It is a truth universally acknowledged that an American television network, in possession of a single proper football program on the eve of the World Cup, will find a way of ruining it.
Such was the case for Will Darcy, cohost of CSTV's Off the Pitch, a quirky half hour of English Premier League commentary. Usually only online, it featured two dashing former English national players, himself and George Wickham. They practically grew up playing together, and while they weren't very close now, they had excellent rapport on camera, like the classic odd couple.
Except Wickham, the funny man, was suddenly under indictment for tax evasion and had to surrender his passport twelve hours before they were to get on a plane for Brazil.
"What're we going to do?" Chuck Bingley, CSTV's token former American player, asked while they looked at a British tabloid's online account of the arraignment. "Anyone you know who can fill in?"
"At the last minute? Most of the guys going are either playing or reporting for British outlets. The others can't talk in complete sentences."
"So it needs to be someone from CSTV who's already going, then."
"Probably. Maybe we could work out some kind of guest thing? I don't know. A lot of the appeal of the show is the back-and-forth. I'm not sure we can get that with guests."
"We'll figure something out, Darcy. Honest. We've got a whole thirty-six hours to manage something."
Darcy knew he couldn't trust the network, but he really didn't have a choice.
Twenty-four hours later, he was greeted at CSTV's sprawling studio on the Copacabana with the news that they had found a replacement. Chuck was grinning from ear to ear, a girl beside him. Probably the flavor of the month. "We've found you a cohost, Darcy!"
"Yeah, who is he? Please tell me you didn't get that guy who calls MLS games."
"No, he's going to be upstairs with the Gardiners."
"Yeah. At any rate, the network thought women were underrepresented on the whole."
"No," Darcy said, coming to an abrupt halt. "No, they're not sticking me with some leggy blonde who doesn't know the first thing about football. Some American who calls it soccer."
"No, no, and yes."
Darcy blinked several times and finally took a good look at the brunette who'd been following them. "It's you, isn't it?"
She looked irritated. He probably deserved it. "Uh, Darcy," Chuck said, "meet Elizabeth Bennet, former goalkeeper for the U.S. women's national team. Lizzy, Will Darcy, best striker England ever had."
"Charmed," she said, anything but.
Darcy sighed. It was going to be a long month.
Lizzy would never admit it to the arrogant jerk she'd just been chained to for an entire month, but she'd had a serious crush on Will Darcy the first time she saw him play. A lot of the girls she played with preferred Wickham, but Lizzy had been drawn to this intense, thoughtful man. Didn't hurt that he'd been hit in the face less than George Wickham. Fewer broken noses.
The crush was ancient history, of course, but the part of her that was still fourteen was freaking out a little at the thought of meeting England's greatest striker, as Chuck described him. Those England teams he played with were usually Will Darcy and ten other guys, but he'd been a brilliant player. She was also, if she was honest, nervous about the whole broadcasting thing. CSTV brought her along as a sort of trial run for the next year's women's World Cup. She probably knew enough to do commentary on men's play, but she didn't feel prepared.
Chuck had things to do, so a kid who looked like he couldn't be more than seventeen guided them to their studio. Lizzy was a little taken aback when she entered it. "This is... rustic?" she said.
Darcy squeezed into the room behind her. "It's supposed to be spartan," he replied. "That's one of the characteristics of the show, the make-do-and-mend attitude."
"I know, Darcy. I do watch Off the Pitch. Only decent soccer coverage out there. I just wasn't expecting a closet with some sound equipment and a sort of creepy camera setup."
She saw him cringe at the word soccer, but he didn't comment on it. Instead he stood with arms akimbo and looked at the camera. "It does look a bit like we're filming enhanced interrogations in here."
"Exactly." She looked around the tiny room. It couldn't have been more than six feet long and maybe five feet across. Darcy looked like he was in a dollhouse, and he'd already had a narrow miss with one of the shelves running the length of the room. "We'll have to come up with a way of making it a bit less like a prison cell. Maybe make a contest out of it with the audience."
Darcy nodded. "We'll find a printer somewhere."
Lizzy set her purse down in the nearest chair. "We should probably discuss the eight-hundred-pound gorilla that would be in here if there were room for it."
"Look, I thought the network was going to stick me with someone like Chuck's sister. Great tennis player but she knows nothing about football."
"That's nice, but not what I'm talking about."
"Then what are you on about?"
"Um, the reason I'm here?"
"Oh, that." Darcy perched himself carefully on the edge of a table full of sound equipment. "Well, he's only been indicted."
She frowned. "I don't want to make fun of the man, but I think you need to treat it a bit lightly."
"Remember, kids, it never pays to not pay your taxes."
He considered it for a second. "That's really bad."
"That's kind of the point."
He looked at her just long enough for her to be unnerved by the attention. Then he stood up again and turned to the sound board. "I don't suppose you know how any of this works?"
"No," she replied honestly. "And I really don't want to involve our tech guy any more than we absolutely must."
"What do you mean?"
Darcy scrubbed his face with his hand. "This is all going to end in tears."
She wasn't wrong about the tech guy. Billy Collins spent all his time talking about his aunt (co-owner of the network, which explained a lot), how much he hated the food in Brazil, and Game of Thrones. Unfortunately, they had to listen to every word because he would suddenly throw in some important information like what to do about feedback or how to operate the camera.
When he finally left them alone, Darcy turned to his cell mate and blew out a long breath. "I know the make-do-and-mend thing is a bit of a joke for the show, but if we have a problem, we really do need to make do and mend."
"Aye-aye, cap'n," she said with a salute. "So how do you usually do this? Do you have a plan or is it as unruly as it seems?"
"Usually I have a plan and Wickham drags us off somewhere else."
Lizzy nodded once. "Maybe we should do a test run."
Darcy was ready to take his usual chair, but stopped himself. "Do you care which side you're on?"
"I usually sleep on the left."
He pulled out the chair on the right and glared. "Have a seat, Bennet."
"Such a gentleman," Lizzy replied, sitting down. "I'm getting all hot and bothered."
Darcy started the camera, and they both put on headsets as he sat down. "Well, let's get started. Uh, I'm Will Darcy, she's an American, and this is Off the Pitch."
Lizzy was waving to the camera as he spoke, and then she elbowed him hard. "Hi, everyone, I'm Lizzy Bennet, I call it soccer, and we have no plan for this."
"All that happens to be true," Darcy replied. "And I should say, regarding my usual cohost for this program, obviously George Wickham is innocent until proved guilty, but remember, kids, when the government asks you for some amount of taxes, it's not actually a suggestion."
"Yep," Lizzy agreed with a wide-eyed, earnest look. "So, Group A?"
"Right, Group A," Darcy said. "Brazil, Mexico, Croatia, and Cameroon."
"Brazil's going to be working with amazing home-field advantage, of course."
"There's a pretty big weight for them, though, having hosted once before in..."
"1950, I think. No Germany that year," Lizzy filled in.
"Right. Too many world wars for them to be in the World Cup that year. But Brazil lost to Uruguay, didn't they?"
"Yeah, but after all the unrest in Brazil over the money being spent on the World Cup and on the Olympics in 2016, I'm sort of hoping they do win. The people of Brazil deserve it, though I confess to doubts about the team itself."
"Which I'm sure we'll exhaust over the next few weeks," Darcy said, looking to the camera for a second. "Other big team in the group is, of course, Mexico."
"Who won the gold medal in the London Olympics," Lizzy added.
"Against Brazil, in fact. Croatia could surprise us, but honestly, the real firepower in this group is going to be from the Americas."
"Yeah, you're right, Darcy. So which team wins, Brazil or Mexico?"
She'd said the latter in Spanish, which for some reason he found curiously charming. "Brazil, of course."
"I am waving my little CONCACAF banner on this one."
"You have got to be joking."
Their conversation went on for forty-five minutes, probably, before Darcy cut it off by announcing that he hadn't been to his hotel yet and desperately wanted a shower. Lizzy made a face at the camera and pinched her nose, which thankfully he didn't see. He shut off the camera, they powered everything down, and they went their separate ways after exchanging phone numbers.
There was a lounge adjacent to the big studio where Lizzy headed with her laptop, hoping to get some notes made out for when they recorded the actual program later in the day. She spent a good hour reviewing stats and World Cup history and anything else she could think of. She tried her best to concentrate through the stream of people passing through the room and for the most part was successful, until the main attractions of CSTV's coverage came in.
Ed and Margaret Gardiner were the husband and wife who had managed a Major League Soccer team and the U.S. women's national team between them. They were probably the best on-air personalities CSTV could have found for the World Cup, since they knew everyone and everyone liked them. They were also fabulous on camera, which was helpful.
"Lizzy," Ed said, coming to kiss her cheek as she stood up, "great to see you."
"You too," Lizzy replied, hugging her old coaches.
"How's the knee?" Margaret asked.
"Good, unless it rains."
"Probably ought to stay out of Recife, then," Ed remarked. "Oh, we just watched your first Off the Pitch segment. Priceless stuff."
Lizzy was about to thank them when she suddenly realized what he'd said. "Wait, what segment?"
"You did film a segment with Will Darcy, didn't you?" Margaret asked, amused.
"We—we filmed a—a test," Lizzy spluttered. "Just us talking about Group A."
"Well, it went to the server downstairs and somebody just uploaded it," Ed told her, laughing.
Lizzy sighed. "Darcy's not going to take this well."
He didn't, of course, but there was nothing to be done. The upload had been approved by some muckety-muck from the network who thought they were great. Soon Lizzy found herself getting Twitter notifications on her phone almost nonstop as she and Darcy walked back to their tiny studio. "Are they at least being kind?" Darcy asked, somewhat abruptly.
"To me, you mean?" she said. "Yeah, mostly. It's the internet, though, so a lot of them assume I have cooties."
To her surprise, Darcy laughed. "Well, a lot of them probably know you as a player."
"True. But as long as I don't get death threats for the conspiracy I engineered to doctor Wickham's tax records and get him arrested so I could replace him..."
"That conspiracy theory's a bit long for Twitter, anyway."
Lizzy had to smile. "So I guess we figure out how to turn off the auto-upload-thingy."
"By ourselves, right? We're not calling for more Game of Thrones trivia?"
"Right. And then the rest of the groups?"
"And then the rest of the groups."
Lizzy started at the end. "Group H."
"Belgium and somebody else who's going to get crushed in the round of sixteen. Proof positive that FIFA are in no way fixing this."
"Because FIFA would never fix the World Cup."
"No, because FIFA would never fix a group this boring."
"You know, I learned something the other day, from a mate from Colombia," Darcy said. "Reminded, I suppose."
"This year is the twentieth anniversary of the murder of Andrés Escobar."
"Oh, you're right, that was after the '94 World Cup." Lizzy leaned forward, chin resting in her hand. "During, actually."
"Yes, it was." Darcy sighed. "Sad story, really. Scored an own goal against the U.S., went home, and was shot to death on the street."
"A lot of people have suggested since then that it was just random violence," she remarked. "Which is certainly possible. Colombia had serious crime problems in 1994. But it's a very sad story, and if we see Colombia still in the tournament when the anniversary of his death rolls around, I suspect we'll see a lot of images of Escobar in the stadium."
Darcy nodded, and then there was a bit of silence before he spoke again. "So we're saying Colombia gets through to the knockout round. What about the rest of Group C?"
"I can't even remember who else is in the group, which doesn't bode well," Lizzy said, diving for a cheat sheet. "Greece, Ivory Coast, and Japan. I'd like to see Japan get through. They have a pretty national anthem."
"That's what you're basing your picks on?"
"Hey, during March Madness I build my bracket based on which uniforms I like best."
"You are utterly hopeless, you know?"
"In Group E we've got Switzerland, Honduras, Ecuador, and France," Lizzy said, rolling her shoulders back. "France isn't the most... consistent team I've ever seen."
"No, not really. But unless they have a complete screaming meltdown, possibly involving Zinedine Zidane running onto the pitch and head-butting someone, I don't see them out of the tournament before the knockout round." Darcy narrowed his eyes at her. "Where's your CONCACAF banner?"
She quickly grabbed the slip of paper on which she'd hastily scribbled "CONCACAF" and taped to a pencil. "Right here! But, sadly, I think CONCACAF will fail me. Honduras would have to be extremely lucky. It's Switzerland for me, I think."
"The hills are alive?"
"That's Austria, genius."
"So what's the real reason for Switzerland?"
"Headers impress me."
"I suppose that's better than picking based on national anthems."
"Plus the St. Bernards the fans wear on hats are really cute."
"And there it is."
"And the Viking hats! I don't even know why they wear Viking hats but they're adorable."
Darcy shuffled his notes around and muttered something about a madwoman.
"Argentina wins Group F," Darcy declared after a break.
"No argument. Nigeria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, or Iran to advance?"
"Wait, did you just say 'no argument'?"
"I've agreed with you a lot!" Lizzy said indignantly.
"Yeah, but saying outright you're not going to argue? I'm not sure what to do with myself."
Lizzy smacked the back of his head. They had to bleep the next bit.
"Group D includes England, which I believe has never failed to get out of group when they've qualified, Darcy," Lizzy read off a fact sheet she'd compiled. "You know most of these guys. What are the chances?"
"Italy, Costa Rica, and Uruguay. It's not the group of death by any means, but that may actually be because England are in there."
Lizzy almost pouted at him. "That's not very patriotic."
He just shrugged and stared ahead.
"Who tops the group for you?"
"Italy," he replied immediately. "After that, I'm not sure. I don't think it'll be Uruguay, but that may be personal prejudice."
"You're talking about the handball in 2010."
"Yes, the intentional handball. I'm English. We haven't much patience for that sort of flagrant rule-breaking."
Lizzy rolled her head from one side to the other, like she would have getting ready for penalty kicks. "What was that for?" he asked.
"Oh, I assumed you were about to launch into 1986 and the Hand of God goal."
"Well, for that, I might just have to."
"Spare us, please."
"At some point we do have to talk about Group G."
Lizzy sighed dramatically. "Must we?"
"We must, we must. The thing is, there's nobody looking at this group saying, 'Sure, we've got this.'"
"Yeah. The Americans, of course, have been looking good lately, but they're looking down the barrel of a pretty big mental challenge. Ghana is probably the best team in Africa. They got out of group the last two World Cups in a row—"
"More than the Americans can say in their entire history."
"Yes, thank you for the reminder."
"Just the facts, ma'am."
"Did you really just ma'am me?"
"Make your point, please."
"Well, now I've forgotten what it was."
"Right. Huge, huge mental game going on here. Ghana knocked us out of group in 2006. Knocked us out of the round of sixteen in 2010. And here we are again, looking at Ghana for our very first game of this World Cup. If we don't win this one, I think we're in pretty big danger of not getting out of this group."
"We should note that the group drawings this year have been nothing but historic rematches," Darcy said.
"Yes. Not that this was in any way staged."
"Oh, of course not."
"All we're really missing is England and Argentina, but that's another episode. Back to Group G, though, I'd say Germany is the most likely to get out of the group. They'll probably win it, and if they do, they're likely to wind up in the final."
"I agree with all of that, actually," Darcy said. "I agree with that, and I will add my prediction that Team USA will be second in the group."
"Really!" Lizzy exclaimed.
"Is your money on Portugal, then?"
"My money is on a three-way tie for last, actually. Germany gets nine points, the rest get two each, and we wind up going to a coin toss for the second time ever."
"Let's hold arcane rules explanation till next time, shall we? Let's talk Portugal."
"Oh, let's not."
Darcy cradled his head in his hands for a second. "What bizarre predilection have I stumbled upon now?"
"Nothing, really. I just don't care much for Ronaldo."
"We're getting back into your thing for underdogs, aren't we."
"If there's any player in the world who's massively overrated, it's Cristiano Ronaldo, who has spent more time styling his coiffure than scoring in World Cup matches."
"So have you."
"A, I'm a girl, and B, I was a goalkeeper, you arrogant son of a—"
"Whoa, whoa!" Darcy said, laughing a little. "I will concede, your point is not completely crazy." Lizzy was glaring at him, and he shot her his best smile. "It is worth pointing out that, in actual World Cup games, Ronaldo has yet to score against a country that isn't essentially a dictatorship."
Lizzy looked to the camera. "And this is the sort of deep, sociopolitical analysis you can expect from us here at Off the Pitch, in a closet in Rio."
Darcy chuckled again. "Tomorrow, we discuss the Falklands War for no reason whatsoever."
"Are we almost done?" Darcy asked, just before taking a long swig of water from a thermos. "We've been in this room for what, six hours now?"
"According to my notes, we have discussed... A, H, C, E, F, D, and G."
"Why on earth did we do it in that order?"
"Alphabetical order is predictable. You don't want to be predictable, do you?"
He sighed. "Why don't we move on to things we should know for whichever group is left?"
"Yes. Right. Um... Australia is not getting out of Group B. Right, Darcy?"
"Yeah, it's unfortunate, but this group is not good for them. Might mean no Asian countries in the knockout rounds, which genuinely is unfortunate. I'm not sure it's good for Chile either. This group couldn't have been more dramatic if FIFA were fixing this."
"Which we're not suggesting."
"No. But it's going to be Spain and die Niederlande."
"And you said that in German because...?"
"Getting everyone ready for a German victory."
"So, Spain and the Netherlands?"
Lizzy crinkled her nose. "I'm not so sure. The Dutch lost in a bad way four years ago. They're going to be angrier than Spain. Sometimes it means more when you have something to prove."
She shrugged. "I've always liked Chile. And speaking of, if you're new to the World Cup and, say, flags of the world, this," she said, holding up a flag in front of her face, "is the flag of Chile. Not to be confused with this one." Quickly she switched flags. "This is the flag of Texas. Texas flag, Chile flag. Texas likes to think they're a whole other country, and sometimes I wish we'd let them, but not according to FIFA."
"And now we get hate mail from Texas viewers," Darcy said dryly. "Remember, people, you're looking for @LizzyBennetGK for your angry tweets."
"Compliments on his Ronaldo-esque hair should be directed to @DarcyStriker."
At that point he elbowed her out of frame.
She pulled herself back upright. "I may have deserved that, but the sound equipment I landed on didn't."
He smiled, that cute half-smile that still popped up in tabloids from time to time. "Well, pull yourself together, woman. I think we're done. Any closing thoughts?"
"Yeah, you're a jerk when you put your mind to it," she replied, rubbing her elbow. "You?"
"I think I'm going to have to start pulling for Portugal," Darcy said mildly.
"What on earth for?" Lizzy said, jumping a little in her seat.
"Something in the universe has to balance out your irrational hatred of Ronaldo."
"I think his buyout clause balances out my irrational hatred of Ronaldo. Look, the man's a diva. I have a sister looking to be an opera singer. The last thing I want to put up with in my life is another diva."
"You realize he's not actually in your life."
Lizzy shot him a sidelong glance. "Shut up, please."
CSTV spooled out the rest of the group previews as the day went on. Off the Pitch had a loyal following, and Lizzy wanted to hide under a couch as the emails and tweets flooded in.
Darcy stuck around her for some reason for the rest of the evening. At one point she tweeted a selfie she took of them sitting on a couch together, eating a bag of chips and watching the reactions to their work. "I think it's gone well," Darcy remarked after about an hour of reading tweets to each other.
"I'm asking them for suggestions for decorating the closet," she said as she typed. "And before anyone suggests it, we are not getting a poster-sized picture of Brandi Chastain ripping her shirt off and sticking it behind us."
He looked thoughtful, which wasn't a good sign. "What about in front of us?"
"You really have a death wish, don't you?"