60 seconds before full time :
The score-board reads 1-1. One minute of injury time left to play. The substitute steps up to take the corner. He is only there because the first choice right-back, Richard’s good friend Lloyd, went down 5 minutes ago under a reckless challenge from the opposition midfielder.
Three more minutes of holding the fort, and it would be penalties. But now Richard’s team had the chance to score the goal and win the tie.
The crowd is roaring for them, “GO Pirates.” Right now they have a chance to cause the biggest upset this competition has ever seen in its glorious history. The Pirates are a rag tag team of individuals, with minuscule financials compared to the Goliath of the footballing world. Today, in Richard’s last match as a professional footballer they have a chance to rewrite the history books.
Facing them is the most famous team in football. Millions of fans all around the world, superstars in every position of the pitch, massive budgets and media spends. This team is one of the biggest brands in football. And they are undoubtedly the best team on planet.
But today, the pirates have out played them in every area.
A sea of black shirts are behind them, with the pirate flag waving high in the air, pushing them on.
The manager has decided to even call the goalkeeper up for this corner.
It’s all or nothing now.
The substitute places the ball on an angle and then runs up the slightly elevated outfield to take the corner.
45 seconds before full time :
It is an in swinger, stuck with the perfect amount of power and lift. The eyes of the 22 players on the field, the two dugouts and the seventy two thousand three hundred and seventy three people in attendance is glued to the ball. The ball looms high and remains suspended in the air, and during that time Richard could hear the sound of a thermos cup falling from the hands of a transfixed audience member, he could feel the labored breaths of the 16 exhausted players crowded inside the penalty area.
The ball remains suspended in the air for what feels like eternity. It is during such times of great tension that Richard; or as all his friends, family, and fans called him, Rick; feels a sensation akin to what people feel on their deathbed. Every moment, every goal, every tackle and every red card, every scolding he ever received from the coach in those hellish training session, all of them pass right by Rick’s eyes.
All that while, the ball remains suspended high up in the air.
Long enough for Rick to remember all his years playing for the same club. Loyalty. The domestic cups and the glory.
And the heartbreaks. Coming close to winning the league those three years.
It is heartbreaks that Rick reminisces the most as the ball remains suspended high up in the air. This run in the biggest cup competition has been the greatest achievement in Rick’s storied career. If they can pull it off, Rick will go down as the greatest player in his club’s history.
And then the ball drops.
All the 16 players crowded inside the box jump in unison. From the trajectory Rick judges that the ball is headed straight for him. Or maybe not. Maybe the striker jumping right behind him has a better chance to head it home.
But that is what football is all about.
Making the right decision at the right time.
And Rick has already made one. He is the tallest among them all, but someone from opposition holds him down by the shoulder. Still he rises, high enough for the ball to brush past the naked skin of his head which modifies it’s trajectory just a little bit.
The ball heads straight for the bottom right corner. Rick almost celebrates, but then goalkeeper clears it on the line.
30 seconds before full time :
Everyone all pounce on the loose ball, but the opposition is quicker. They make a pass towards their young winger standing just outside the box. He is their next Stefano. And since there is no one standing between him and Rick’s own goal, defeat looks imminent.
The young winger goes for his sprint. In his professional career spanning 20 years, Rick has never gone down without a fight. And he wasn’t gonna go down without one tonight. He begins his own run for interception fighting through the pain his exhausted body was in.
There is no strength left in his drained legs. Running purely on adrenaline, he tries his best to catch the 21 year old. Rick actually admired the guy a lot, would have loved to play someday alongside a generational talent like this kid from Nepal.
Rick runs like he would run away from his maker if they ever gave him a chance. By the time the opposition no. 7 reached the halfway mark, he was only 5 yards behind him.
15 seconds before full time :
It is almost time. Rick doesn’t need to see a clock to know that. All these years, playing those big games in those legendary stadiums, the roar of the crowd echoing in the head, either of hate or of love, in those big moments time slowed done. Enough for a person to keep track of how quickly it actually passes by outside these few moments of tension.
But the referee hasn’t blown the whistle yet. And he will not till this attack is going down. Moments later he catches up to the young winger.
Once again, it came down to making the right decision at the right time.
10 seconds before full time :
If he timed his tackle correctly, he can cleanly sweep the ball away from behind the legs of the young Jaguar. At this pace, he doesn’t expect that his counterpart will be able to do much about the tackle. But he has to get it right in one go. If he misjudges the tackle, it’s over.
Or he can push the other guy. As simple as that. At most he would get a red card, and the opposition will receive a direct free kick. But at that distance, Rick believed that there is no threat to the goal, with the keeper back to manning his post. And they won’t have time for another attack. It is an highly unethical way, but circumstances and the loopholes in the law make it the simpler of the two choices. The easy choice.
And that is the reason he is not going to pick it. This is the last match of his entire career, and he will not go down in the legends as a cheat, a spoilsport, a player with no ethical code.
He is going to take the hard path.
As Rick is about to lunge his stronger left foot forward for the tackle, the No. 7 playing for the best football team on the planet shoots for the goal from more than 50 yards.
5 seconds before full time :
It’s a screamer.
Rick slides, but his eyes are somewhere else. All the voices, all the noise, all senses, all the peripheral vision has turned off. All he can see is a football heading straight for the back of his team’s net.
This time it doesn’t take an eternity for it to reach the target.
It’s over in the blink of an eye. He collapses on the ground as the back of his left shoe tears the Achilles of his nemesis, and remains that way amidst all the confusion and the din.
And then they come and pick him up.
5 hours after full time :
The torn Achilles will keep the guy out for at least 7 months. Nobody says it is Rick’s fault. He went for a clean tackle, the opposite guy changed the stance at the last moment.
It was probably the reason of Rick’s impassive face when the reporters told him about this in the press conference.
The opposition still celebrated their victory. They were going to have a grand parade in Madrid tomorrow.
There will be no parade for Rick’s team. They will be given a hero’s welcome, being in the final itself was a huge achievement. They were underdogs for the whole of tournament. The financial benefits which the club will reap even in loss is more than their entire transfer budget. But they will always be remembered as fallen heroes.
A somber, tearful ceremony will announce Rick’s departure from the game. Everyone already knew it was coming.
Everyone is getting onto the team bus. They have an early morning flight to catch. Rick’s phone buzzes while he is about to step into the bus.
“Hello.” He speaks in his gruffly voice.
“The wire transfer for the $15 million was processed from our end as soon as the game ended. They tell me it has been confirmed now. Thanks for today, you played your part well. Although I’m sorry for your team.”
And by the way Richard, Happy retirement.”
“Thank You.” he cuts the call.
“Who was it?” The assistant coach asks him as he boards the bus.
“Insurance guy. It was about my retirement policy.” he replies.
They will probably still erect a statue of him in front of the stadium.
But statues don’t pay the bill.