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(March 2019)


Marc stared at the bottle of sleeping pills.


“Take one, put a glass of water next to your bed and set two alarms, you can’t be late for training.” The team doctor had instructed.


He took two out.  He knew one wouldn’t work; he had woken up hyperventilating after 5 hours last night.  He needed at least 8 hours of sleep.  So, two tablets.


It’s ok.  It’s probably nothing.  Marc told himself.  He had read somewhere that these feelings were not uncommon among team sport players. The daily contact, shared rooms and shared emotions; like soldiers in combat, right?  Though he has never been in the army, certainly the intensity of winning and losing matches is similar?  You went through these situations together and became emotionally vulnerable.  Marc continued to reason with himself.


Except the two of them haven’t gone through that many matches together and in the 10 years of professional football career, Marc had never felt remotely attracted to any teammate like... like now.


Holding a cup of water in one hand, he was about to put the pills in his mouth, but instead he threw the cup against the bathroom wall.  It bounced, cracked and fell on the floor, water splashed all over the generic hotel bathmat.  


Of course, they’d put plastic cups in hotel rooms for footballers, in case they trash the room.


Marc flushed away the pills in the toilet.


No one could help him.  Nothing would work.  Not even if he had 8 hours of sleep.  


Because Marc would wake up and still want to sleep with the new left winger in his team.




(Two Months ago - January 2019)


Marc Borgmann remembered the first time he saw Kay Engel in person.


Technically, it was Engel’s back that he saw.  Shoulders shaking, Engel was laughing at something coach Herrlich had just said to him, probably the same joke about the dead tree, he told that to every newcomer.


Engel had a silvery laugh.  Light and pleasant.  Infectious.


Marc was about to walk over there to introduce himself when Larsen pushed his back to hurry him to move forward.  Marc stumbled.  


And at the exact moment Kay Engel turned his head and looked directly at Marc.


He quirked his lip.  A smile.  A wry one. 


Smartass.  Marc thought.




“I heard he was training as a sprinter before they found out he can also play football when he’s 17, a late starter.” said Larsen, who stood on Marc’s right, by the sideline.


“Most likely his parents found out pro football makes more money than track and field.” Limpinski said, standing on Marc’s left side.


Marc glanced over.  There he is.


“I think he should be an actor.” Anna, the team nutritionist said, appeared out of nowhere behind them.


All three of them turned and glared at her.  She shrugged. “My daughter said he’s the latest football players pin-ups.” She winked at Marc, “you are in top 10 too, Marc.”


Marc snorted disgustingly.


“That’s why female fans are bad news for the game.” Limpinski muttered sourly.  Anna only laughed harder, “nothing wrong with a bit eye-candy for us.”


“You didn’t find them bad news when they flock to you in clubs.” Larsen reminded Limpinski.


Marc ignored their banter.  His gaze returned to the blond-haired figure in the middle of the field.


It was all Ackermann’s fault, of course.  The idiot had to perform an overhead kick right in the middle of three defenders in the 6-yard box.  Not only the ball didn’t go in, he fell down in an awkward angle and broke his already injury-prone ankle.  Now he’d be out for god knows how long.  Three months if he’s lucky, probably four months including back to fitness training.  Right before winter break, half season has gone, it would be over by the time he recovered.


Stupid Ackermann, fucking made of glass.  Marc cursed quietly to himself.  He thought this was their season.  Second in the league table with just 3 points behind.  If they beat Bayern Munich when they play each other, they could overtake the league leaders on goal difference.


Marc worried.  They could not afford to lose the momentum.  This might be his best chance to win the league title, his childhood dream.  What he had been working so hard for.  Something his father never managed to do in his career.


Fucking Ackermann.  Now my league title dream is pinned on a rookie.


Coach Herrlich had no choice but to buy an attacking player in the mid-season transfer market, when everyone knew we were desperate.  €12 million.


€12 million transfer fee for Kay Engel.  He scored 20 goals and made 12 assists in 42 matches in all competitions last season for FC St. Pauli.  A 0.78 per match, that’s a great ratio for an attacking winger in a league two team.  It was common knowledge that, he would be in Bundesliga 1 soon.


Not everyone was convinced though, including Marc.  League 2 football was miles below league 1, Kay Engel might soon realise it takes more than running fast to get past defence at top level.


Marc watched as Engel finishing his warm-ups and started doing short sprints, under the approving gaze of their fitness trainer.  Then Coach Herrlich, animated as usual, pulled Engel to his side, pushed a ball into Engel’s arms and started pointing to the markings on the pitch, on doubt directing him where and how to make passes.  Engel dribbled the ball and started running at high speed, zigzagging between the markings, while keeping the ball.  Herrlich ran alongside Engel but was left behind in less than two seconds. 


When Engel returned, still had the ball with him, Herrlich ruffled his hair and gave him a thumbs up.  


Christ.  It’s like they adopted a new puppy.  Marc wanted to roll his eyes. 

He’s a fast runner, that’s for sure.  Probably a lot faster than Ackermann... his first touch on the ball? Not bad... but is he only playing with his left foot? Christ.  Not another one-footed leftie genius.  He observed Kay Engel’s training with a critical eye.


Marc liked to do link-up play with Ackermann.  After three seasons, they knew each other’s play well, he knew Ackermann’s movements like his own, know how he find spaces between defenders, Marc could pass him the ball almost without looking.  


Ackermann was solid and reliable.  And Marc like that. 


Engel was not even from around here.  He’s an unknown from a lower league who was trying to impress.  He’s a potential liability; he represents change. 


And Marc did not like change.


“Marc?” Coach Herrlich waved at him. “Come on.  I want you to start training in pair with Kay, you two need to able to read each other.”


Marc jogged over and tilted his head up by way of greeting.  Engel returned a smile.  The same damn wry one again. 


What’s the matter with this guy?


They practised passing the ball back and forth between each other, with kicks, headers, shoulders, chests, anyway to keep the ball.  After a while, Marc began to notice Engel favouring his left foot.  Well, he does usually play as a left winger.  It’s not a big deal. In fact, left footed players were rarer, so it was good that the team have one to play in his natural position. But for some reason, it irritated Marc.


“You should practise your right foot too. You can’t be predictable as a winger.” Marc said to him.


“I can play with both.” Engel replied without looking up, concentrating on controlling the ball.


“Is that so?  Then why are you only using your left foot?”


“No reason.  I want to train my left foot today.”


Marc stopped the ball with his foot and said, “show me.” Then he kicked the ball to Engel’s right side.


“No.” Engel frowned.  He turned sideways and kicked the ball back to Marc with his left foot. 


Marc kicked the ball higher this time and it bounced over Engel.  Engel moved a few steps back to catch the ball first with his head, held the ball down with his chest, then kicked it with his left foot again, all done with effortless flair.


Marc had no idea why he did what he did next, but when the ball returned to him, he deliberately aimed it at Engel’s face, and kicked it even harder this time. 


The ball hit squarely on Engel’s face.


Before the ball even hit the ground, Marc found himself pushed down onto the pitch.


“What’s your problem? Arsehole!” Engel shouted at him. Fists raised.


Shocked.  Marc was still processing what he had done himself, it took him a second to get up and went right up to Engel.  He pushed Engel’s shoulder and shouted back, “Are you crazy?  You fucking idiot!”


“HEY HEY HEY!” Coach Herrlich got between them in a flash.  “What the hell are you two doing?” He eyed Marc then looked at Engel. “If one of you gets injured as well, I’m going to fucking kill both of you.”


By then the rest of the team were surrounding and looking at them.  Marc and Engel just stared at each other.  Marc lowered his gaze first.  Scheiße. Maybe I’m more stressed than I thought.


When he looked back up again.  He saw Engel watching him with a peculiar expression.  The damn wry smile was back, but there was also something else, something playful.  His lip curled in a way that look more curious than annoyed, like Marc was a damn puzzle for him to solve... Mortified by his own outburst, Marc flicked up a glance at Engel and saw the red marks he inflicted on the right side of his face.  Engel was one of those people who was blessed with good skin, even after getting hit in the face, he still looked like he ready to step out from a magazine.  Marc averted his eyes.


Ugh.  Shut up.  Marc cursed himself.


Coach Herrlich pointed to Engel’s face.  “Go get that check with Dr. Greenberg.  Make sure your nose is not bleeding.”


Engel looked at Marc one last time before he walked off the pitch.


Coach Herrlich turned to Marc and studied him closely.  “I didn’t expect this from you, Marc.  I know you’re upset with Ackermann, but we need Kay to fit in the team pronto.” He said gravely. 


Marc felt thoroughly embarrassed already, he’s been promoted to team captain since Frank got injured, he needed to show he’s a leader.  He mumbled an apology,


Herrlich put his hand on Marc’s shoulder.  “You can assert your authority in the game, posturing during training has no place in my team.  Give the guy a warm welcome, ok?”