Chapter 27: Defeat
Translator: EndlessFantasy Translation Editor: EndlessFantasy Translation
The Zhongyuan High players were celebrating their triumph in fanatic fervor. It felt as if they had just escaped the clutches of death following a lap around the depths of hell; the team had never rejoiced over a win in such a manner.
Shu Guang’s team on the other hand, was a sloppy mess of tears and sobs, especially the third-years. They would be taking off their red-and-white jersey, which they had worn for three years after the game. And like every other third-year student, they would be striving hard for their future.
Even the ever-optimistic Yang Pan was crying. When the referee blew the final whistle, he saw his best friend dabbing at his eyes.
Ren Yu De did not cry; he was too exhausted to even shed tears. He simply lay down on the ground, gasping long and hard, staring straight at the azure sky.
An Ke did not either. He sat down for a long time, leaning against the post and staring blankly at the whooping Zhongyuan players.
He could not tell if Su Fei was crying; she kept her back towards him.
And then there were those reporters. Why were there still so many of them after a defeat? They always loved asking those bizarre questions of theirs―what other feelings could one have after losing?
Zhang Jun could not sleep.
The scenes of the day were still deeply ingrained in his head, not to be forgotten easily. All along, he did not weep but, not because he wasn’t sad, or able to keep the match out of his mind―the latter especially was not his intention.
It was just a simple matter of not having any tears to shed when it all came down. Perhaps there were no tears for one who fell into the depths of despair. There was simply no way to materialize his feelings and express the desolation he felt inside.
He could not recall how he got home after the match, how he went over to Su Fei’s for dinner and how he lied down on bed afterwards.
Everything felt like a dream…
“Fei Fei! Not sleeping yet? You’ve been up all day!” Su Fei’s mother called across her house.
“I’m getting some air.” Su Fei was leaning against the balcony’s railing and watching the quiet night sky. It was midnight and all was silent―a great time to think.
The night breeze was cold, but Su Fei did not mind.
Why? After so much effort, with everyone pouring their blood, sweat and tears, why did they still lose? Yang Pan’s drive was so powerful that the post never stopped shaking. Ren Yu De’s footwork was so good that even four markers could not get him. And there was An Ke, who stopped Yang Pan’s shot once before. And then there was… there was the captain’s stubborn defending―so how could they lose?
She also saw that the ever cheerful Liu Qi was not his usual jovial self either. The cheerleading team captain had continuously shouted for the entire 80 minutes of the game and broke his voice in the process.
She heard what Zhang Jun said as he held himself in anguish.
“I can’t accept this!”
Why? Why did they still lose?
Two trails of crystalline liquid rolled down her cheeks, shining brightly under the moon.
From elementary school up until high school, there was no remembering how many soccer games he played. It was not the first time he had lost, so why did this irreconcilable feeling surfaced for the first time today?
He did not believe himself to be such a fragile person. But why did the tears flow when the referee blew the final whistle?
In a semi-final match between Kai Ta and Hua Ying in the National Middle School Soccer Championship; injury time.
“Everything depends on you!” Zhang Jun patted Yang Pan on the shoulder.
Zhang Jun won a free kick 25 m out. Yang Pan took a shot and it hit home. Kai Ta won 3: 2 and knocked out the Guangzhou team, stealing their place into the finals.
“Come what may, tomorrow depends on you!” Zhang Jun said as he patted Yang Pan’s shoulder.
He had never let him down before whenever his best friend told him that.
But this time…
“Zhang Jun, I’m sorry…”
He went through hell and high water just to break into the penalty box. Yet, just when he was ready for an effort, Liu Chao came diving in first and knocked the ball off the line.
Pulling every trick out of the book did not even move the opponent. He had to force his way through and Liu Chao was there to cut him off again.
*Beep! Beep! Beep!*
Ren Yu De jolted up from his bed; it was just a dream. Glimpsing at the clock under the moonlight, he saw that the hands were pointing at 1.00am.
However, he could not return to his sleep. He remembered when the final whistle was blown, he simply lay down on the ground, gasping long and hard, staring straight at the azure sky. Afterwards, the blue sky turned into dark night. Then, he was in his bed and jolted awake by that dream.
But was it just a dream? Why did the sensation of falling feel so vivid? And… that feeling of abject failure…
Clenching his blanket, Ren Yu De buried his head under it.
The match… They lost!
Thrice. He received the ball thrice from the net.
And he just had to childishly brag and say things like, “I want to protect the post.”
Ultimately, nothing was protected; his teammates’ hard work, the chants from the cheerleaders and Su Fei’s smile. He was a goalie who failed in his duty.
His middle school did not care much about soccer. He played for a year and quickly left the team, which had no future, believing that his circumstances were torturous.
It was not to say that Shu Guang’s own soccer did not suck. Quite simply, they had passion; that much was clear on the faces of his teammates. All of it could be traced to a deeply entrenched love for the game.
He kept blurting silly things like “a life of freedom for me” and “I love soccer, but I love babes more” to conceal his true feelings. When he stood in front of the post with a pair of keeper gloves after two years and “dueled” with Yang Pan, he had resolved to do one thing:
Return to the soccer pitch and stand in front of the post once more.
Soccer can bring happiness, but also pain. He was not some newcomer―he understood that. But why was it, when the time came, he could not come to terms with that fact?
Putting on his headsets, he turned up the volume of his Walkman. However, the music did not bring relief to his troubled mind, it tangled it even more instead.
He flipped around his bed to find that his pillow and sheets were flooded with sweat.
For them, this season was over.
And for some of them, their three-year-long season was over…
The school felt abnormally quiet on Monday.
Each week, there was chatter whenever the national flag was raised in the weekly assembly―this caused headaches for the discipline teacher, Wen Jiu. Nevertheless, that was not the case this week.
Everyone spoke in hushed whispers and there was a noticeable decrease in laughter. The game on Saturday had somehow affected the entire school; and so, for the first time, Shu Guang mourned over soccer.
The afternoon training went on as usual. Liang Ke was already setting his sights on the coming year.
There was just one thing: the atmosphere on the pitch was stuffy and nobody said anything. Even An Ke, the team’s joker was mum. All he did was carry out their basic practice alongside the substitute keeper in dead silence.
Liang Ke wanted to remind the kids and raise their spirits, but he could not say a thing when he recalled the match on Saturday. That night, he downed six cans of beer by himself, getting drunk like a fish.
“What are you doing?!” Su Li’s sonorous voice rang.
“We third-years are having our last training session. Does every single one of you want to send us off like this?”
Everyone looked at their captain.
“What are you looking at? I’m not a monkey!” The captain who was about to retire joked; he wanted his noisy team back, but the attempt went awry. Everyone turned back to what they were doing instead.
That was when Wang Bo stepped in. “Ahem! Ahem! We, the third-years have but one wish and it is for the team to send us off happily. Send us off happily, not tearfully. So, everyone, please don’t make those crybaby faces.”
Wang Bo’s words got a few laughs and the air lifted a few notches.
“In the end, you’re still the one who has a way with words,” Su Li told Wang Bo quietly.
“Don’t say that, captain.”
“I’m not going to be captain soon. You don’t have to call me that anymore.”
After their training ended, Liang Ke gathered everyone around.
“Everybody knows. After today, the third-years will no longer be Shu Guang players. Su Li!”
Su Li handed the captain’s armband as well as his clean and tidily folded jersey to Su Fei. He hesitated as he passed her the shirt, taking some time before he placed it in her hands.
Every team member went up when their name was called and passed their jerseys to Su Fei.
No. 8, No. 10, No. 18, No. 5, No. 3, No. 9 and No. 22; these were the shirt numbers that would have new owners when September arrived.
Liang Ke had been through this scene for five years, including this one. However, this year, he felt a sense of loss for the third-year veterans. There were signs of hope after they weathered through two years of hardship together yet, they still missed the dawn of a new era by a fraction despite those signs.
Anyone could tell from Zhang Jun’s expression that he was crucifying himself inside. Su Li walked over and lightly patted him on the shoulder. “Don’t blame yourself too much. The defeat wasn’t your fault.”
“Don’t call me captain anymore.” Su Li smiled and pointed at his empty arm.
“I couldn’t help you guys and could only watch from the sidelines.”
“That’s got nothing to do with you. If I was coach, I wouldn’t have let you play either. The price of your future is simply too steep to be played around with. And there’s no reason for you to grief at all; you still have two more years. Look at us third-years. Aren’t we just fine now?”
Zhang Jun looked around. Wang Bo and the rest of the third-years were laughing around with the other team members.
“Brat! When you guys crash into the Xigong Stadium next year and the year after, we’ll be there to cheer you on!” Wang Bo held Ren Yu De warmly around his neck.
“Don’t give us such a depressing look! We may be leaving the team, but we’re still in the same school! It’s not a long goodbye, really!” Zhang Rui smiled.
“True! True! With the looks on your faces, others will think that we’re at a wake service!”
“Su Fei, you’re always smiling. Why the frowny face today? Be careful or you’ll get wrinkles!”
“You see! Isn’t everyone doing just fine! Now that you’ve mentioned it, we still have to thank you guys!”
“Thank us?” Zhang Jun did not get it.
“Yeah! When our batch joined the team, we simply wanted a place where we could formally play soccer for three years. We knew our abilities better than everyone, which was why we never thought of making it to the last eight teams, much less the last four.
“But you guys came along and gave us hope. Thanks to you guys, we had a goal for the first time.” Su Li scratched his head, embarrassed. “You’ll be second-year students next year, so don’t let Su Fei’s red line stop at this stage.”
“I told you, you don’t have to call me captain anymore.”
Wang Bo came to Su Li’s side. Looking at Zhang Jun’s demeanor, he said, “The psychological empowerment project works after all!”
“He can’t stay depressed. Shu Guang’s fate will be at his feet in the coming year!”
“And you claim that you don’t have a way with words, captain…”
“Don’t call me captain.”
“Sorry, I forgot again, whoops! It really takes some getting used to.”
A week later, Zhongyuan Technical High made easy work of Dongfang High School. Li Yongle scored another goal―a penalty, which made him a darling of the media and the fans.
Another week after, Zhongyuan defeated their arch-rivals, Dingding High in the final match, entering the National Championship proper for the fourteenth consecutive time. They were the focus of Luoyang’s media once more. However, even though Li Yongle made five attempts in that match, he could not recreate that deflected shot he made against Shu Guang.