Beating the bete noire

When we read blogs, especially for a long period of time, we tend to assume that we know the writer pretty well and that we have a pretty good grasp of who they are, what drives them, and what is important to them.  And that is at least partially true, but it’s important to keep in mind that one is only seeing what the writer permits them to see.

Perhaps that is an exaggerated, idealized picture of what he truly is, or perhaps it is merely one particular facet of a multi-faceted life.  In either case, the picture we have is at the very least distorted, if not entirely false.

For example, some people have concluded from my regular posts on McRapey that I must care a great deal about the mutual antipathy that has flared up between us. He’s running his little charity operation and has taken full ownership of his Gamma Rabbit persona, I’ve recorded a song with the Pink Rabbit Posse and held up my end of the bargain – perhaps whoever is tracking the donation count for Mr. Scalzi could let me know how many more mentions I have to go before we reach the magic 200 mark that denotes the limits of his charity.  But this is actually little more than one of those blog things that flares up from time to time, runs its course, and so on.  Just as no one accuses me of being obsessed with Me So Michelle anymore, in another nine years nearly everyone will find it hard to recall the name of that science fiction writer with the rabbit rape thing.

Anyhow, the point is that while I have had a bete noire for the last 12 months, it hasn’t been McRapey.  It hasn’t been PZ Myers, or Sam Harris, or anyone else about whom I have written in copious detail.  And yet, I have seen this man when I close my eyes far too many times to count, I repeatedly kick myself for what I did, and what I failed to do on the occasions when I have confronted him, and I replay our various encounters over and over and over again in my mind.

Who is he, this black beast who haunts my nights?  He isn’t a figment of my imagination, he is real, all too real.  He is about 6’2″, late thirties, balding with black hair, a slight paunch, a wide body, and arms that are, at first glance, approximately eight feet long.  He’s strong, but with the thick strength of a manual laborer, not the pumped-up muscles of the weightlifter.

He is the keeper for A Blue, the friendlier of our two main rivals in the soccer league.  I am told he is generally considered to be the best in the league. I don’t know his name. I hate him.

Now, the chances are that he is, like the rest of his team, a very good guy.  They are great sports, they are always amicable, they don’t take cheap shots, and there is a good deal of mutual respect between our two teams.  We are the two-time defending champions while they finished third both years; this year they are in first place and we are struggling in fifth.  Veterans teams are always particularly vulnerable to injuries; I’ve gone from being the fifth option up front to being the number two striker in two years and not as a result of my own merit.

At the end of last season, we had the championship already sewn up, but wanted to close it out on a winning note against them.  The game was tied, 0-0, in the last minute of the game when an attacking defender flicked a header past the defensive line and set me up for a shot inside the area. I broke on the ball and aimed for the upper left corner, but at the last minute, saw the keeper was moving fast to his right, so I tried to change my shot and go upper right.  But my left foot was already moving forward, so the result was that I double-clutched and popped up a weak blooper that he caught without even having to move.  It was worse than pathetic.  It was a grade A choke job.  Everyone told me it was okay.  No one criticized me.  But there were a lot of pained expressions and heads shaking back and forth.  Mine included.

Last fall, we played them at home.  We were losing, 1-0.  Again, in the very last minute of the game, I blew past the defense and broke on a ball passed through by our central midfield.  This time it was on my right. I saw the space the keeper was giving on his left and I didn’t hesitate, I blasted it about chest level just inside the right post.  I knew I’d hit it right.  Only somehow, that damnable keeper dove to his left, extended his gorilla arms, and barely got the tip of a single finger on the ball.  It wasn’t much, but it was just enough to redirect the ball onto the post.  Six inches higher, he can’t reach it. Six inches lower, he doesn’t have a prayer. It doesn’t matter. The whistle blew before we could even take the corner kick.

Two games, two excellent chances, and twice he stoned me.  Twice, I let my team down.  This is the sort of thing that keeps me up at night.

Last night was the first game of the season’s second half.  We were away at their place. We knew going in that we were probably going to lose, as our number one striker and our field general were both on vacation.  But we played them tough, and we even had them worried when my Dutch friend hit the crossbar with a header on a corner kick.  Unfortunately, I blew an easy opportunity by not playing for the rebound because I thought it was going in. 

Although I very badly wanted to score, and the team needed me to score since I was the number one striker by default, I took myself out of the game after the first 20 minutes.  My hamstring was tight, I wasn’t running well, and although I hadn’t lost a single ball, I wasn’t in sync with the midfielders at all.  But without me, our attack faltered and we were coming under continuous pressure, so the coach and I reached the same conclusion at the same time and I went back in with about 20 minutes left in the second half.

That turned the possession game around again, as my runs against their tired defense opened up more space for our midfielders and our defenders started pushing farther up the field.  We started creating some chances, but we just couldn’t finish them.  Then we fell behind 1-0 after their best player beat three of our guys in succession,
hit the crossbar, and their striker was alert enough to follow it in
and clean up the garbage. Right about then, the weather turned brutal, as the wind picked up and a very cold rain that was practically sleet started pouring down on us.  It was the coldest I’ve ever been on a soccer field, and I’ve played on October nights in Minnesota.

Despite the freezing downpour, we kept attacking. It was the only way to stay warm. I blew past their right defender twice, but my first pull-back pass was intercepted and the second time my fellow striker tried to control the ball rather than taking a first-time shot and ended up losing the ball.  Then I tried to flick a header rather than meeting it squarely on a corner – I’m dreadful in the air – and it went wide by about ten feet.

It looked like we were going down to defeat when one of our defenders hit a hard, long pass from about 30 meters away.  Our midfielder slid for it, but missed, and his effort caused the right defender to miss the ball as well.  I ran onto it just inside the box and hit it without thinking, without even looking to see where that damn keeper was.  I could feel it was going in as soon as I hit it; one of my teammates told me afterwards that the keeper didn’t even move.  1-1.  We barely made it back to the circle before the whistle blew.  One shot, one goal. It was the only shot I’d taken all game.

The keeper knows me.  When we shook hands, he said something about how I always wait until the last minute to pester him.  I told him that as far as I was concerned, the score was now 2-1.  He laughed.  It’s on.  It is definitely on. He is winning, but I’m not seeing that blooper or that post anymore.  Now I’m seeing the ball smack soundly into the back of the net. I’m feeling that solid, unmistakable “thunk” as my foot hits it perfectly. Over and over and over again.

That was my seventh goal of the season, and with any luck, I should have my first double-digit scoring season since I played for Nike in my late 20s.  I’m incredibly grateful that I’m still able to play at my advanced age, that I’m still able to contribute to my team, that I’m still able to feel that incredible rush when you put the ball in the net and your teammates come running towards you to celebrate it. But I’m already looking forward to next season, when I’ll get the chance to even the score.  And I’d happily donate a thousand dollars to McRapey’s charities myself if that would somehow buy me a pair of goals to take the lead in that next game.