Final Two

by maxabramson

“GO-O-O-O-AL!”  Coach Richard Donovan watched the scoreboard hit 2-0, as the American team’s chance of winning even a bronze medal vanished before his eyes.  The stadium arose with a hundred thousand wild, cheering Colombians.  Their premature celebrations were deafening and heartbreaking at the same time.  Worse, his Left Forward had been hit–kicked, to be fair–and was now being pulled from the field on a stretcher.

“Let me play,” Danfield Iscandar insisted from the bench.  Donovan faced the field motionless and unresponsive, standing like a noble king losing his whole army on the field.  Iscandar hadn’t set foot on the field all year, let alone during the Olympic games.  He’d never had much of a reputation, and other players simply didn’t kick the ball to him anymore, except in practice where it was mandatory. “Let me play,” he repeated, staring at the back of the coach’s head.  Now in his early 30’s, he was facing an involuntary retirement… at least, once a new prospect finished school, which was soon.

Years of training, sacrifices, lost time with family, and many missed lucrative career opportunities as a state university coach had been dashed, all to be lost in this moment.  Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose… he remembered the famous line from one of his favorite songs as a kid.  There was no one else available.  At least, no backup players who could handle a forward position. “Awright,” the coach replied without another word.  The fans knew as well as anyone that the game was simply over, and the small Latin American country would be challenging Britain for the Gold.

Iscandar crossed the field to his once familiar Left Forward position, the only player with a bright, clean uniform.  It felt exhilarating and nostalgic at the same time, like a ship’s captain retaking his old chair, dusting off the armrests and reliving old voyages.  With some casual mention and mispronunciation from the announcer, the game was back on.  Throngs of screaming fans continued to yell exuberantly, apparently unaware or unconcerned that a man was being sent to the hospital for stitches.

A long shot from the American Center placed the ball squarely in the Colombian goalie’s hands.  Sensing weakness in the apparently dazed and inexperienced Left Forward, he threw the ball only a few yards infield to the center, playing defensively and calling more of his teammates close in.  With an unrestrained sprint, Iscandar caught up with them in a second, striking the ball so hard that Donovan almost thought that he could feel the impact in his chest.  The soccer ball struck the net so quickly that no one knew how to react.  The American fans who’d been mulling through a losing game for an hour were now at least relieved that their team at last had a point on the scoreboard.

The Colombians, of course, would not chance another lucky strike.  The long time favorite had been preferred team even before the fireworks laden opening ceremonies.  For the first time, the Gold Medal seemed certain, and nothing was being left to chance.

Somehow, with 1:32 left on the clock, the game was tied with one amazing bicycle kick from out of nowhere.  It was Iscandar again.  It hadn’t even been from left field, but from the right.  Sweat already covering his brow and wetting his white shirt, the replacement was filling Center, leaving Left Forward unattended.  The Colombian coach began yelling at his team in Spanish.  They knew what was at stake, and their unbroken string of wins would be saved with one of their trademark last minute goals.

Tension built within the stadium.  This man had been a complete unknown, and now his two points would be international news.  The announcer merely read back the recent facts, but was clearly realizing that this would be the top story worldwide, regardless of the outcome.  How did one spell ‘i-s-c-a-m…’ he wondered, staring at the American jaguar, seeing him pacing back and forth on the field, unblinking and focused.

Colombia’s goalie knew that he had to kick the ball to center field, but as he made one large step to launch the ball, Iscandar was already sprinting back to the Center Circle, right between America’s midfielders.  A return from there, at least, would give ample time to block.  Colombia knew that they needed a quick goal to secure their hard fought win.  The Americans, they knew, had at least put up more of a fight than some of the previous teams that they’d sent packing.  A last minute win over the Americans might even bring renewed interest in their upcoming meet with Britain.

2-2 and the ball came directly center field with a powerful bunting sound.  Fans began standing immediately, silent, eyes stuck open as the ball sailed high into the air, coming down quickly.  Players responded, but too late.  Iscandar made an enormous J-stride across the circle and struck the ball with incredible force before it could even strike the ground.  Hands covered mouths from the risers just as the ball started to bend to the left and up, but the Colombian goalie was already moving ahead of it to prevent a true disaster.  The hard bend suddenly revealed its true intention: an even harder corkscrew.  Falling slightly, then pulling hard back to the right, it missed the goalie by yards, striking the net with a purpose.

In disbelief, Coach Donovan watched the scoreboard change to 2-3.  In realization, tears began to well up in his eyes, and a lump formed in his throat.  Adrenaline surged through his body, and he fell to the grass on his knees, unable even to look at the field.  Shock and elation struck his system at the same time.  Their brief lead seemed to justify all of the work, sacrifices, and risks that he’d taken to turn the American soccer team into a real contender.

The Colombians would make a sudden comeback, most knew without question, even with only 60 seconds left on the clock.  It was impossible for them to lose years of work in just two minutes, and to some player who could not even be fielded.  Was this even possible?  Down by one?  Wasn’t there some rule against this?  The odds-on favorite was now facing a possible loss, being out for the running.  The long time favorite for the Gold Medal in the Olympic games could potentially be out in less than one minute.

The goalie now made a strategic, long-range kick accompanied by a simultaneous, clearly prepared plan to move the entire Colombian team Right Field in an instant, outnumbering and overpowering the opposition in one small quadrant.  In a well rehearsed and orchestrated manuever, the world was now seeing why Colombia could field the best team on Earth.  Each stride seemed as well timed as any symphony orchestra.

In just three seconds, the American team was now at their mercy.  The lead could not possibly have lasted.  As though unabated by the laws of physics, a few quick passes had the ball near the American goalie, and the game was ready for a perfect, tie-winning kick from any of their forwards.  Tossed into the air like a baby seal by a great white shark, the regulation soccer ball came up and near the long centerline of the field, back down only twenty yards from the terrified American goalie.  Seconds slowly yielded by the clock, he knew that all of the blame of his countrymen, coach, teammates, and even long-shot sports betters would fall on his shoulders for having blown this once in a lifetime lead.  His hands and face pale, he watched the ball come back down ready for the perfect goal kick, with too much area to cover.

An incredible bicycle kick from the Colombian Center Forward spelled the end of their brief moment in the sun.  Having reached the far end of the field as quickly as the ball itself, Iscandar threw himself in the direction of the kick, the opposing player’s cleat striking his face–rather than a the ball–tearing his cheek wide open, but allowing the ball to bounce off the top of Iscandar’s head.

For what seemed the last time, the unknown player had saved this out-of-nowhere win by trading away his good looks for a Bronze Medal.  He had taken one for the team, and was now so dazed that he was merely in the way of other players.

The ball came down on his face, now covered in blood, falling onto the field in front of him, rolling away.  All sound was gone, and an oxygen-deprive euphoria took over.  The effort had not been in vain.  Two Colombian forwards saw their opportunity, and rushed toward the ball, one a single step ahead of the other.  Though the man’s bold attempt to save his team appeared doomed now, his valiant attempt would still be front page.  How would his bloodied face look on the front page of the Boston Globe?  Would women care that his precious good looks would be spoiled forever by this ignoble scar?

The Colombian Forward steadied the ball instantly, ready to put it into the American goal, tying the game up and even leaving room for a possible second goal, clinching the otherwise certain win.  Filled with adrenaline and euphoria, a thought–no, a plan–a grand plan–filled Iscandar’s mind.  It was perfect.  Picture perfect, even as he remained dazed from the impact.

The ball rolling toward him, he lunged forward into the Colombian player, perhaps to simply knock him down and throw the ball left back to American players.  With his first step landing, he saw Plan A evaporate, the Colombian player moving the ball further toward his own players on the right.  With nothing left to lose, Iscandar gave an unrestrained kick forward, striking the soccer ball just below dead center, sending it high–much too high to be  of any offensive use.  In fact, the ball now sailed downfield as though for a long field goal in American Football, much too high for a last minute goal.  Still, it had been strategically perfect.  The time wasted would force the Colombian team to race back downfield, giving the American players much needed time to surround, block, and corner their adversaries, locking up the rest of the field.

The fans and players alike watched as the ball sailed higher, certainly out of bounds.  Donovan instantly realized the effect.  Though the ball would go out of bounds, it would do so so close the opponents’ goal that there was now way that they could return it in time and set up for a series of goal kicks.  Donovan screamed a codeword command, ordering a move toward the Center Circle for a last minute formation.

All fans at their feet, unblinking and hearts pounding in their chest.  It was an unreal instant.  Time seemed to stop.  Donovan looked downfield to be sure that his team was forming the impenetrable “Wall” that he’d spent months preparing.  None were moving.  All were simply looking up into the sky, as if seeing a UFO appear over the field.

The ball was spinning with incredible speed.  In fact, it was curving downward, as though with no more desire to sail over the goal.  With time coming to a standstill, the Colombian goalie, still thinking about throwing the ball back in, suddenly realized that he was too far left to block what was coming.  Bending hard, it was coming back down like a curve ball from baseball.

“Ay mi dios…” the goalie mouthed quietly, darting hopeless toward the center of the goal.  As the ball struck the net, the scoreboard changed again, though not in the direction that they’d hoped.  Reading 4-2, with 52 seconds left, the realization had finally set in.  There was now no way that the South American team could recover.  A 4-2 loss to Argentina or Spain may have been acceptable, but now they were going to lose to America, never thought a serious contender until their previous win.

Kicking the ball out to right field, the goalie sent it away from Iscandar, who, nevertheless, reached the ball only seconds after it had bounced off the ground.  With another powerful kick, the blood-soaked American unknown sent it directly back into the goal, causing the net to react again before the goalie could reach the corner of the box.  The scoreboard changed again, to a shameful 5-2.

Now merely hoping to preserve some sense of dignity from their sudden loss, the goalie launched the ball one more time as far downfield as possible.  With less than 30 seconds left on the clock, he could count on his teammates to defend.  Perhaps a lucky goal would give them an acceptable 5-3 loss.

And it wasn’t meant to be.  After a few seconds of volleying, the ball came back from another of Iscandar’s powerful kicks, sailing back into the net for another point.  Pacing back and forth, Iscandar waited for the ball to reach the far right field before one of his teammates sent it back to the center.  A sudden kick from 20 yards out left no time for the goalie to move back.

Trying to overshoot the older, unknown player who’d upset their lead, the goalie sent the ball high up with a steep angle.  He realized his error as Iscandar sprinted full stride into the Center Circle, performing another bicycle kick, and sending the ball right back to goal.  The powerful kick bounced the ball right off the motionless goalie’s forehead, right back up into the net.  The goalie now simply held the ball, utterly hopeless, as the clock wound down to zero for a 2-7 loss.

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