The truth is I have always been a very stubborn person and that was why against everybody’s advice that I should do what I always do during football matches- watching and cheering on my team- I joined my class football team that day. We were to play a friendly match (as if there was anything friendly between the two classes) with the SS 3B. SS 3B had already beaten us thrice that term and most annoyingly they had bundled us out of the Founder’s Cup in the semi-finals. We therefore saw the friendly as our chance of restoring some of the lost glory.
So, I joined the team that day in training and I sincerely thought I trained well. My team mates apparently differed on that and they all advised me politely not join them in the afternoon for the match.
‘Yemi, your support has always been appreciated by the team. Not only are you the most important student in our class, you are always our most vocal supporter on the pitch…’ That was my friend Sola.
‘But I just want to…’
‘Let me finish. You would do us more good cheering us on than you would do joining us in the play. You got me? The captain cannot really turn you down if you press for play time. Nobody can. But for everyone’s sake, don’t force his hand. Please’
When I got back to class, Kike, my girlfriend (I liked to think we were dating though I was yet to ask her out then) who must have heard the bad news, came up to me. I cannot remember her exact heartfelt speech now, but it had to do with ‘you can’t do everything’ sort of thing. Like I’m stupid not to know that, I thought to myself. My captain who doubled as the coach also tried to persuade me not to play.
‘You are an average player, Comrade. But this match is a very important match and we cannot afford to use…’ He stopped, then continued ‘not to use our best players. Next term, I will make sure you get to play for us.’
‘Cap, I really want this. Please.’ I pleaded.
I must have looked desperate as the captain grudgingly concurred.
‘Ok. Kola is unfortunately unavailable today. So, you will be on the bench in case we need a substitute winger’
I didn’t like the idea of being a substitute, the coach may decide not use a substitute, but I had no choice. So, substitute it was.
The game started. I was silently praying that one of the forward players or any player beside the keeper would get injured. The higher the number of the injured the higher my chance of playing, I thought coldly. My prayer (or curse) was not answered and the first half ended goalless with me warming the bench (there was no bench, we sat on the floor). It was during the break that my sister chose to register her own displeasure at my choice of sport.
‘What are you doing here?’ She asked giggling
‘What does it look like? Can’t you just leave me alone?’
For several seconds, my sister laughed like Aya Matanga of the Mount Zion fame. I sincerely thought she was going to choke. After the fit, she blurted:
‘You can’t possibly think you can play football. Can you? That’s like the stupidest ambition I ve come across since Saraki declared for president. You playing soccer?’ She said the last statement with exaggerated incredulity as if I had claimed I saw a live alien.
By this time my team mates and supporters were listening with rapt attention, the kind you might find when Achebe speaks to wannabe writers. You can trust my sister; she capitalized on this and said among other things:
‘Why don’t you go read your chemistry or solve some mathematics problems? That’s the only thing you are good at. Ha ha, Einstein!’
I was enraged but stayed silent. I knew my sister; anything I said could be used and would be used against me. Besides dancing, getting under my skin is her favourite thing. When she saw that I was not going to indulge her, she left giggling and saying something in the region of ‘stupid idiot’.
Why everybody thought I couldn’t play football beat me. What was so difficult about the sport? Just passing the ball around and doing some running and some infrequent shooting. Running is not my thing but I can sure pass, I assured myself. More than ever, I wanted to prove to everyone (my sister most especially) that I could not only become Albert Einstein, I could also become Jay Jay Okocha. What’s so difficult in that? I thought.
In the 70th minute, the miracle I was praying for happened. I was not concentrating on the game so I didn’t really know why the captain/coach was removing Jade, our left winger. The coach motioned to me and just like that I made my class football team. Dream comes true at last! I did not know whether people were cheering me on or jeering at me; just like the two words sound alike they can also sound alike in action to the hearing of an amateur like myself. Anyway, I couldn’t care less.
For the first five minutes on the pitch, I was boycotted like the Moscow ’80 by my own team mates. They preferred to waste the ball than send it to my direction. I guessed they did not trust my running ability. I wouldn’t trust it either. I tried to get the ball on my own and on one occasion I was successful to the surprise of my traducers. My through pass to the striker almost led to a goal. After that, I had a pass from the midfield and ran the ball to the Box 18 before, as Jon Champion would retort, I ballooned the ball over the bar. Everything was going okay, right? Wrong!
It was around the 90th minute when a long pass was sent to my wing from our defence. The ball was running fast to the corner kick side of the opponent and I was running after the ball. If I could make the ball before the defender charging to my side got there or before the ball crossed the line, I could most likely set up a goal as our striker was already in front of the Box 18 waiting for my cross. The whole ‘stadium’ was agog, and all I needed to do was to move my legs a little bit faster. I did that and I got to the ball, inches away from the touch line. And that was when it happened.
The ball must have been travelling at a very high speed and any experienced player would know better not to put his foot on the ball but across it. But I was anything but experienced. Add inexperience with the pressure on me, and I fumbled. I put my foot on the ball and the rest of the story was related to me.
I was told that immediately my foot landed on the ball, the ball took me on some 20 meter cruise, and then I landed on the hard surface ground behind the pitch. The defender charging me took up the ball and threw it to his goal keeper for a goal kick. He looked at my side and seeing me lying on the ground, he came to me.
‘Come on man, the amateur show is over’
When he saw that I was not moving, he bent down and saw me lifeless. He checked my pulse and his cry of help sent the whole place into pandemonium.
I was rushed to the school clinic and after I was resuscitated and given first aid, I was taken to the general hospital. After about 15 hours of unconsciousness (my sister’s version is 24 hours), I woke up back to planet earth, to the crying face of my mum, the concerned look of the doctor and predictably the giggling face of my bullying sister. I went under again and when I woke up it was at the Orthopaedic unit of the hospital. There I was told my right hand was going on eight week sabbatical. Thank God I use left.
Tomorrow, I resume back to school with Plaster of Paris still on my hand. Everybody has been supportive during this ordeal, except of course my sister who insisted that I perform my own part of the house chores. I also got confidence and chance to ask Kike out and she told me ‘what have you been waiting for?’ and placed a kiss on my cheek after making sure no one was around in the vicinity.
For sure, I am retired from football. I have never for once in my life allowed anybody to tell me what I can’t do. But as I lay on my hospital bed today, I wonder whether that is a totally rational determination. Maybe there are some things I cannot really do and if I won’t allow anybody to tell me that, I should man up and tell myself. There are a lot of things I can do, things that I can do very well. So, what is the big deal if there are also few things I’m not cut out for? Albert Einstein would just have to do jare.