Ninety two contentious minutes into a 90 minute contest, the pitch is littered with casualties. Spent forwards, midfielders and fullbacks slogging wearily through stoppage time. Lungs seared from fruitless forays into the opposing half of the field, calves and hamstrings cramping from dehydration, members of both squads looking to the official for mercy.
Stop the game already, their eyes plead. In their weakened states, they are satisfied with a draw. Nil-nil. No glory, but no shame either. Just end this madness and take away the pain.
Not me. I play this game to win. Always. Fighting through elbows and spikes-up challenges all afternoon, I await my chance. That one bounce of the ball that will loose me. A coiled spring, all I need is one step and I’m gone. The jamoke trying to defend me does not have a prayer. Just let the ball squirt free along this right sideline. Just once.
And then it happens.
A poor touch by the center midfielder and the shining sphere of possibility bounces my way. Twenty yards in front of me with no defender in sight, the ball urges speed into my heavy legs. My shadow senses the moment, too. It’s a footrace.
Not feeling the handful of jersey being tugged from behind, ignoring the attempts to ensnare my feet, I rocket past my rival. He might as well be dipped in lead and cast in stone. Are my feet even touching the ground?
By the time I reach my quarry, I’ve built a full head of steam. The sweeper is running headlong towards me, but his is a fool’s errand. Lothar Matteus himself stands no chance at this very moment. A quick juke to the left followed by a step-over to the right, and his legs are agape. A deft touch of the ball through his wickets and I blow past his shoulder to recollect what is mine.
I see the referee out of the corner of my eye, surprised into action. He’s glancing at his watch, but he knows there will be resolution before putting lips to whistle. The linesman is galloping up his sideline in vain attempt to follow the action. Forget it, old boy. You will be a distant spectator to this penultimate play.
It’s just me and the keeper.
Having utterly stonewalled my mates thus far, my foe is formidable. Six foot four and full of muscles.
I choose my angle of attack and approach at 3/4 speed. All the while, competing voices in my head are shouting instructions:
“Deke it past him low and hard! ”
“Wait for him to go into his slide, then lift the ball over him!”
“Blow right past him and dribble the ball into the net!”
“Blast it into the upper 90!”
I ignore them all. I have been here before, and my body knows what to do. Years of practice guide me through the next three seconds. The crowd disappears. The field becomes the neighborhood park where I spent the weekends of my youth. I see the orange cones staggered over the next ten yards and navigate them flawlessly. Drawing my right leg back powerfully, I don’t even look at the hard-charging goalie.
All of my remaining energy and force are transferred into the ball. I know I’ve caught it well because I don’t feel a thing as I strike through it. Utterly drained and yielding to momentum, I fall forward with the shot. I hear the shrill hiss as the ball charts a path to destiny. Lifting my face from the ground to track its flight, I see it just nick the goalkeper’s outstretched fingertip. Enough to alter its path? Hard to say.
And so I watch. And I wait.