For Sample Sunday today, I give you ROGUE AGENT. I'm breaking the post up into two parts.
Wembley, London, England
30 July, 2012 — 19.30 GMT/2:30 p.m. ET
Hand in hand, father and son rode the escalator from the platform all the way up to the gate of the Wembley Park Tube station. The sun licked their faces, much as it had before they melded with the crowd and surged underground at Bond Street. Sweat covered their brows before they stepped back outside.
The father was in his mid 30s, with black hair on the road to receding. His rather long, hawkish nose was prominent on his face, one that would have made the late Robert Helpmann jealous: It was so much like the one Helpmann’s most famous character, the Childcatcher, used to sniff out children in the old Disney movie Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. He wore a faded red Liverpool F.C. jersey with Fowler 9 printed on the back. He had pulled it on so much on the weekends and for midweek matches that he feared he would tear it on accident if the Reds came close to winning their 19th First Division title or their sixth European Cup.
Of course, like a true Liverpool supporter, he did not like to walk alone and never did when it came to football: His 8-year-old son, who loved Liverpool just as much as he did, was with him, the little boy’s left hand firmly clenching his father’s right. The son had looked forward to this Olympic football tournament match between their home country, the United States, and the Great Britain team, which, while it carried the moniker of the Home Nations, primarily consisted of Under-21s from England. His father told him that his hero, Steven Gerrard, would not play in the match. There was some disappointment to be sure, but the boy, holding onto his father’s hand for dear life, shed his anger as soon as the glass northern side of Wembley Stadium came into view.
The boy was not old enough to realize that the stadium he looked at was not the original Wembley; that stadium came down some four years before he was born. But to him, this was a fabulous place to watch a match; it was so much better than Gillette Stadium back home in Massachusetts. Even though it was his first time in England, he had watched several matches online, and he was excited at the prospect of reaching out and touching the famous pitch. As it so happened, he wore a small, youth-sized England jersey his father bought him. It was unadorned with name or number, even though the father knew the son would not be happy unless Gerrard 4 was on the back.
“But daddy,” the boy said when he opened the dirty parcel, “I wanted a Captain Fantastic shirt. That way, when he sees me, he can smile.”
“I know, I know, but I have to tell you something: You’re supposed to root for the badge,” the father said with a smile of his own, pointing to the Three Lions crest that would cover his son’s heart, “not the player wearing the badge. I think I’ve told you that before, especially after your uncle’s obsession with Brett Favre.”
The boy sighed in their living room and begrudgingly put the shirt on. Now, some five months later, with the greenery of Wembley Park sprawling to either side of him and the Home of Football approaching dead center, that conversation was dead within his past, the memory forgotten.
The son was wide-eyed, and to the father, who looked down every so often at his offspring, his son’s happiness was truly all that mattered. He would give his life in exchange for his son’s, and he sacrificed countless times to make sure that his son, while not spoiled, had anything his heart desired. Seeing his son’s expression caused his heart to leap taller than the arch that soared high above Wembley. He had to admit it to himself, albeit quietly: He was looking forward to this match just as much as his son.
Even though it was warm, northwest London was somewhat free of the smog that usually covered the city. Father and son could take a deep breath without choking on bad air, even though they slowly walked with the sweat-stained crowd toward the pedestrian walkway. The father had made this walk before, when his New England Patriots demolished the Tampa Bay Buccaneers here in 2009. That was nearly three years ago, and he had flown to England on business; that same day, Liverpool played Manchester United at Anfield, and the Reds beat the Red Devils, 2-0, in a match that he had to watch at a nearby pub instead of on The Kop. The photos and the souvenirs he brought home to his son, coupled with his son’s excitement, confirmed to him that he wanted to bring him over for the Summer Olympics.
They continued walking along the brick-lined Wembley Way.
“Daddy, I see the arch!” the boy exclaimed, pointing at the 133-meter tall structure the way all boys do when excited. His eyes were brighter than his father had ever seen them. “Can we climb it, daddy? Can we, can we, can we?”
The father chuckled, and so did the two small boys walking nearby with their own father. Their father shushed them and apologized.
“No, Tommy, we won’t be able to climb it. It’s not like the Arch in St. Louis. This arch is like one big Erector set, and I don’t think the security team would like it if they found us hanging onto it.”
The boy gave an “aww, shucks” in return, which reminded the father of the jersey incident. The father simply shook his head, smiling all the same.
“Let’s get into the stadium and find our seats, okay?”
Mere seconds after passing Currys, father and son walked up the walkway and came to the statue of Sir Bobby Moore, the defender who led England to its only World Cup win in 1966. The father made sure he got a picture of his son next to the statue, the souvenir of all souvenirs.
At the gate, both of them went through security, each given a cursory pat down and waved over with one of those electro-magnetic wands they had at Logan Airport before they hopped on the Emirates Airlines jet to Heathrow a few days before. The father wasn’t concerned for himself, since he wasn’t carrying a gun and had no reason to be detained. He was more concerned for his son, who had never gone through a pat down before.
He looked to his right and saw the security guard give his son a grape flavored lollipop after the wand passed over him.
“Daddy, why were they doing that with the stick?”
“It’s security, Tommy. This is a big event. They don’t want people coming in with stuff to hurt people, so they make sure that anyone who tries can’t get inside. They had guns, and there are police officers nearby. Remember that the police are here to help people.”
“Except when they give you a speeding ticket.”
“You still haven’t told your mother, right?”
“No daddy, I want a PlayStation 4. I’m keeping my mouth shut.”
The father grinned, for some reason proud of the boy’s deception.
I trained him well, he thought.
They bought two sodas and hot dogs at a concession stand — the son poured mustard all over the hot dog and nearly on his jersey, but the father caught him before he stained the lilywhite shirt — and then entered the stadium proper. The green pitch of Wembley, re-laid for what seemed like the one hundredth time after the FA Cup Final two months ago, met their eyes. Red seats unfurled like the Red Sox’ 2004 World Championship banner and spread into every nook and cranny of the stadium’s lower bowl. Aisles of golden tipped concrete broke the monotony. Other supporters were sitting, while over in the corner, a chorus of God Save The Queen broke out among those who stood.
While the father grinned, the son was just as wide-eyed as he had been a few minutes ago.
“Wow! It’s so green!” he said.
“Yes it is. Just wait until I take you to Fenway in a few weeks. That will be a lot of green; green all over the place.”
“That is a lot of green. Wait,” the son replied after a moment. “We’re going to Fenway?”
“Oh, I didn’t tell you?” the father said with a touch of fatherly sarcasm. “It’s Part 2 of your ninth birthday present. This is Part 1.”
The grin on the son’s face was brighter than the day. He launched himself into his father’s waist.
“I love you, daddy!”
The father simply wrapped his arms around his son, who would turn 9 in two weeks’ time. He took a deep breath. He knew these moments would grow few and far between as he got older.
“I love you too, Tommy. Let’s go over here; we’ll get to see the players come out for warm-ups soon.”
Eager to watch the players come out onto the pitch, Tommy and his father walked over to the area behind the dugouts and waited. Security did not step in and intercede, which surprised the father — all he had heard about coming into this Olympics was how they would be safer and more security-conscious. It had been sixteen years since Atlanta and the bombing of the Centennial Olympic Park, and there were no incidents in Sydney, Athens or Beijing, nor in Nagano, Salt Lake City, Turin or Vancouver. It may have been a fool’s hope that terrorists would spare London 2012, especially in this post-9/11 world, but organizers and the International Olympic Committee were taking no chances. Security was to be top-notch.
The father noticed that truly was not the case.
Once the game began, they took their seats behind the United States dugout, despite wearing jerseys of England and rooting for the young Great Britain stars they watched every Saturday and Sunday on Fox Soccer Channel, Fox Soccer Plus and ESPN2. The United States Under-23 team, many said, were lucky to qualify for these Olympics, despite the rather easy qualifying schedule of CONCACAF. Great Britain, however, were not the favorites of the tournament despite being the host nation: That fell to Italy, which was currently playing its final group stage match against Argentina at Old Trafford in Manchester.
Even though the players on the pitch were different, many were calling this match a rematch of the USA-England World Cup match from 2010, where the Three Lions drew the Yanks, 1-1, during their opening match in South Africa. Now, without the big stars of the English Premier League in the match, there was a level of anticipation on the other side of the Atlantic that the Americans could quite possibly upset the Britons. It led ESPN to break out and dust off the “Over There” commercials it had played during World Cup qualifying in 2009. Speculation on who would score first was heavy in Las Vegas. NBC, the American television rights holder of the Summer Olympics since 1988, showed the match live.
As it turned out, Great Britain scored first as young Donnie Rhodes, an Everton F.C. first teamer, scored on a blistering shot from distance in the right channel, easily beating the American keeper after 25 minutes.
A cacophony of verse rose from the English supporters’ section:
He wears a Lion on his chest, Donnie, Donnie
We know he is the fucking best, Donnie, Donnie
He punched his bird, he burned his house
But we don’t care, he fucking scouse
Donnie Rho-odes, Great Britain’s Number 9
The father grinned as the faithful began jumping up and down, reminiscent of the Kop when the Liverpool supporters once serenaded Fernando Torres. The entire southern side of the stadium swayed while chants of “Nah nah, nah nah, nah-nah-nah-nah, nah-nah” echoed off Wembley’s roof.
The Americans’ resolve was great, though, and without prompting, they brought the match to level terms as Steve Membrino, a virtual unknown from Wake Forest, used his pace off the center kick and blazed and spun through the Brits’ defense like Diego Maradona had in Mexico City 26 years earlier.
Tommy leaped to his feet, jumped on the seat cushion and applauded Membrino as his right-footed strike beat the English keeper on the right-hand side. He wanted to tear his shirt off and swing it over his head like Membrino did at the near corner flag along with a little two-step dance to match. The American supporters chanted the intro to Chelsea Dagger while the referee brandished a yellow card Membrino’s way.
The noise inside Wembley was deafening, and although Tommy and his father were rooting for Great Britain at the beginning, the intensity shown by the American youngsters caused them and many of the others in attendance to rise to their feet and applaud the underdogs.
That’s what the Olympics was about to them. The possibility of a huge upset was in the making — a tie would have sent the Americans through to the knockout stages and left the Great Britain team watching at home, scratching their heads — and they all felt an excitement not seen at Wembley since Blackpool were promoted to the Premier League following the 2009-10 season.
“Wow daddy, this is fantastic!” he said. “I really hope we win.”
“A draw is as good as a win right now. Do you see what happens when you play attacking football? The hockey team did that in 1980, and look what happened? They beat the Soviets and they ended up winning the gold medal. That could happen if we end up beating or drawing with the Brits today.”
The wonder in the son’s eyes showed as the father explained the Miracle on Ice. This match, a Miracle on Grass, still had a long way to go, though.
And as they said on television, anything could happen in football.
Something would happen.
It just wouldn’t be what anyone expected.
The West End, London, England
30 July 2012 — 20.10 GMT/3:10 p.m. ET
In the middle of his evening prayers — with the television on — the shouting BBC announcer distracted Jafar Abdullah Mohammed.
“And the Yanks have brought this Olympic group stage match to level terms! What a beautiful strike by Steve Membrino!”
Jafar’s eyes flew open. He turned his head toward the television.
This is the sign, he thought.
Jafar felt the anticipation running through his skin as he lurched from his prayer cushion, his prayers incomplete. He stumbled slightly, but that was because his knees did not bend properly. He grimaced hard and bit back a Muslim curse.
“I am sorry, Allah. Forgive me for not finishing,” he said, looking toward the ceiling. “I will offer you my blood in penance. But I must cleanse the world of infidel filth.”
He sat down on his couch with his laptop in front of him. He intently watched the match and waited for just the right time. The minutes ticked off, and every second was unbearable as the last. Fear began to creep into Jafar’s conscience.
What if the Brits reclaim the lead? The operation would be for naught, he thought.
He shook his head.
The operation can continue. The West is the West is the West. Just because the Americans are unsuccessful and the British win does not mean the months of planning go up in smoke. This is why we’ve had all those meetings and spent Allah’s money on weapons and explosives. This one event is what it’s all about! Great Britain is just as much an enemy to us as the United States! We can deal a crippling blow to their morale with this act today. Allah has blessed our endeavor. I cannot waste this opportunity!
A smile crept along Jafar’s lips as he thought about this, just as the Americans’ defense dispossessed the Brits’ striker as he surged into the penalty area. The cheer from the American fans was sickening, and it mirrored the groan coming from the British supporters.
Jafar wanted to vomit. The West places so much importance on sport, especially football and American football and — the thought made him gag — baseball.
Baseball is a children’s game, like rounders, compared to our cricket, the game of men, he thought.
Jafar spat his disgust.
The West should care about things that are more important. Staying out of Middle Eastern affairs would be a good start. Allah will punish these non-believers for plundering our land and not letting our leaders command our people. If the criminal Bush hadn’t stuck up for his daddy, mighty Saddam would still be in command of Iraq.
He looked at the television again and saw the Americans sprinting up the pitch, casually moving the ball between players, playing an incessant game of keep away from the Brits. Two touches later, the Americans were into the attacking third, looking for an opening in the home side’s defense. Surely, the Americans wouldn’t go with a shot from distance again.
The Americans pounded the ball right into the heart of the penalty area, a thumping volley by the right side midfielder. Jafar watched as the players closed in on Membrino, who stood near the penalty spot, staying onside. The tall American striker bent his knees, leaped and beat the Brits to the ball. Membrino nodded the ball low. The keeper dove.
The keeper pounded the grass with his gloved hand as the ball tickled the back of the onion bag.
Jafar looked to the upper left-hand corner of the screen and smiled maliciously as the score line now read GBR 1-2 USA.
There was still less than an hour to play, still time for the Brits to come up with an equalizer. Was time on their side? Jafar could not tell. They looked disjointed.
Jafar wiped the sweat away. Even though the sun was down, his flat continued baking. It was after 20.30 now, which meant he could eat; Jafar maintained the strict rules of Ramadan and fasted from sunrise to sunset, and would do so for the next 20 days.
Another thing for the infidels to pay for, Jafar thought. The Olympics fall during our holy month, and they knew it would cause our Muslim athletes, those who follow the tenets of our religion to a tee, to fast during the day and put them at an extreme disadvantage against everyone else, their American and Canadian and British heroes. They must pay for this breach of etiquette!
They do not care about Muslims. They do not care that our athletes will be shunned and crucified for this. Why can’t the IOC be mindful of Muslims’ needs?
No, they can’t do that. The West wouldn’t want to compete fairly — that would be too much of a stretch, even for them — much like they want to completely eradicate us from the face of the Earth. It is why we must fight back with vengeance at every opportunity! We must not let the West win!
Jafar seethed now, his anger palpable. His heart rate rose as the fist-sized muscle pounded against the inside of his breastbone. He did not care what the scoreline in the match was now. It was not an issue any longer. The Brits could win. The Yanks could win. It could have ended a draw. Jafar did not care.
It was time for him to carry out his plans, his turn to do his part in Allah’s Grand Scheme.
He opened a browser window on his laptop. He punched in his commands, his fingers flying across the keyboard so quickly, they appeared to be a blur.
He pressed enter.
He turned his attention to the television screen, and kept another eye on the CCTV link on his laptop. It showed Wembley Stadium from the outside. There were some people in Wembley Park watching the match on large monitors, much like the ones that were in Trafalgar Square for the announcement of London’s winning Olympics bid.
The CCTV view had no audio, so Jafar could not tell who was boisterously happy and who was glum. The wide-angle shot was perfectly serene.
To continue reading Chapter 1, click here.
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