Into the early hours of dawn on a Saturday morning, the city of Istanbul dwelled in silence. The pigeons fluttered down the alleys around the Grand Bazaar district as the sunlight began to slowly embrace the city from the Asian side in the East to the European in the West. Istanbul sat at the border of two vast continents since the time it was still called Constantinople. Since then, the Byzantines ruled over these lands and then came the great Ottoman Empire. A beacon of the Silk Road, and a melting pot of ancient cultures, this beautiful city had seen many great battles. Tonight, however, it prepared for another big clash — the European Champions League final of 2021.
The serenity of the dawn was perhaps the calm before the storm. The world was at a greater war — a yearlong pandemic — which hadn’t spared Istanbul either. Amidst all the chaos and tragedy, the old men that sat along the alleys smoking cigarettes and water pipes were immersed in their own battles from dawn to dusk. A constant refill of kahve, straight from the cezve, and a board of Backgammon or Chess was all that they needed.
Further down the alley where it was darker and away from the seats the usual old men occupied, sat two men around their fifties. They were tall and dressed impeccably. One of them was bald and unshaven and his silver stubble glistened in the morning sun as he stared at the chessboard in deep concentration. The other was skinny and slightly taller and brooded over his pieces occasionally running his fingers through his thinning hair. They were riveted to the game in front of them and oblivious to the others around, the city, the pandemic and perhaps even the final that evening.
“Do we really have a final this evening?” asked Thomas ironically, giggling with his conspicuous German accent.
“I don’t know, maybe we decide to settle it here itself!” replied Pep, playing along the light-hearted mood, as the chess game distracted both the men from their hectic schedules, due their inherent nature to focus, compete and win at any game they played.
It was a long season, and the two football managers had endured stressful weeks since the start of the year as the tournament entered its knockout stages. They defeated the big sides of Pochettino and Zidane to reach the final, and tonight they would face each other to decide which of their sides would be crowned the kings of Europe for this year. Pep Guardiola had reached the Champions League final again after ten years and his project at Manchester City was hitting a crescendo in terms of his ideas that he wanted to implement. It had taken almost five years and millions of euros year after year. Thomas Tuchel, on the other hand, reached his second consecutive final. He took Paris St Germain last year in Lisbon only to suffer a 1–0 defeat to Bayern Munich. Since then he took over at Chelsea, and the team’s form skyrocketed, and they looked unstoppable at the moment.
This wasn’t the first time Tuchel and Pep found themselves sharing a friendly banter over board games. Their relationship went back to the days of the Bundesliga in 2014, when Pep was reaching new heights with Bayern Munich and Tuchel had established himself at Mainz but was taking a sabbatical following the footsteps of Pep, who did the same after his glorious years with Barcelona to avoid a burnout. Tuchel was one of the many admirers of Pep’s style of play, but his goal was to improve upon them with his own innovations, much like the quote from Da Vinci: Poor is the pupil who does not surpass his master.
Between the Odeon Square and the Hofgarten in Munich is a bar called Schumann’s that is open 24 hours a day. Charles Schumann who runs Schumann’s am Hofgarten is an iconic barkeeper who has won the World’s 50 Best Bars award and published various books and released documentaries. He would reserve a special place for Pep and Tuchel who would meet frequently in the winter of 2014–15 and spend long evenings on the creaky oak chairs examining their tactical ideas. They moved saltshakers on the table as if they were players and totally lose track of time to the classic jazz records playing in the background. In Germany it became popularly known as the Battle of the Schumann’s.
Pep’s years at Barcelona were an iconic tactical display for the entire footballing world. The magic he created with Messi, Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets would echo distinctly for more than a decade and set the standard for young coaches looking for tactical inspiration from the positional play in Spain. In Germany, where the game was dominated in Umschaltspielen or transitions and counter-attacking football was common among the teams in the Bundesliga, Pep held his principles of positional play but made improvisations to balance the transitions like the reinvention of the inverted full back.
If Pep was interested in turning the transitions of attack-defence and defence-attack into the new paradigm, Tuchel opted to redouble the rhythm: the speed and frequency at which each player moves in sync with their teammates. He inherited a Dortmund side in 2015 from Klopp who defeated Pep in the DFB-Supercup. Tuchel combined elements of gegenpressing with positional play using a three-at-the-back system where every player had to fulfil multiple roles in his position. His idea was to gestate the play by generating pass lines that unravel the opposing team and thus reach the final third with more clarity. After a successful stint with Dortmund, Tuchel took up a new challenge at Paris with better quality of players and took them to their most successful run in the European tournament.
Charles Schumann always knew it was going to be a long night when these two were customers at Schumann’s. He used to tell his staff, “Don’t bother about food, they have enough talks about football to feed each other.” Just ask the double bass to turn up the volume, keep their glasses refilled and let them be. The dark walls of Schumann’s, the glass bottles of the finest spirits and the jazz music hosted the most innovative and progressive ideas in contemporary football between Tuchel and Pep.
Once the rage of the battles of the Schumann’s had died out into the late hours of a moonlight night in Munich, and the two coaches met each other at the Allianz Arena as Bayern and Dortmund faced off in Der Klassiker, it almost felt like the viewers were only privileged to see a small snippet of the intricate and complex vision of how these two viewed the game. So, when Tuchel stayed back on the pitch to prolong his ecstasy and enjoy the moment at Stamford Bridge after the game against Real Madrid when he beat Zidane in the second leg to book a place in the final, he thought of sending Pep a text. A European final is the most elite stage in football. Even those who hardly watch the game tune in to this grand showdown before summer. Yet, despite the stakes and the massive ambitions of the two mega-clubs to win a game of football, Tuchel felt that a private meeting with Pep was well deserved to celebrate their journey all along through this season, for one more game before the game.
“Don’t you find chess and football quite similar?” Pep remarked, now breaking a sweat in the Istanbul heat.
“Yes, I think there is a lot to take from it onto the pitch,” concurred Thomas.
“I took great intrigue in it after meeting Garry Kasparov, and his battles against Magnus Carlsen.”
“Yes you mentioned earlier, and I think I read it in Pep Confidential too!”
“So, what are the similarities that you find, Pep?”
“For me it’s the occupation of spaces, the positional play, the use of pawns. I see the diagonal runs that I expect my team to make from wide and along half spaces the crucial work of pawns without which there would be no game.”
“I agree, totally!”
“I actually view some of the pieces like certain positions in football too. For me, the king is the goal. That’s what you protect and what you look to score against your rival. I see the rooks as central defenders, closest to protecting the king, but when they see the space, I want them to charge forward too. The bishops are the playmakers in central midfield capable of opening up the play with their vision and range of diagonal passing.”
“And the knights?”
“Can you take a guess, Thomas?” asked Pep grinning with his wide sparkling eyes.
“Of course! They are your full backs, sometimes inverting, sometimes jumping into attack — so versatile,” answered Tuchel, as they both began laughing. Then Tuchel lifted his chin and narrowed his eyes and asked, “So, who is your queen then? I know you have scrapped the traditional number 10 role since as long as I can remember. You had Messi at Barcelona, which makes sense because there is nothing he can’t do and no space on the pitch he can’t go. But who is your queen now, Pep? Who has the freedom to move anywhere — the most powerful piece in chess?”
“Thomas, the queen in my football has been and always will be: the ball. It’s the most powerful piece in the game and I always find ways to use it well. Is it impossible to play without it? No, but it’s difficult. It’s just not my cup of tea,” he replied, taking the last sip of his kahve.
“Thomas, the queen in my football has been and always will be: the ball.”
As one of the kings fell on the chessboard, Pep picked up the morning newspaper he found at the hotel and rolled it under his arm while standing up. “The journalists write anything these days. I hope there are none who have followed us or are trying to spy on us as we speak,” he commented with a serious tone scanning around the place if there were any suspicious onlookers.
“I feel like the farther we move from the pitch, the more distorted are our impressions of the game. Don’t you think, Pep?”
“I absolutely agree, Thomas. I feel sometimes the decisions that my players make, being closest to the action using their pure instinct, I could have never imagined those solutions. I feel wrong at times to demand so much from them, and I know I have a big list of players who I have disappointed or think I’m crazy. But then there’s the technical area, where we’d like to think we have some control to bring order to the chaos. Further away, up in the stands are the directors and the owners who think they understand the all the decisions. Then the fans in the stadium, the analysts. And finally, those who watch the game on TV, who have the most fun sitting on their couches or cheering their team from the pubs, but who understand the least of what is going on. And with the pandemic, it has just been hard for everybody. We are slowly losing this game.”
“What will you do after the final whistle tonight?”
“I really need a vacation. But I will spend time with my family. It has been such a busy quarter since January, I have barely seen them. We hardly got a break after last season except for the lockdown.”
“I know. We all need some time away from football for a while. This transfer season is going to be hectic. I have a big project to handle during preseason. Perhaps for a month, we can switch off from our jobs and turn on the TV and enjoy the Euros and ponder about this Super League stuff or whatever else the guys on top have been conjuring up in the meanwhile. We are all just chess pieces, aren’t we?”
“Indeed, and after the game we all go into the same box,” remarked Pep solemnly, shaking his head.
The two had a silent pact to not discuss about the club or their players that meeting before the final at the Grand Bazaar. It was better to save that excitement for the bright floodlights of the Atatürk Olympic Stadium that evening, where they would go into a state of hyperfocus for 90 minutes into another chess match against each other — a noisier and more unpredictable one, where the docile 32 wooden pieces would be replaced by professional athletes who would shed blood, sweat and tears for glory.
“Wars come and go but my soldiers stay.”
“No, but close enough — Tupac,” exclaimed Pep as he patted a surprised Tuchel on his shoulder.
“Wars come and go but my soldiers stay.” — Tupac Shakur
The boats ferried back and forth the Bosphoros in the backdrop of the immortal architecture of the Hagia Sofia in this city that represented the crossroads of human civilisation. Istanbul, a mystical city, where Liverpool fans and anyone in football believed after 2005’s upset of AC Milan by Liverpool that in this game, anything was possible. Even miracles.
Tuchel smiled looking at Pep sensing how far both men had come in the game for this big European night final. “It is going to be sensational tonight, Pep. But before we retire back into our hotels in anticipation of his great battle, are you in for one more game?” he smiled and asked, knocking his King on the chessboard.
“One more game it is then.”
Disclaimer: This is a work of fiction using real characters for inspiration from events that are mentioned in the references. The character development was in no way intented to influence the image of the people in the story.