Chapter 50 - The Final Countdown
“I guess there is no one to blame / We’re leaving ground (leaving ground) / Will things ever be the same again? / It’s the final countdown / The final countdown” – The Final Countdown, Europe
“You’re doing great back there!” Malcolm says, standing in front of me while the ball is in the West Side half.
“I’m dying back here!” I say, trying to get my breath under control. I don’t know how much more I can take of this constant sprinting. Daniel and the other midfield did listen to me after West Side almost scored on a long ball. The striker only got by me because he gave me a Charley horse in the leg when the ball was kicked. Something that the ref didn’t see. Our saving grace was that we have a terrific goalie, but it shouldn’t come to that.
“Just hang in there, James.” Malcolm says, “Can’t be much longer.”
“Ref!” I call, “Time?” he holds up six fingers. Six more minutes. No more goals have been scored in the second half. Mr. Quirrel was right, we might only win by making sure they don’t score.
3-2. West Side managed to score two goals after Eleanor was taken off the field. When Eleanor, our best defender, was taken out in such a horrific way and there were no repercussions to the other team, the entire mood of the team was brought down instantly. It didn’t help that Eleanor was taken off the pitch and put in a car to be taken to the hospital.
“What do we do, Arya?” Isabella asks me after West Side scores their second goal. “The entire mood of the team has gone down. They can easily take advantage of it and beat us now.”
“Ref!” I call out as he sets up the ball in the center of the field for the kickoff after the goal by West Side. “Time?”
“Six minutes!” he calls back. “Plus five minutes for injury time!”
Great, I think to myself. A lot can happen in eleven minutes. Soccer doesn’t have the luxury of other team sports of being able to call a timeout. We can’t ask for a moment to regroup. Halftime is the only time to do that.
Not that there is ever a good time to get injured, but Eleanor getting injured less than five minutes into the second half was the worse timing to bring down the entire morale of the team. With no timeouts, the only options are really to sub out players to put out fresh legs on the field and change the pace of the game, but currently, the eleven best players on the team are on the field right now. I mean no offense to the girls on the bench, but a substitution will not help us now to turn things around. But we have to do something to bring up the morale of this dying soccer team that could let another goal be scored on them. We need a complete change if we are going to win.
“We need a goal,” I say to Isabella.
“Thanks for stating the obvious,” Isabella says.
“Play like a third forward,” I say to her.
Isabella looks at me, “We need to defend right now, Arya. If anything, one of the forwards should come back!”
“We need a goal.” I say, “It’s the only way to turn the mood around of this team, otherwise they will score on us, maybe twice at the rate we are going. They are on a high right now. They think they can beat us. We have to crush it. Scoring a goal right now to give us a two-goal lead will do that.” Isabella just stares at me, scared to agree to the suggestion, “The next team that scores will win this match. I guarantee it. Let it be us.”
“We are the playmakers, Arya.” Isabella says, “We control the game from the center.”
“And being in the middle of the field,” I say, “we can easily go into and support any position on the field. Trust me on this. Be the third forward. Put pressure on their defense. You are better than any of them. Score the fourth goal and be the hero and captain that this team needs. I will cover the back while you go up.”
The ref’s whistle blows, and our forwards pass the ball back to Isabella. For a split second, she thinks about what to do. Play it safe and try to defend the one-goal lead or go for another goal. She dekes the first player that comes at her and continues to go up the whole way with our two forwards on either side of her, charging at the net.
I’m chasing him, running as fast as I can, as the West Side striker barrels towards the net. I am the only one left to get to him before he can get a shot off. My legs are dead tired, but I know, even when it feels like there is nothing left, there is always a little bit more. This is my last 100m of the race, this is where I kick it into overdrive. I can’t even hear the West Side fans shouting and screaming on the sidelines. I am only focused on one thing. To get that ball. I close in on him, and just as he crosses the line into the penalty box, the West Side striker is slide tackled from behind by a blue jersey. The West Sider goes flying in the air, crashing on the ground hard. Our player just gets up easily, going after the ball he did not even touch when he took out the West Sider. The whistle blows frantically and loudly, and all the play is stopped.
I hear all the West Side fans on the sidelines yelling, calling for a penalty kick. The West Side team and their coach are demanding it too and I cannot blame them. I would be too if I was them.
“Did you see what he did, ref?” the captain of the West Side team yells, chasing after the ref, “He didn’t get any ball!”
The ref’s blowing the whistle, running towards the penalty box, and the West Side player that was taken out slowly gets up from the ground. The ref’s pointing his open hand towards the penalty kick spot, signally a penalty shot which starts an eruption of cheering from every West Sider; fan and player.
“It wasn’t in the box!” Daniel yells at the ref, “He fell into the box.” It’s not true. Daniel took out the player inside the box, but he’ll never admit it. The ref ignores him and the whole team sets up for the penalty kick. I want to go over and yell at Daniel. He is the reason that they have a penalty kick right now! It would have been better to have let the striker shoot. Now he has a clear, undisturbed penalty shot. A wide net with only a small goalie. It does not matter how good of a goalie you are, saving a penalty shot requires luck and skill, and I can only pray that luck will be on our side today. Daniel, in his pouty mood, can be dealt with another time. I walk up to our goalie, putting our foreheads together.
“You can do this,” I say to him, looking him in the eye. “Forget the fans, forget that any of us are here. It’s just you and him.” I point behind me at the West Side captain, placing the ball on the penalty spot for his shot. There is no room for doubts right now. “You are by far the best goalie in this league. You know you can do this and so do I. Just like practice.” We clap our hands together and turn away from each other. Him going to the goal line, me going to the outside of the penalty box. Please. Let him miss. The West Side captain gives himself a big running start, eyeing the ball, the goalie, and the net. Our goalie is standing in the crouched position, never taking his eye off the ball. The ref blows the whistle and the captain starts running towards the stationary ball.
Off the post! It’s the closest we’ve gotten to scoring another goal, but we have continued to put the pressure on West Side, never leaving their half of the field. We never give them a chance with the ball, as soon as their defenders or midfielders touch the ball, we are all over them. The West Side strikers haven’t even touched the ball for the past five minutes. Isabella and the other strikers having great chances to score have already brought the momentum back to us and I finally feel confident that we can win this game, even if we don’t score another goal.
The ball gets kicked out of the penalty area but hits a West Side defender in the back and goes out of bounds on the goal line. The ref signals a corner kick for us. One of our defenders sets up the ball to kick and we line up our team; two forwards in the box by the goalie waiting for the ball; us four midfielders at the top of the box in a bundle, ready to run into the box when the ball gets kicked; two defenders waiting at the back to grab the ball if it comes to them, one defender at the half-line as the last line of defense if everything goes wrong. The corner kicker raises her hand, signaling she’s about to kick.
“This is the one,” Isabella says to me.
The West Side captain kicks the stationary ball and we all run to the net at the same time. Our goalie follows the ball to the left, diving to the ground, and catches it before it can cross the goal line. We all cheer, but the West Side fans sigh in disappointment.
“Take your time!” I yell to our goalie. Now is the time to drain time. There can only be a couple of minutes left. Our goalie takes his full six seconds with the ball before kicking it to the West Side half. We battle, up until the last moment, until Samson takes the ball off a defender and shoots towards the net and we hear the ref blow his whistle to signal the end of the game. Oh thank goodness, I put my hands to my knees. Malcolm comes up and slaps me on the back.
“We did it!” Malcolm exclaims. All the guys are cheering to a very unhappy West Side audience that had to watch their team lose the championship by one goal.
Our corner kicker runs to the ball and when she kicks it, we run in different directions around the net, scattering the defense. The ball is high in the air and when I see it coming in my direction I jump off the ground, the same as my opponents around me, and feel the ball connect with the center of my forehead, just trying to get the ball in the general direction of the net. It goes out of reach of the goalie’s hands and into the net! Every East Sider is cheering! The girls’ team, the fans on the sidelines, our coaches! We know it’s the end, and so does West Side. The girls are discouraged, visibly upset, knowing that they have lost. This is our team’s moment. This is East Side’s victory. We jog up to the center of the field to play the last couple of minutes of the game, but we know it’s over. We just keep passing the ball, keeping the ball in our possession while West Side tries to take it off us, trying to put up a last bit of fight to a dying cause, until finally blows the whistle to signify the end of the game. The cheering is deafening. I hug Isabella and then our entire team joins in a massive hug, screaming and cheering at bringing the championship back to East Side.
We go to the sidelines to cheer with our fans. I hear someone from the crowd call out, “The boys won! The boys won too!” Oh, what a day! We couldn’t have asked for anything more. And then I think of Eleanor. Sitting in a hospital while we are all cheering, celebrating our victory. I turn to see the West Side girls collecting their bags on the side of the field, trying to get out of here as quickly as possible. Without a second thought in my head, I start jogging over to them.
“Where are you going?” Isabella yells after me, but I just ignore her and keep running.
“Are you proud of yourself?” I say to Peggy’s back when I reach the team. All the girls look at me, scared of my tone. I once knew all these girls, they were my teammates, but now? I feel like I’m looking at strangers.
Peggy slowly turns around to meet my face, knowing it’s me already by the sound of my voice. “What do you want?”
“You hurt my friend.” I say and then I look past her at all the other girls, “And you all just let her do that! You joked and laughed when she was taken off the field! You should all be ashamed of yourselves!”
“You don’t belong at this school anymore, Arya.” Peggy says to me, “Fine, you guys beat us today by some stroke of luck, but West Side has and always will be the superior school. Besides athletics, you guys have nothing on us.”
“The girls on this team and the people I have met while I have been at this school are worth ten times all of you put together,” I say calmly. “I would rather be an East Sider any day than go back to your preppy high school that thinks they are better than everyone else.”
“You used to be one of us, Arya,” Peggy says.
“And now, I am not.” I say, “I was meant to be at East Side.” I think of James telling me that same thing. “I just showed up two and a half years late.”
“You’re right.” Peggy says, “This school does suit you.”
“Were you always this terrible?” I ask.
“Let’s go girls,” Peggy says, and I watch the whole team walk by me, none of them looking me in the face. Peggy will meet her match someday.
“Arya!” I hear voices yell and I turn around. “Time for the trophy!!”
I smile and run back to my teammates. Yes, definitely where I belong.