By Ali Raza
A reverent hush descends over all present. A boisterous crowd is reduced to whispers and silence. In a matter of seconds, they will either roar with jubilance or bewail a missed opportunity.
My legs feel wooden, laden with lactic-acid. I close my eyes and imagine my spirit soaring, if I can just pull this off. I’m staring at my opponent jumping up and down, poking faces at me and spreading his arms wide. I’ve got nothing to counter his psychological warfare except a cold, steely stare.
In my heart, I feel I’m an artist, but I’m tempted to go for a Hulk-smash. I try to give off an aura of composure and invincibility.
I’m as ready as I’ll ever be.
Before my run-up, I begin to feel the full weight of the occasion. My brain is completely fried trying to compute the best compromise between speed, accuracy, and power.
I settle on a speedy run and steam in full throttle with the fury of a lion hunting its prey.
Uncertainty kicks in, and I stop halfway through my run up. I’ve lost momentum and have to re-steady myself. I’m a professional, so why does this feel so much like a lottery?
I give the ball the most powerful wallop I can muster.
Thud! The horrible sound it makes as it ricochets off the goal post into no-man’s-land instead of the back of the net.
The stadium bursts into a collective moan and then becomes raucous.
I bend over while burying my face in my hands.
I’m making the arduous journey back to my teammates on the pitch. I can’t bear to make eye contact with anyone, scanning the crowd without focusing. But curiosity finally gets the better of me.
I see a young boy looking forlorn and broken, as though I’d stolen his youth from him. Tears mixed with red and white paint. Staring at him is like looking directly into the sun.
As I walk back, it hits me like a ton of bricks. Years of hard work and dedication will most likely be whittled down to an excruciating two-word legacy.
It’s not over yet. As I look on amidst my team, the opposition scores. An unbelievably dull and perfunctory strike for such a momentous occasion, but he got the job done.
We’re still in it.
If my teammate can score, and we end with a win, I can forget about this and move on. My miss will become a mere blip in an otherwise glorious triumph. If we lose, I will become one of the chief architects of our failure.
He’s stepping up to the mark. I feel his nerves vicariously, empathize with him, the same immense pressure I’d felt moments before tying us together. Every fiber in my body is rooting for him.
A quick run up. The kick. Keeper lunges. Keeper saves. My heart sinks as I feel the weight of an entire nation tumbling down onto my shoulders.
Their keeper stands up and struts across the pitch like a colossus, to be greeted and hugged by his ecstatic teammates.
I want to disappear into nothingness.
As the loss sinks in, I can hear the stadium reverberating with equal measures of jubilation and shock.
I’m looking for solace in my teammate who missed, the only other person in the entire stadium who could possibly feel my inner turmoil. Looking at his expression is like staring into a mirror. We embrace.
Shortly afterwards, I’m approached by my manager, who embraces me too.
“I’ve let everyone down, haven’t I?”
“Honestly mate, you’ve done us all proud,” he says, hand on my shoulder. “There’s no shame in doing your best and giving it your absolute all. I’m proud of you.”
His words of comfort offer me momentary refuge from the storm that is brewing in the stadium.
My captain is the last person to offer me his condolences.
“We’d never have got to the final pal if it wasn’t for you.”
“I should have scored,” I intervene.
“Chin up,” he grins. “Shit happens in this game, and you were in it to win it; that’s what counts the most.”
It’s the big brother chat I need to face this torrid moment.
As I leave the pitch to drift out of the limelight into a sweaty dressing room, I can hear some fans jeering at me. The ones with callousness in their hearts have crawled out of the woodwork. Only a few moments ago they were cheering me on; now they’ve turned against me.
“Sod off back to your multi-million pound mansion, you eejit.”
“You’re not worthy of your country’s flag.”
“Stay on the bench, you rip off.”
They can be as fickle as they like, and they can criticize my performance, but when they get personal, it hurts to the core.
Before I disappear, I see a young girl donning a T-shirt with my face emblazoned across it. She is smiling at me. I feel a glimmer of hope that turns into a wave of determination.
I won’t let the haters get to my inner peace. I need to build a fortress around it.
I promise myself and my real fans this. I’ll be back next season, Phoenix-like, with renewed zeal.