The air was heavy; the sheets clawed and grabbed with every turn. An exasperated sigh escaped and was quickly absorbed by the oppressive night. A diminutive, tanned figure lay spread-eagled with eyes cast to the ceiling; to the heavens. What torment was this? The figure sat up and rubbed at a brow thick with sweat and thought of Dante.
The ceiling fan, with its hypnotic revolutions, came to resemble a grotesque carousel as he broke free of his linen prison. Hotel carpet scratched underfoot as the surgical allure of the bathroom offered safe-haven. He had left the light on every night since the nightmares had come.
They were unclear, yet unsettling. Haunted by these macabre visions, a great unease had come to replace his usually laid-back persona. What had lately begun to trouble his companions were the distressed breakfast recollections. Each morning he arrived at his table with sunken, hopeless eyes and spoke gravely of the previous night’s terror.
“Yes”, he replied, “an enormous wall. Always I am faced with this terrible barricade. Twenty feet tall and wide as the land itself. But I am not alone – you all are with me.”
“That doesn’t sound so scary…”
“Ah, but you cannot feel it! This feeling of despair; of hopelessness. And the skies! The skies have opened and cannonballs drop like hail from an angry God. We move constantly to escape but this defiant structure is unmoved. I cannot stand it anymore.”
“This is ridiculous; you must see the doctor.”
“I have already. He told me to lay off the midnight cheese – but I cannot sleep without my Dairylea Lunchables. No, I must confront this menace.”
On this night, as he once more found himself sitting exhausted in the well-lit bathtub, the troubled figure had had enough. Springing forth from the ceramic comfort, he clasped either side of the ice-cold sink and shot a reluctant stare at the mirror. He found his own weary eyes; they sat uncomfortably atop two bountiful bags of coal.
“Be a man, this is a childish fear.”
He tried to force himself to hear his own words.
“You need your sleep – people depend on you. You cannot be affected by silly visions and worries.”
The pep talk seemed to work. He felt almost confident as he counted his steps back to bed – anything to distract his mind.
The nightmares that night were worse than ever.
His alarm, when it rang, was a lighthouse in the tempest. The comfort of day allowed his mind to regain a little clarity, and a little peace. The tiredness however refused to let up in even the smallest measure. Breakfast passed by in a swollen blur. He assured his friends that it was getting better.
The coach journey was decorated by well-wishers and curious observers – all of whom were met with a blank, unseeing gaze. As time passed, his mind began to race – building speed until he felt sure his innermost thoughts were soon to burst forth in an unpredictable crescendo. His pupils flicked and bounced alternately as he whispered to himself that everything would be ok on the pitch; that was his refuge.
Pre-match preparations were performed almost robotically – a kind of highway blindness for the limbs. Finally, and at least temporarily, he would be able to block out those unwanted thoughts and feelings and do what he loved to do. He even widened his lips to smile as a sea of light and noise engulfed him at the head of the narrow tunnel.
Fans cheered deafeningly and his eyes feasted upon glorious Technicolor. He was home. He looked all around in grateful wonder – until he encountered a sight which turned his whole body as cold as the cloudless desert night. For reasons he could not explain, the sight of his opposition filled him with barely-containable dread. A pair of green-clad journeymen clasped hands and smiled to one another. The names on their jerseys seemed vaguely, and unusually, familiar.
“Whelan, Andrews”, he muttered. “Whelan…Andrews…”
Suddenly the sky split with tremendous violence and the colour drained from his surroundings. His teammates began to flee before being halted by a deep rumbling below their feet. From the earth rose the formidable stone. Familiar horror froze him, and his tongue could find no words. Through the sound of cannonball rain, he thought he heard a sound. Yes. His manager’s voice:
He jerked in his seat and rolled his head to scan the faces of his friends, all half-lit by the dim glow of a projector. At the top of the room stood the voice’s owner.
“Xavi, I know the training sessions have been tough but these opposition briefings are important” said Vicente del Bosque.
On a modest screen to his boss’ right, Xavi observed Liam Lawrence roll a free-kick to the edge of the box for Glenn Whelan to power home beyond Gianluigi Buffon.
“We must be professional in our approach and watch out for these rehearsed set-pieces” warned del Bosque. “Oh, and Xavi…”