes of burning sand stretched from one shimmering horizon to the other. Apparently there were worse places than Inglaterra. Not for the first time, Carlos cursed the way the City regime treated him.
The current first squad, led by Mancini, were met at the airport by a horde of welcoming fans and escorted to Sheikh Mansour’s Qatari palace in a caravan of gleaming, air-conditioned limousines. Carlos and Kia, along with the rest of the City exiles, were forced to make the same journey in a more traditional, less comfortable form of caravan. Had the exiles been bused, or even trucked, across the desert, he would have taken the indignity in stride. He had been raised in the barrio after all, and his success hadn’t smoothed over all the rough edges. Not hardly. But camels? This was humiliation on a new level.
He and Kia rode at the head of the players, just behind the lead group, which included Brad, George, Sparky and Bridgey. The two actors were treating the experience as a grand adventure, but Carlos knew that Sparky and Bridgey were every bit as incensed as he and Kia. Still, they were doing their best to control their beasts, remaining both tall and proud in the saddle to set an example for the squad.
Carlos was dressed in similar fashion to the London training session, with a chequered ghutra and an ogaal wrapped around his head to shield him from the heat, rather than a toque and snood to ward off the cold. Heavy, dark sunglasses shaded his eyes, and had there been any press along to record their journey, his bushy brows and bulbous nostrils again would have been the only exposed features by which to mark him. Carlos fumed at the lack of media, both because they were never about when they might be of use and because he knew that his enemies had made sure of their absence, so that this insult could easily be denied.
Most of the other players were grumbling as well, all having difficulty keeping the temperamental beasts in line. All that is except for Bellamy. His particular dromedary was meek and cooperative. Carlos supposed that the sight of a nine iron being substituted for the standard issue riding crop had made the beast think twice about causing any mischief. The wary dromedary hadn’t stepped out of line once along the trip, leaving Bellamy to whistle a tune and give his mates stick for their poor ‘horsemanship’.
They day wore on and the sun continued to beat down. Carlos thought they’d never reach the palace. Then, just when he was ready to give in, they crested a dune and the edifice rose up before them, perhaps two kilometres away. Outside the walls of the large compound, a huge square of ground had been platted off and leveled. Next to it, a large, inflatable tent had been erected, with large generators connected to it by thick, ribbed hoses. It had to be the air-conditioned practice pitch, which had been negotiated as part of the deal to stage the special charity match between the exiles and City’s first team.
To one side of the big tent were pitched nearly twenty smaller tents: their sleeping quarters. Sheikh Mansour had refused to welcome the banished players inside his luxurious walls. Carlos had been outraged at yet another snub when he was informed of it during the London meeting. He had been ready to pack it in, but George and Brad had brought him around, insisting that being housed outside the palace walls actually played into their plans.
Now, they rode into camp and slid awkwardly off their beasts, who having arrived, simply plopped down in the sand and brayed for water. Carlos stumbled to his tent, carrying his own gear. The kit wasn’t very heavy; but the long, herky-jerky ride had done something to his sense of balance. This must be what it is like to have sea legs, he thought.
As he was about to duck into his tent and take a nap, he heard Sparky call out to the entire group. “Stow your things and report to the mess tent. We’ll have a light lunch and get you all re-hydrated.”
In an opulent stateroom, done entirely in marble, with fine tapestries draped along the walls, three men stood near a bank of security monitors. Behind them, in the centre of the room, stood a trophy case of ebony and glass. Periodically, floating motes of dust revealed otherwise invisible laser beams, which, along with sensor pads and an array of strategically placed cameras, protected the case. Inside, polished to a blinding sheen, stood an official winner’s replica of the FA Cup. It went wherever the proud owner of Manchester City traveled.
Khaldoon Al Mubarak, Manchester City Chairman, bowed deeply to His Highness, Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Sultan Al Nahyad, then turned to watch the monitors. Although it had not escaped his notice that the other man, the Italian, Mancini’s bow had barely been more than a nod, he followed his master’s example and ignored the insult. Infidel! His arrogance would one day be repaid in kind, as soon as he outlived his usefulness. These Europeans were such fools. What made the man think his own fate would be any different than his compatriots outside the walls?
“The match will be good for the club’s image.”
His master’s remark brought Mubarak back to the business at hand. “Yes, Highness,” he replied, his sour mood evident in his voice.
“You have reservations?”
“This has all come together rather quickly, and perhaps too easily, Highness.”
The Sheikh waved a dismissive hand. “That is not a difficult riddle to unravel. They simply are eager for some revenge; their pride has been hurt.”
“A vengeful man is a dangerous one, Highness.”
“Bah, what can they do?”
“We are not exactly at full strength, Highness, what with injuries and the Toures away at the Cup of Nations. We cannot afford for anyone to get hurt in a meaningless affair.”
“You think they would deliberately seek to injure their former teammates, Khaldoon?”
“They wouldn’t dare!” Mancini interjected himself into the conversation. “They all know what De Jong would do to them.”
The Sheikh nodded sagely at the manager, again ignoring his failure to show proper respect when addressing royalty, then he turned to Mubarak, spread his hands, palms up, and smiled. “There you have it. The situation is well in hand.”
Khaldoon Al Mubarak glowered at the Italian, then bowed his head to his master. “As you say, Highness. I just wish that I could be so sure. Somehow, I feel like a lamb being led to slaughter. And the smiles of those two Americans remind me of hungry jackals.”
The Qatari Job, Part V: One Hump Or Two? by Martin Palazzotto is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.