Tunde walked to the centre line and stood opposite Kazeem, his longtime rival and sworn enemy. He nodded curtly and faced the referee, a short balding man, plump and with an elfish face. It was time for the coin toss.
‘’heads’’ he called, like he always did.
The coin was tossed. He followed it with his eyes as the coin ascended and stayed still for a moment before it began its descent and landing with a small thump on the palm of the referee. He smiled. The head was facing up, and glittering as it caught the ray of the sun.
Aspire FC would start the kick off, playing from right to left. He gathered the other players together and gave last minute instructions on the play they had practiced. It was a very important match, the most important even. He and the coach had spent hours watching clips of previous matches played by their rival and had mapped out a strategy to outwit them. They were sure the opponent had done the same and had changed their game. Confidence FC was in for a rude shock.
He dismissed the players and they all took up their positions and he and the centre forward, stayed at the centre circle, the ball beneath his right foot. He smiled as he noticed that Jeremiah the centre forward had tucked out his jersey. Before any game, the coach always insists that every player tuck in their jersey into their shorts before stepping out to the pitch of play, and every time, Jeremiah will tuck out once on the field of play. He was tense today, Tunde observed. A lot was expected of him today. From both of them.
Tunde closed his eyes and allowed the noises from the stands wash over him. The supporters’ club were already blaring their horns and cheering. Some were chanting his name, and that brought a hint of a smile to his face. He felt excited and inhaled deeply. He was pumped and ready for action. He loved the game- the excitement, anticipation and the adrenaline rush. He was ready to deliver, and lead his team to victory, like he had always done.
He was in the best form of his life. Twenty three goals in twenty matches and six assists, topping both the highest goal and assists chart. In two months, his contract at the club would be due for renewal and his agent was going to ask for double his present wages and he was sure it would happen.
He opened his eyes just in time for the whistle to blow signifying the start of the match. He tapped the ball to Jeremiah and moved a few steps forward ready to receive the ball back. Just as the ball reached his right foot, an opponent charged towards him. He faked a move to the right while pushing the ball to his left foot and moving the ball forward. The crowd roared in applause.
He sped forward towards the left flank, and hearing the footsteps of two defenders behind him. He sighted the right winger on the far right, waving frantically at him, and a cursory glance towards the goal post told him that there were two defenders in the 18 yard box. He sent a long pass towards the winger, the ball making a half circle in its path and landing right in front of the winger, who ran with it towards the 18 yard box. The crowd was animated and the tempo of the music intensified.
The striker reached the 18 yard box and was blocked by two defenders. He paused for a moment and moved the ball to his left leg. He is not going to make it, Tunde thought as he raced towards the box.
‘’over here’’ he shouted to the striker. Receiving the pass, he stood waiting for the defenders to charge towards him and signaling to the striker to move deeper into the box. The first of the defenders charged him and he pulled the ball back with his right leg. The defender had stretched his right leg forward by then and Tunde seeing his chance, tapped the ball in between the player’s leg delivering a low ball towards the striker. Once the striker received the ball, he played a low shot towards the goalkeeper’s left falling down in the process. It was a goal.
Things were going according to plan. The strategy was to score an early goal thus destabilizing the opponent and forcing the opponent to play to their own game pattern instead. The opponents were known to play a fast paced game, but the plan was to slow the game down and frustrate them. It was working. The first half saw the opponents having no concrete attempt at goal and managing just three weak shots played straight into the keeper’s hands.
Confidence FC started the kick off for the second half. Whatever the coach told them during the break seemed to be working as their game changed. Their passing accuracy increased and they displayed more confidence on the ball. For the next five minutes, they had the ball possession and did not make any attempt at moving towards the goal post. They had their opponents, Aspire FC running in circles, and soon they began to tire.
Kazeem, their skipper received a pass from the centre midfielder and raced forwards down the middle towards Aspire FC’s half. A quick leg over and he beat two players that charged him. His jaw line was set in a determined line. Tunde yelled for the players to fall back, and charged towards Kazeem. He had watched Kazeem play severally and knew all his moves.
Kazeem tapped the ball forward with his right foot and feinted a move to the right. Tunde stood his ground and kept his eyes on the ball. Seeing the ball leave Kazeem’s foot, he thrust his right leg forward but Kazeem recovered and dragged the ball backwards and seeing his chance tapped the ball in between Tunde’s legs and ran behind him to recover the ball.
Tunde blinked, not believing what had just happened. He had been outwitted with the cheapest trick in the books. Angry, he charged after Kazeem and attempted a sliding tackle from behind, just outside of the box. His legs missed the ball but connected to Kazeem’s ankle, bringing him down. There was a cry of outrage from the crowd, and the referee’s whistle stopped the play. Kazeem rolled on the floor, with his left knee flexed and his hands gripping his ankle, groaning.
Kazeem’s team mates rushed to the scene and formed two groups. One group hurdled around their skipper while the second group gathered round Tunde and were shouting at him and one or two players made to assault him, pushing him on the chest. The fight was broken by the referee as he arrived the scene and stood in between the two teams blowing his whistle repeatedly. When a resemblance of order was restored, he put his hands into his pocket and brought out a red card and flashed it at Tunde pointing towards the sidelines.
Tunde stood dazed while a fresh outburst erupted from his team mates as they tried to protest the referee’s decision. He was still in shock as a team mate escorted him off the pitch and made his way to the dressing room. He didn’t even remember to hand over his captain’s band until the coach called out to him. This is a nightmare, he kept repeating it over and over in his head.
A free kick was awarded just outside the 18 yard box and was taken by Kazeem. It was perfect. It sailed over the wall and entered the top right hand corner out of the reach of the goalkeeper, who anticipated the direction of the ball.
Aspire FC struggled to curtail the onslaughts of their opponents playing with a man down, having no real attempt at goal. In the ninetieth minute of the game, a chance came to seal the day. Aspire’s goalkeeper played a long goal kick forward that found the right winger on the far side of the right flank. He was unmarked and he sprinted forward with two opponents hard on his heels. He kept running towards the corner flag, his intention was clear. Just at the corner line, he gave a low cross towards the centre of the goal post. A header from the left winger sent the ball to the right side of the goal post.
The crowd erupted in a cheer, and the stadium reverberated with shouts of ‘’goal!’’ but was stunned into silence as the ball sailed over the goal post, shoved by the tip of the goalie’s fingers. The striker who headed the ball had his hands suspended in midair as he had been about to start celebrating and his jaw hung open. It was practically impossible for any goalie to save such a header and most do not even attempt to save it. The goalkeeper lay sprawled on the floor following the save and his team mates thronged him. He had done the impossible.
A corner was awarded thereafter but was easily parried by the goal keeper, and sent into the centre by the defender. It found Kazeem in the centre circle and he raced forwards towards Aspire’s goal post. A counter attack. He ran towards the right and had just one defender to beat to get to the keeper, and it was easy. Now he was running towards the goal post with only the goal keeper to beat.
The keeper hesitated for a moment before rushing forwards towards Kazeem and lunged for the ball. Kazeem anticipating the move chipped the ball over the keeper’s shoulder and the whole stadium went deadly quiet.
The ball dropped some few metres from the goal line and made its way slowly into the net, after bouncing a few times. The goalkeeper turned his head from where he lay on the floor and watched as the ball crawled into the net, powerless to do anything.
A loud noise erupted from the crowd as the ball shook the net. Emotions soared, ranging from elation to indignation and sadness. Kazeem pulled his jersey and ran to the corner flag and waved at the fans, pumping his fists in the air. Confidence FC had won, their first victory over Aspire FC in five years. A victory that earned them the title right in Aspire FC’s home ground.
Tunde blinked and shook his head to clear it. The referee was about to toss the coin and was waiting for him to make a call.
“He-“, He paused and cleared his throat. “Tail” he called, his first ever.