A short story about the beautiful game of ball foot.
Zhongtu Xian threw back his head and downed his rice wine in one. He closed his eyes, winced through gritted teeth, and waited for the shock to pass.
‘Steady, sir,’ said Qiu Jiao. ‘The answers to life’s problems don’t lie at the bottom of a glass.’
‘That’s a rare thing to hear a barman say,’ laughed Zhongtu Xian. ‘Another wine, please sir.’ Zhongtu Xian fished a five yuan note out of his wallet and slammed it onto the bar top.
‘Do you really think it’s all over for Zuqiu Taozhuang?’ asked Qiu Jiao, pouring out another small glass of wine.
‘Of course it is! Haven’t you seen it in the news?’ said Zhongtu Xian, pointing at the TV in the corner. ‘And not just speculation this time. Taozhuang has been quoted extensively: he is retiring from football. Men Zhu Town’s greatest ever player! Our captain for 12 years, no less. He’s the lynch pin. Without him our golden era is over.’
‘You say that, but no-one knows the future. I think you’re seeing the glass half-empty.’
‘Maybe I am. Indeed, look at this!’ said Zhongtu Xian pointing at his glass, the wine stopping a few millimetres short of the brim. ‘You’ve not filled this glass!’
Qiu Jiao laughed and poured in a little more wine so the liquid reached up to the brim like an infinity pool. ‘So, with Taozhuang retiring, who’s going to take his place?’
‘That’s the problem,’ said Zhongtu Xian. ‘I don’t see anyone in the team capable of taking over. Too little experience in the squad.’
‘Gwngyi Shi could fill the role,’ offered Qiu Jiao.
‘Gwngyi Shi? Don’t make me laugh!’ Zhongtu Xian snorted. ‘He’s only 22 or 23 years old.’
‘Ah! But you’re forgetting that Taozhuang was perhaps only 21 or 22 when he was made captain. Remember, a diamond with a flaw is worth more than a pebble without imperfections.’
Zhongtu Xian sat in silence for a moment. ‘Even so,’ he said eventually, ‘Gwngyi Shi doesn’t have the gravitas of Taozhuang. You need a sort of dignity if you’re going to gather the players together and motivate them. No, I just don’t think we have anyone suitable.’
‘What about Jiao Qi?’ said a voice from behind Zhongtu Xian.
Zhongtu Xian turned round to see a man middle-aged, like himself, but smartly dressed in a black suit with a buttoned-up collarless shirt. Zhongtu Xian glanced down at his grey overalls, stained with oil from a day spent lying under cars in the garage. ‘I say this with the most sincere respect, sir, but Jiao Qi cannot kick with his left foot, he’s slow and I can’t remember the last time he scored.’
‘But he’s humble,’ said the man in the suit. ‘He’s slow, steady and reliable, like the tortoise that beats the hare, as the English saying goes. Jiao Qi serves the team. He might not have the speed of Gwngyi Shi or the skills of Taozhuang, but he’s solid and always plays for others.’ The man walked up to the bar, clasped his hands together as if in prayer, and bowed to Zhongtu Xian. ‘Forgive me, may I introduce myself. I’m Jieshu Kechang. I overheard your conversation and couldn’t resist joining in.’
‘You’re most welcome. Please, take a seat. My name is Zhongtu Xian and my good friend, the barman, is Qiu Jiao.’ Zhongtu Xian turned to Qiu Jiao. ‘Please, rice wine for my friend.’
‘Most kind,’ said Jieshu Kechang, drawing up a bar stool and sitting down. ‘And I shall get the next round.’
As Qiu Jiao poured more drinks, Jieshu Kechang developed his ideas: ‘You see, I believe the secret of success does not lie in the particular skills or wisdom of any one individual, though these are certainly advantageous, but rather the secret lies in the over-arching philosophy that holds the team together. And the captain is the conduit for conveying this philosophy on the pitch. The work is done collectively, both behind the scenes and on the pitch, and this is why I believe Men Zhu has been a successful team. Taozhuang is a great player, but the whole team is the greater entity. A single tree doesn’t make a forest; one string doesn’t make music.’
‘Your ideas are interesting,’ said Qiu Jiao. ‘They remind me of something I read about Southampton Football Club, in England. They have a philosophy which runs through the whole club, from the directors to the ball boys. Every decision is made in accordance with this philosophy regardless of the individual involved. No player is bigger than the overriding philosophy. It’s like a scientific formula that the players have to align themselves with.’
‘I don’t like it.’ complained Zhongtu. ‘I don’t like how science and statistics and processes are taking over football. I like good old-fashioned fire and passion. I like to see players of remarkable skill, mavericks, players who aren’t afraid to break the rules or challenge the status quo. After all, a bird doesn’t sing because it has the answer; it sings because it has a song.’
‘I sympathise,’ said Jieshu Kechang. ‘I know exactly what you mean. But isn’t it also true that the nail that sticks out must be hammered down? The days you’re talking about are gone, my friend. We all admire English football and players like George Best, perhaps the greatest maverick of them all. He could beat an entire team by himself! But he wouldn’t last five minutes in today’s Manchester United. He wouldn’t have the discipline.’
‘I would’ve loved to have seen him play,’ said Qiu Jiao. ‘George Best, Bobby Charlton and Dennis Law in the same side. The greatest team ever to grace a football pitch.’
This comment caught Zhongtu Xian mid-sip, causing him to splurt out his rice wine. ‘You’re joking, surely?’ he said, looking Qiu Jiao squarely in the eye. ‘The greatest team ever to play were not Manchester United, as you claim, but Liverpool FC, with Kenny Dalglish, in the late 70s-early 80s. The United team you’re referring to won the European Cup only once, but Dalglish’s Liverpool won it five times in a row.’
‘Are you sure?’ asked Qiu Jiao. ‘I think it was Real Madrid that won the European Cup five times in a row, and that was in the late 1950s.’
‘No. I’m sure. Liverpool in the 1980s were the kings of Europe, no mistake. I think they won it five or six times in a row. I’m certain’
‘Let me check,’ said Jieshu Kechang, producing the new Google Pixel phone* from his inside jacket pocket, ‘I’ll Google it.’
‘Nice phone,’ said Zhongtu Xian.
‘I agree,’ said Qiu Jiao. ‘And I hear they are very reasonably price.’
‘Yes, said Jieshu Kechang. ‘And being able to Google information is really helping us to enjoy our conversation and bond. Phones are not anti-social, at all.’