“What’s bothering you?” Sameena asked.
“Huh, eh…nothing.” Bazid said.
“Can I join you tomorrow night?” She asked.
“Er….., I’m not sure. Actually….” he left the words hanging.
“What is it? Tell me, please. Is it about the match?”
“No, uh…, yes, you know how it is.”
“Look Baz, you and I both know that you have always done the best you could with this team. And you have taken it where you could. Its only one more match. Fretting over it won’t matter.”
“It’s far more than that, Sammy. You have been witness to the way I’ve always been judged and criticised, despite my best efforts.”
“I know, Baz. You should have been the one wearing the captain’s armband. Your contract should have been renewed. You ought to have been appreciated more by the fans. But all that is immaterial now. You have this moment in time to stamp your greatness and you will have it, believe me!”
“I don’t know, babe. I am too scarred to think clearly. All those losses, all those team meltdowns on the big stage…,” he sighed, “I am going for a shower. Call you later. Bye.” He cut the call.
Baz walked to the window of his hotel room and peeked from the blinds. The horizon was bright with the lights from the skyscrapers. There was a chill in the air despite the sun having shone bright all day. A huge crowd had gathered in the street with flags, banners, scarves and other memorabilia. They were chanting the team song. Baz stepped back. It was the same thing. And he was petrified of what the scenes would be like tomorrow if the team couldn’t win. The scars of the last big defeat were still fresh. His career too, depended a lot on this one match. If he failed, he knew the academy boy would take his place the next time the team assembled. This was it.
He mused on the tournament’s first match when their regular goalkeeper had to be stretchered off after tearing his ACL. Bazid was the backup ‘keeper as the team tried to move on from the disappointment of the past seasons. He was darn good, but not good enough to displace this kid. Not until the kid himself made sure he was replaced, jumping out of action for 14 months.
Bazid needed to grab his last lifeline with both hands, and boy did he! His saves were crucial in the semifinals against the reigning champions and odds-on favourites. But the pre-final matches had always been easy work for him. The problems had always surfaced in the summit clashes. And what ailed him? Why couldn’t he bring himself to perform at the level he was capable of? He had no idea!
He had even taken the help of a sports shrink. The advice seemed to work for the first few weeks. Then, it was back to old problems.
He recalled the attack on his house after the team had lost the last final. His daughter was harangued at her school. His lifestyle, his hard-partying, his flashy cars, all were offered as proof of his indifference. Even poor Sameena was abused by the fans and media and called a gold-digger and a bad omen for the team. He’d received death threats. She had to convince him otherwise as he contemplated retirement.
They were playing at their home stadium. The home fans, in a boisterous majority, were creating an infectious and thrilling atmosphere. The anxiety was palpable. For a team craving title glory for years, this was a huge chance.
The opposition team had a prolific three-pronged attack. Baz was nervous. Very nervous! He almost gifted a goal away in the fifth minute off a backheel but recovered in time. Growing in confidence, he made a couple of decent saves. His team had made its way to the final on the back of defensive solidity but it was proving tough to hold fort here. Time and time again, the opposition attacked and they were fortuitous to be able to hang on.
Uh-oh, running out of breath, but I
Oh, I, I got stamina
Uh-oh, running now, I close my eyes
Well, oh, I got stamina,
Don’t give up, I’won’t give up,
Don’t give up, no, no, no….
At full-time, the scoreline read 0-0. Off to the penalty shootout!
Baz walked over to the stands where Sameena was standing with their young daughter. As he kissed her, she spoke, “Papa, I know you will bring me the cup.” He smiled as he kissed her again and walked back.
The home team took first strike. The air was thick with tension.
After nine penalties, the score was 5-4 in favour of the home team. If Baz could save the last one, his team will be crowned winners.
Images flashed before his eyes — his first game, the demonstrations outside the stadium when they lost the final the first time, kissing Sameena for the first time, being awarded the best goalkeeper award, opening that death threat mail, his daughter crying all the way from school to home, looking at her face a while back. There were things he needed to feel and things he could let go.
I’m free to be the greatest, I’m alive,
I’m free to be the greatest here tonight…
He walked over to the goalpost and touched the woodwork. It didn’t matter what people said, it didn’t matter how he was perceived. The only thing that did was his effort. He had given this team his heart and soul. He had done his best.
Thirty seconds later, the stadium erupted in joy!
I love hearing from you. Do share your views in the comments. Featured text from Sia’s song “The Greatest.” Video here. Thanks for reading.