This is the first part of a David Peace-style fictionalisation of the 1974 World Cup Final, its specific focus being the Dutch squad of Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff. I’m not entirely sure where I’m going this – I started it while sitting in a coffee shop to pass the time and just kept writing – but I’ll publish it in several parts and see it through to its conclusion regardless. If the prose seems clunky then that’ll be because I very rarely turn my hand to fiction, but it’s been fun to write and so this is the first instalment of what may be several to follow.

***

A synapse fires in the dark.

Johan Cruyff elevates himself until sitting bolt upright in bed, brushing his hair from his eyes before reaching for the lamp. It flickers into life and throws dull beams of sluggish light across the room. It is twenty past three in the morning and Munich is sleeping. Faded green velvet curtains and the most neutral of ornaments, it was hardly Amsterdam luxury but neither was it wholly intolerable. Cramped and yet awkwardly comfortable, this particular hotel had lulled him into passivity through its sheer lack of discernible features.

Johan rolled out of bed and pulled on some shorts before zipping himself in to the navy parka that had lain draped across the dressing table. A tall man with that distinctive bone structure only athletes may dream of attaining, he briefly glances at himself in the mirror as he slips on a pair of sandals and leaves the room.

The corridors were quiet but for the mildly intimidating thud of a distant grandfather clock. Darkness was all about him as Johan fumbled through the dark, his shuffling feet disturbing what had been a perfect stillness in the air. As he approached the end of the hall the blackness began to be alleviated by the strip light in the lobby below, its low hum coming into earshot as the Dutchman descended the stairway and made his way past reception and out into the garden beyond.

All hanging baskets and parasols, Johan found his way to a sun lounger and stretched out in the warm night air. Producing a lighter and a packet of Lucky Strikes from his coat pocket he clicked once, twice, and shrouded his face in the first plume of smoke. The first drag irritated his dry throat, but he soon struck upon a soothing rhythm and, as he smoked, he thought. His musings quickly turned into a hyperactivity of imagination, a scramble of ideas ploughing through his skull with an enthusiasm that bordered on the uncomfortable.

The smoke went from white to cobalt blue as is drifted in front of the moon.

Cruyff closed his eyes. The air was snug but not quite still, an occasional breeze disturbing the trees that stood silhouetted beyond the far wall. He tried to clear his mind and let emotion swell gently over him in manageably light ripples. Did he feel nervous? Well, yes, that much was natural, but the immediate prospect of his first World Cup Final didn’t feel unduly daunting. At least, he wouldn’t allow himself to accept the fear that occasionally welled up inside him, he couldn’t afford to bow to apprehension. Not now.

Lines and triangles. All he could see behind his eyes were lines and triangles that Rinus had drummed into him over the preceding weeks, months, years. Ceaseless charts, whispered conversations in deserted bars that had lasted into the early hours. Plans and counter-plans formulated with revolutionary ardour; the foundations of a philosophy charted in the bottoms of glasses and traced in mountains of ash.

Pass, press, communicate, switch, turn, pass, press, hold, breathe. Don’t stop moving. You mustn’t stop moving. The grandfather clock burst into life, not as distant this time, and struck the half hour. A system supported by a system.

Johan turned onto his side and extinguished his cigarette on the stubble that passed for a lawn. It was at this moment that he realised he was being watched. A tracksuited figure moved out of the doorway and across the garden towards him, a match – briefly lucent – throwing momentary colour onto the rugged features of Piet Keizer as he walked.

“Piet?”

“Johan. Another walk in the night?”

“Sleep is fleeting.”

“You’re nervous?”

“No. I don’t know. I’m ready but I can’t rest.”

Minutes passed in silence. The pair were acutely aware of the magnitude of the coming dawn but reluctant to fully acknowledge it, their heavy eyes refusing to bely the flickering fears that had lain beneath their outward confidence over the last three weeks. Perfection driven by consternation, it had been the fuel to the Oranje machine, the lifeblood of the intricate geometry that had become totaalvoetbal.

Piet chose to alleviate the quiet.

“Fear is natural, Johan. It’s an inevitable interruption but it can be supressed.”

The Dutch captain reached for a second cigarette and lit it carefully. This time the listless smoke rose and drifted across a sky that was creeping from night to day; silhouettes becoming shadows, a grainy light giving embryonic life to the surroundings. A car engine broke a distant silence, somewhere a dog barked and shook the air. The day, this most massive of days, was announcing its arrival with humble mundanity. The minutes slipped by.

A synapse fires in the dark. Johan Cruyff awakes in his clothes and is greeted by the sounds of mid-morning, the strengthening sun bathing his room in the subtlest orange light. He draws the sheets closer around him and breathes slowly. The most consequential of days has already begun to calculate its destination.