The new season has started. And it’s going to be a little harder than I anticipated. The challenge is due to switching to midfield. I don’t have enough power on my shot and the defenders seem to get younger and faster every year. More importantly, I’m willing to pass the ball to our star striker, something too many of our mids simply would not do last year.
So, for the first game of the year, I’m not only the second-oldest man on the team, but I’m sick, I’m playing a new position, and, I discover, we have no substitutes. Anything else? Oh, right, here comes the International. By International, I mean the former professional player who used to play for the national team. He’s just a little better than I am, in much the same way the Sun is a little larger than the Earth. But he’s a good guy, teases me a bit about the highly improbable goal I scored in our last meeting, and welcomes me to their field, which I’ve never seen before.
It starts off all right. Their left wing isn’t really following me back and I twice beat the left defender. Once I make a good pass back to the striker for a solid chance, the other time I slow down too much trying to decide whether to pass or shoot and the sweeper shows up to render the decision moot. Then Giorgio decides not to pass me a through ball when he’s just outside the box, but rips it and puts the ball in the lower corner instead. 1-0. Good decision, I think.
20 minutes in and although I’m playing well, I’m starting to breathe pretty hard. And cough. Suddenly, it seems like every time we lose the ball, I turn around and find myself 40 meters behind that bloody left wing. And the International has observed that I’m having trouble getting back, so they start attacking down the left with regularity. This is a problem, as behind me is the worst player on the team and he’s being forced to defend two whenever I get caught forward. I also make the wrong decision at least three times when faced with a choice between covering man or ball. Our sweeper lets me know he is unhappy with my decisions.
Somehow, we fend them off, despite a ten minute period where the ball barely gets out of our half. We make it to halftime, still leading 1-0.
The coach can see I’m in trouble, as when I’m not running, I’m doubled over, apparently trying to cough up a lung. I also spend most of halftime on one long coughing jag. He tells me to stop worrying about getting forward and focus on defense. We line up for the second half and I see they’ve got a fresh left wing, and even worse, he’s frisky, bolting diagonally every time it looks like the ball might come anywhere near. It’s going to be a long 45 minutes.
He’s much quicker off the block than me, although I can match his top speed once I get going. So, I pull out an American football trick out of the bag, namely, the cornerback’s 5-yard chuck. I stay close on him, and every time he starts to bolt, he gets a little bump to accompany his first step. Nothing the ref will call, but it’s enough to disrupt him. Pretty soon, he’s furious, complaining about me grabbing his shirt – not at all true – and about how I’m knocking him off the ball, which is, in fact, the case. They try four straight attacks down the side, trying to wear me out, but after the last one, when I take him down hard with a slide tackle right as he thought he’d gotten past me, he decides he’s had enough and takes himself out for a break.
The next guy is even faster and burns me the first time, but he’s less frisky and easier to anticipate. We almost get a goal against the run of play, but it just goes wide. I should have been there on the far post to clean up, but I’m a good 50 meters behind. The first guy comes back in, then the second guy. He’s still angry, so I laugh at him and give him a Dikembe Mutombo finger wag the first time I shut him down again. At this point, I’ve decided I will kill him or die trying before I let him past me and he seems to suspect as much.
We survive until the 75th minute when we finally crack. One defender crashes into the back of another and takes him down, the other two defenders freeze, expecting a call, but the referee rightly shouts “play on”. One striker shoots, our keeper saves, but can’t hold onto the rebound and the other striker puts it in. 1-1.
The last 10 minutes is one corner kick after another. We fight them all off, but then a big central midfielder puts one in the upper corner from 25 meters out; there was nothing anyone could have done. They get one more to put us away 3-1; my only consolation is that, against all expectations, none of them were down to me. We shake hands. The International is a good sport and points out that we played them tough, we just ran out of gas.
I watch Ender play. His team loses too, by the same score, but he has a great game, bails out his keeper twice by clearing balls on the line, and although he gets beaten three or four times, he doesn’t make any mental mistakes. He reminds me a little of Jaap Stam; he is an imperious defender and what he lacks in speed he makes up for with power and patience. He’s in a good mood after the game; he knows they were beaten but they were not defeated. He’s beginning to understand the difference.