The ball rolled to my feet at average speed, and with high prospects, I expertly controlled it to a stop. I looked up and there was Obi, the burly central defender, charging at me, trying to decipher my next move with the ball. His breath came in short sharp gasps and could be mistaken for one that had been working out hard in the gymnasium. One weapon I had which I used to full advantage was my lanky frame which defenders thought they could always intimidate, but it turned out they were always wrong, and this case was not going to be an exception. I had already pictured in my mind how he would fall to my most usual ploy, and he had suffered similarly twice in my hands today already.
He got to inches of me, and I made a fake, quick show of shooting the hard round leather in his face, to which he instinctively ducked. In that split second, his thickset, bowed legs had opened sufficiently to accommodate the ball, and I pushed it into, and past him that instant. It was a move that could not be resisted, nine times out of ten. Since he was almost on the ground, I jumped over him effortlessly, raced to meet my ball, and came face to face with my last obstacle: Didi the goalkeeper.
He rushed two inches forward and spread his hands while dancing like a large chimpanzee getting ready for his next leap, spreading his hands as if it would suffice the five-metre length of the goal-mouth. I chose my angle well, decided on it, but it was not to be. The last I heard was hard thumping of feet behind me before my right foot became entangled with my left, and I fell.
‘Penalty! Penalty!’ was echoed from all corners, amidst cheers. Yes! This hat-trick was complete at last! My head swelled.
Quickly, I conferred with my fellow strikers, and we came to an agreement that I was to be the executor since it was my move anyway.
I collected the ball, rolled and tweaked it expertly before staring hard at the sky. As my face was descending, my lips landed on the ball in a diabolic kiss, and I would have savoured it for longer, had I not remembered it had been picked and washed from a nearby gutter just some thirty minutes ago. I placed it firmly on the penalty spot, and I was already ten inches from it two seconds later. I watched Didi. He was ruthless and had a reputation with penalty spot-kicks. He belonged to the class of goalkeepers that tended their zones with everything in them, and he was without scruple when it came to securing the goalpost. He was using that trick I knew only too well-staring me deep in the eyes, then at the ball, to and fro, all the while remaining stationary as if I had the entire span of the net to myself. Anyone who was deceived by this was sure going to be the worse for it, for it gave him ample time to note the directions of both the leg, and the ball, and he once caught a kick like that, with a single hand. I had long taken note of that part of him.
I began to frustrate him, and hesitated, even after the referee’s whistle had authorised me to do my job.
When I took the kick he went one way, the ball another. I don’t even know how I did it, but the net shook anyhow. There were cheers and screams everywhere, as I ran to my half, accompanied by my fellow strikers Ike and Raul, to await the kick-off.
In the next ten minutes, passes were flogged and flung, circulating the entire perimeter of the pitch, courtesy of our high-wired and coordinated play. A cross and a header some minutes later, the score had become 4-3, the last goal coming from Lekky, our central defender. The referee’s whistle signalling the end of the training session sounded, and I was happy with myself. I had ended my two-week goal drought and had done it in style.
Boots in hand, I was strolling leisurely towards the end of the pitch, and in the approaching dusk, I made out the image of a woman who had stayed put, even after everyone had left, or were preparing to leave. It looked like she was trying to hide something, and as I took three more steps forward, I stopped short.
‘Mekoyo, wetin happen?’ Femi asked.
The jerry can!
The gatemen had already shut three of the five entrances into the pitch, and she knew there would be eventually one exit route, and she watched Mallam Sani shut the fourth entrance. What the woman was hiding proved to be that horsewhip I dreaded, and always put me in check. I knew the field like the back of my hand and toyed with either the idea of scaling one of the high fences or losing myself in the milling crowd jostling for the only available entrance. I chose the former, and it paid me. Whether she saw me or not didn’t matter at this point.
I had returned from school at roughly two o’clock, eaten, and was disturbingly told by my mum we needed water in the house. In my mind, there was no stopping me from training that afternoon, which I had already missed, but since I feared that whip, which she was wont to employ should I fail, I had grudgingly engaged the services of our large jerry can, and headed for the tap a little distance from the house.
The queue I saw there was frustratingly long, and there were hordes of people who would rather not join the queue, forcing their way to the water supply which looked like it was becoming depleted. I dropped the jerry can resignedly at the end of the queue, having neither strength nor will to join in circumventing the line.
There was a tap on my shoulder. I didn’t turn at first; I was too engrossed in my anger at missing today’s session. The coach had been emphatic about his threat. Missing the U-15 list for my district on account of forfeiting training that day was enough disaster to spoil one’s day. It came again, but this time with a shout deep into my ears. It tingled my eardrums and jolted me promptly.
‘Mekoooooooos! How far now?’ It was Femi, the most sought-after midfielder in Dako. I always associated with the best legs in the round leather game, and their influence had rubbed off on me in no small way, turning me from nothing to one of the most enviable strikers around. He was due to travel to Turkey in three weeks. He had been invited for trials at the feeder team of Galatasaray.
‘What are you doing here? Are you not supposed to be warming up? Don’t you know the team is counting heavily on you?” he asked, watching my face ooze of dejection, as I sat on my jerry can, chin in hand.
‘Femoo, see me o. Today of all days, eh? I don’t need to explain to you what I am doing here, you can see for yourself. In case you don’t know, I was sent to fetch water. Which kain thing be dis?’
‘That can be worked out. The way I see this line, it will not get to your turn in the next two hours. You can always leave it in someone’s care, and go enjoy yourself’, he put in.
My face brightened. Why hadn’t I thought about this all this while? To ginger me further, he added, ‘Today’s session has been shifted forward to three o’clock, or didn’t you know? So you can always finish on time and return to fetch your water.’
I had quickly gotten home, crept in through the back door, extracted my good-luck-charm Nike boots, complete with hose and shin guard, and met Femi at our agreed spot before we raced to the field. Nababa, the coach, motioned us to jog round the field in a warm-up fitness test as soon as he sighted us. This took fifteen minutes, and we were then allotted our traditional positions and halves of the field, for the kick-off.
I used the joystick on the pad to give Roberto Carlos my favourite stunt-dribble, and he slid in vain towards the ball, only to end up hitting the metal advert bar by the touchline, owing to his enormous speed. By the aid of the same joystick, I guided Ronaldinho, my favourite playmaker, into executing his signature leg-over more than five times before clearly beating Patrice Evra and laying a through ball to Iniesta, amidst loud cheers from the TV set, and from hangers-on around the arcade. Miffed by my apparent upper hand, Femi deliberately swayed his hands to hit mine, and in that momentary loss of concentration, Rio Ferdinand forcefully swept the ball off my attacker’s foot. The lousy referee did not even award me a free kick, even though it was close enough to make a case for a penalty.
I glared at Femi. He giggled and shifted some inches from my wrath. I liked him, so my anger cooled off in no time. In the end, he had replied my two goals and added his winner.
‘’So for your mind now you go say you don win now abi? I quipped as we strolled out of the hall.
‘Wetin the scoreline talk?’ he answered.
‘How you take get the scoreline? Cheating abi?’’
‘’Wetin you dey do wen I cheat you?’’
I couldn’t answer that. He knew he had me there. If I had concentrated, the distraction wouldn’t have mattered, but I had allowed it. This was one of the subtle lessons he always tried to pass across each time we were together, and that made him invaluable to me. Even though we were roughly peers, his approach to life and survival was much more on a mature note than mine. While I was impatient, vain and gave up easily, he was patient, perseverant and persistent, on and off the pitch. What endeared him to me was that he was never caught up in the pleasures and scandals that held most footballers like a vice, and, it was seriously paying off for him. Liking it, I vowed I must pursue my career in like manner.
‘’IF NO BE SAY I KNOW YOU, I FOR WASH YOU THE SLAP WEY I RECEIVE YESTERDAY!’’ Someone said behind me, gripping my hand tightly. It was Baba, my look-alike.
(Watch out for conclusion of Ike’s addiction story next week.. You wouldn’t believe how this captivating story ends!! Meanwhile, you can read other short stories like “through the sand of time” “All for me” and “Through white eyes“)