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Serbian Moneyball, the Flame & the Void – A Prologue

Pana oil saturated

The huddled media are not quite sure of what to make of the situation.  Summoned early in the morning for a press conference, they’re more interested in seeing what meager snacks have been laid out for them to consume while waiting for the Chairman to arrive.

Sources inside the club have all but confirmed that the press conference will serve as the unveiling of the heralded, yet unproven manager Nicolaj Bur – the Danish-Dutch answer to Pep Guardiola who has been making waves with the Brøndby youth academy and reserves, while also gaining an online following for his thought-provoking, viral video dissecting (and conclusively resolving) the eternal debate as to whether one should bite or lick one’s ice cream cone.

Behind the scenes, the drama has already begun with a junior member of the coaching staff insisting that the side adopt a 3-striker formation, sure that their opponents will be incapable of adjusting. 

“I’m telling you, these teams won’t be able to handle it, Boss.  They won’t know who to mark.”

A low, dark chuckle from another member of the coaching staff – Bozidar Bodrozic, the club’s Head of Sports Science – who sits in the corner with a grumpy look on his scarred face, shaking his head in disbelief as he takes a swig of plum brandy from a flask. A sharp, barking laugh follows, apropos of nothing.

Bur is unmoved.  Three strikers?!  A thing of the past.  A filthy, underhanded thing.  “No, three strikers is not for us.  You’ve got to stick to your principles…although we may need some time to build up to that point, yeah?”

Jesse Sorenson, Nicolaj’s best friend since childhood and soon-to-be Assistant Manager, can barely stop the laughter from bursting out.

“Principles? You’re not going to off yourself like that ‘arry bloke, are you, Boss?  That one that done shot the short fella?”

“Allegedly, Jesse.  Allegedly.  Redknapp is innocent until proven guilty.  And if you keep bringing that up, his lawyers are going to lose their minds and come for you.  Just leave it be.”

Bodrozic just takes another swig, somehow looking even more disgruntled.

The young press officer gives a nod, beckoning the Chairman to step into the next room with the media, preparing to reveal their new manager and – hopefully – in the process, create some good press in the midst of a sea of criticism for how the club has been run as of late.

Before they can be summoned to join the Chairman in the press room, Bur pulls the young press officer aside.

“Just one second…eh… Between us, what’s the deal with this Bozidar? He seems a little, I don’t know…off.”

The press officer glances back towards the others, before closing the door to the press room quietly.

“Look, you didn’t hear it from me, ok?”

“Hear… What? All anyone will tell me is that his methods are ‘unconventional,’ and that I shouldn’t ask too many questions, or otherwise question his authority. Something about not looking him in the eye, too… I thought that was a joke, but having met him, I’m not so sure…”

The press officer sighs in resignation. She can tell from the look in Bur’s eyes that he isn’t going to let this go.

“Again, you didn’t hear this from me. Got it?”

Bur nods.

“You’ve heard of ‘Moneyball,’ right?”

Bur nods. There must be more.

“Well, Bozidar is a proponent of what he likes to call ‘Serbian Moneyball.'”

“And, that’s different…how?”

“I’m not an expert, but as best I can tell the Serbian variant is less reliant on rigorous statistical analysis, and more focused on combining incessant yelling with expired medications from the former Soviet Bloc, and abrupt, inexplicable changes in the ambient temperature.”

Bur is at a loss for words, unsure as to whether he’s the target of some practical joke.

The press officer continues, enjoying the thrill of a shared secret, unaware of growing Bur’s unease. “I even heard that Bozidar’s grandfather was the head of Pinochet’s secret police. I don’t know what to make of that, though. And, it’s not like there are actual records of him doing anything…well, there are all those photographs. Those do not look good. But, his grandson can’t be that bad… I mean, Bozidar is really, really into Coldplay. You can trust someone who likes Coldplay, I think.”

Bur mumbles something incoherent, trying to take it all in.

The press officer continues amiably, sure she has found a like-minded individual in Bur. “Honestly, Coldplay’s early work was a little too new wave for my tastes, but when Ghost Stories came out in ’14, I think they really came into their own, commercially and artistically. The whole album has a clear, crisp sound, and a new sheen of consummate professionalism that really gives the songs a big boost. He’s been compared to Bono, but I think Chris has a far more bitter, cynical sense of humor.”

Bur nods, making a mental note to keep his distance from both Bozidar and this young press officer, who cheerfully begins to usher him towards the press room.

As they enter, Bur tries to center himself – concentrating on the image of a single flame and feeding all of his emotions, all of the angst and anxiety, into it, until his mind becomes empty.  Not empty of all thought.  Rather, devoid of distraction. 

“Remember the flame, lad, and the void. Become one with the void,” Bur’s father had said, “and you can do anything.”  

Bur has obtained some measure of control using the flame and the void these past few years.  But today will be the biggest test he’s faced.  By far.

Safely wrapped in the void, Bur’s focus is resolute.  Nothing can shake him, not even the press officer’s overly-friendly invitation to dinner later that night, her hand on the small of his back, whispering about the “beautiful” chicken nuggets she is planning to pick up from the local McDonalds and prepare – “peeled, of course, à la Française”  What kind of nutter peels a chicken nugget?!  Aside from Coldplay fans, of course.  Those crazy bastards will peel anything.

For all of Bur’s calm – all of his focus – the void is shattered when the cameras begin to flash and the first softball question is lobbed in his direction.

“Can you describe your feelings, Mister Bur, sitting here today as the new manager of this great club?  Proud?  Nervous?”

Bur stammers, nodding enthusiastically.

“Yes…  Yes.  If it…  If it is to be said.”

“I’m sorry…what?”

“If it…  If it is to be said… So… Would be… It is.”

The press murmur, looking amongst each other, wondering if Bur is suffering from a stroke.

“Are you alright, Mister Bur?”

“Yes… Uhh… I merely wish to…to answer in the…affirmative fashion.”

“You can speak to us normally.”

“Oh, uh…ok.  No.  Thank you.  So, I…  Uhh… I shall.”

Bur’s first press conference would not improve from that point forward.

He will have to prove himself on the pitch.  The hard way.  The only way.

If you’ve stumbled upon this post and are finding yourself a bit confused… Don’t worry.  The basic concept behind the Nearly Men save is explained here.  Just need to catch up? Each installment in Nicolaj Bur’s story can be accessed through the Nearly Men Archive.

And if you just can’t get enough…join us for The Ballad of Toothless Bob, a series that explores the world of Nicolaj Bur, away from the pitch. What is Project Arcturus? What lies beyond the twisted redstone door, deep in the bowels of the Santiago Bernabéu?

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