A WARM MATCH DAY IN AUGUST
The Red Bulls were competing in another listless late-summer match, as unimportant as the one before and several after until the season finally starts to matter in September. The attendance was sparse, the air smelled, and enthusiasm for the club was at an all-time low.
The referee blew his whistle to signal halftime and the teams ambled toward the tunnel. It was doubtful a single attendee could confidently state anything that happened in the preceding 45 minutes.
When all of a sudden, intrusive feedback and crispy static blared through the arena’s sound system. There was a snowfall of black-and-white pixels on the main video boards, causing everyone to stop what they were doing and look up.
A man in a glittering silver mask appeared on the screen. With an impossibly sonorous voice, he began addressing the fans.
“Look upon cursed ugliness! It is I, the Phantom of Red Bull Arena! That fate condemning me to wallow in fandom of this club has denied me the joy of trophies. It is time for the rest to face an eternity of discontent. Enjoy your food lines long and concourse crowded because the beer taps have been broken and fryers disabled! The stench of this club’s post-season efforts has been reflected in the form of stink bombs most pungent! And the microphone of your beloved halftime host? It has been damaged beyond use!”
The crowd murmured, clearly bothered by how long this was taking.
The Phantom continued, “Your club may claim to pursue greatness, but it has moved past the point of no return. I will haunt until there is new ownership. Whenever there is about to be a sell-out, I will be there. Whenever an expensive Designated Player is about to sign with the club, I will be there. Whenever Don Garber is about to compliment the fan base, I will be there. Take heed of my warning and face the eternity of this before your eyes.”
With a flash, the Phantom disappeared from the screen with a dramatic flourish. There was a momentary pause. Some considered panicking, but upon realizing that everything was quite the same as it already was, although perhaps slightly improved, they went back to their halftime machinations.
SIX MONTHS LATER
Following a disappointing playoff exit to cap off another middling season, the Red Bulls were settling into a cozy transfer window of little activity.
Much like the club’s movement in relevance, a person – in his trademark psychopathically efficient fashion – descended the winding staircase deep into the arena.
Down and down he went until underneath the fertile Harrison soil that these days seemed to only grow depression. The further below the man went, the more he could hear what sounded like music. As he neared the bottom, he saw a doorway, through which he peered and saw the mysterious masked man.
The Phantom was banging away at his organ, crafting an unintelligible dirge, as if two incongruous songs were being played at the same time – a very familiar sound to the ears of anyone who has ever been to Red Bull Arena and observed the South Ward.
Without turning, the Phantom asked, “Dare you to dwell upon my performance? I enjoy a medley after warming up with We Love Ya for ten straight hours.”
“Never start a negotiation by speaking first,” the man tonelessly replied. “It shows weakness.”
This angered the Phantom.
“AND WHO IS THIS TO COME INTO MY LAIR? HOW DID YOU COME TO STUMBLE UPON THIS DEN OF SOLITUDE?”
“My name is Ralf Rangnick. I work for the club in some capacity unknown even to myself. I wanted to talk about the things you’ve been doing.”
“Ah, yes, my mischievous machinations,” the Phantom said with a smile that could best be described as a grimace. He turned to face Rangnick. “Has the team been shut down? Has my work forced Red Bull to sell?”
“What? No,” said Rangnick. “If anything, you’ve been a great help.”
“Even after dooming your club to a disappointingly early playoff exit?” the phantom screamed. “DOOMED!” he repeated, banging his fists against the organ, whose notes emphasized his words.
“To be honest, the team was already trending in that direction,” said Rangnick. “But your actions were helpful. The stink bombs distracted from the smell of the Keegan Landfill. Multiple surveyed fans remarked on the improved halftime atmosphere after you cut Mike Labelle’s microphone.”
“What about the emails I deleted?” hissed the Phantom. “The emails from Romanian agents on Denis Hamlett’s computer.”
“You saved us from a lot of bad transfers.”
“And when I jumbled the tactics on Chris Armas’ whiteboard?” whispered the waning specter.
“To be honest, the players considered the coach’s instructions to be much more clear than usual.”
The Phantom slumped in his chair. “It has been for naught. All my schemes, all my machinations. I continue to live an accursed life!”
Rangnick shifted in place awkwardly, clearly uncomfortable with anything resembling human emotion.
The Phantom continued, “If none of my actions hurt the team, then why come to this place?”
“As you may or may not know, Red Bull loves to unearth unorthodox talent,” said Rangnick. “We’ve hired bicyclists, physicists, track runners, and, most controversially, American coaches. I would like to bring you into the club, in light of all the fantastic changes you’ve made. There’s been a real buzz around the arena. No other sports team can claim to have a saboteur working for them.”
The Phantom sat in silence for a few seconds. Eventually, he gave a curt nod.
With that, the Phantom resumed banging away on his organ. Rangnick began making his way back up to the surface. However, he stopped at the doorway as he remembered something of minor importance.
“Oh, Phantom. One more thing.”
The Phantom stopped playing.
“I know kidnapping young, pretty starlets is your thing,” Rangnick said cautiously. “But can you please give us back Alex Muyl?”