Chapter 38: The First Round
Translator: EndlessFantasy Translation Editor: EndlessFantasy Translation
High School Soccer Magazine Editorial Department.
“The match schedules are out. It’s time for everyone to get busy,” Liu Yang said as the company held their annual mobilization meeting.
“This year, three schools hold the best prospects, Zhongyuan is unquestionably one of them; and then there’s Luoyang’s ‘Uncrowned King’―Dingding High School, who’s fully capable of entering the national tournament proper. A mention should also be made for last year’s dark horse―Shu Guang High School, although they’ve gained even more strength this year and can’t really be thought of as a dark horse anymore. I want our news reports to focus on these three schools.”
Meanwhile, Chen Huafeng was staring blankly at the fixture list.
“Xiao Chen, have you been following Shu Guang all along? Penny for your thoughts?”
Not looking up, Huafeng replied, “Shu Guang’s first opponent is Kai Ta High School. Kai Ta is Yang Pan and Zhang Jun’s alma mater…”
The others looked at each other, not quite understanding what he was saying.
Zhang Jun stared blankly at the huge match schedule, which was pasted on the club’s activity room wall. It was surprising that Shu Guang’s first match was against Kai Ta.
How did that happen?
Su Fei hit her head with a notebook. “It’s time for training!”
Looking at Zhang Jun who kept making mistakes, Liang Kei asked Su Fei next to him, “Do you know what’s up with him?”
Su Fei shook her head. “He was just staring at the match schedule.”
“Match schedule? So that’s what it is…”
Anyone who was looking at him from behind would have thought that Zhang Jun was being studious. But he knew that his mind was not on his studies. The language text book in front of him was on page 98 an hour ago and it was still there an hour after.
He went to his bookshelf to retrieve a photo album filled with pictures of his early middle school years. In the first page was a picture of him, Yang Pan, Yuan Gang and Liu Peng. They were third-years then; the four of them were smiling brightly in the picture.
“Yuan Gang, Liu Peng…” He uttered the names of his buddies softly. They had not contacted each other since they went their separate ways. Perhaps, those two were angry? Why would there not be a single call otherwise? He left them without bothering to say goodbye; and just the night before, they even declared, “Let’s become national high school champions!” only to have him pretty much scatter the next day.
Compared to him, Yang Pan would not have such difficult feelings―to him, his best friend was only Zhang Jun; Yuan Gang and Liu Peng were just ordinary acquaintances. Perhaps, he would just feel the same as usual without any fuss on Saturday’s game? But Zhang Jun knew that he himself could not do it. Yuan Gang and Liu Peng were also his best friends. Would any one of them have imagined that they would face off against one another even after they were at the pinnacle of their game?
Maybe this was fate?
The hour needle pointed at 12, but Zhang Jun was still staring at the photos of his middle school years―those snapshots trickled with drips of memories from his past days.
“It’s already October, but it’s still so hot! How unusual!” A burly boy moaned about the weather as he tugged at the neck of his jersey.
“It’s El Nino, don’t you know?” Another lad of a rather small frame answered next to him.
“Will it be the same on Saturday?”
“What, worried about the game?” His companion smiled.
“I’m worried about Zhang Jun.”
“Monkey, don’t you know him? The dude must be worried over trivial stuff like our friendship!”
“Heh! Why would he mind about such trivial things? We were great friends with him, but we’re opponents now―there are no friends between teams that are playing against each other. Doesn’t he understand that?”
“It’s not like you don’t know him. He’s light on the brain department―it’s like he’s lacking a few parts there.”
“Liu Peng, now is not the time for you to worry about others. There’s still another headache you have to face in the match day after tomorrow.”
“You’re talking about Yang Pan?” Liu Peng asked.
“Who else is there besides him? He was quite the scene-stealer last year, even grabbing the spotlight from Zhang Jun himself. We know his long-range efforts better than anyone. It won’t bode well if we let him go crazy in the game.”
“Relax! I guarantee that I’ll stick to him like glue; I won’t afford him even half a pace of movement.”
Yuan Gang smiled. Liu Peng’s man-marking defense scared him despite his own nickname, “Monkey”. It was a label given because of his apelike agility. In the National Championships during their third year, Liu Peng was able to handle the team’s defense alone, striking down defenses everywhere alongside Yang Pan and Zhang Jun. He made many key players on the other team look emphatically ordinary.
“But who’s going to take care of Zhang Jun?” Liu Peng asked.
“Do you think a striker who blindly worries for the enemy squad is going to be of much help in a game?”
“Hey! This isn’t what a friend should be saying!”
“I have no choice. There are times when tricks are needed for victory. It’d be considerably regretful for Zhang Jun but it’s necessary. You should know how bad it’ll be if he lets loose?” As Yuan Gang removed his jacket, a deep blue jersey was revealed and a light-yellow captain armband shone under the sun, prickling the eyes.
“Time to train, Liu Peng.”
Liu Peng sighed internally. Yuan Gang was captain now; he was responsible for the entire team and he could not allow personal feelings to interfere. For victory and their dreams―even if they felt regretful, they would still have to face their long lost best friend .
Still, he hoped that everything went according to Yuan Gang’s plans. He did not want to go up against Zhang Jun―not that he didn’t want to play against a friend, but because he had zero confidence in his own chances against his old friend. He was able to nullify Yang Pan back in their little matches within the team; it was Zhang Jun―the No.11 who always looked lethargic and callous that Liu Peng could only watch as he kept running ahead of him.
Shu Guang High School locker room.
“Yang Pan, Kai Ta was your alma mater and more than half of their players were your teammates back in middle school. Tell us what kind of team they are.” Liang Ke passed a red pen to Yang Pan.
Without a word of protest, Yang Pan began drawing on the whiteboard. “They are a team that’s balanced in their attack and defense. Back then, there was Zhang Jun and myself up front while Yuan Gang took the role of playmaker―many goals were the fruit of his strategies. He’s quite short at 166 cm, but he’s agile like a monkey. He’s very skilled at dribbling through crowds, attracting the defense and then, passing the ball suddenly to the forwards. That’s why we should never put too many heads on him; there should be only two, one to harass and another to assist if necessary.”
Yang Pan’s calm analysis did not carry an ounce of sentiment as if he were a professional; but to Zhang Jun’s ears, every word he spoke of the past carried the weight of either happiness or pain.
In the National Middle School Championships, the offensive trident he formed alongside Yang Pan and Yuan Gang was unstoppable. There was Yuan Gang who dictated and organized plays; Yang Pan with his speed and passes, not to mention, his own diligence, which translated their efforts into goals; they were the first to fall into an embrace every time the ball went into the net.
Liu Peng, on the other hand, was the linchpin of their defense. His 188 cm frame and burly body were a threat to any striker, plus he was surprisingly mobile. He was also explosive and could guard against players who were trying to turn or break into certain zones―a genuine specialist in marking. Even his header was a method to score from corners.
“Liu Peng is an experienced defender. When facing strikers, he can predict their movements that and cut them off first,” Yang Pan continued. “This means that his rate of successful interceptions is very high. Along with Zhang Jun and Yuan Gang, he formed the center line during the early days of the team; but now that Zhang Jun and I have left Kai Ta’s team, depth has been affected.”
“Although there are other commendable players in each position, a gap still exists between them and Yuan Gang as well as Liu Peng. In the end, as long as we fend off Yuan Gang and do our best to avoid Liu Peng when attacking, we have a huge chance to win.”
“Brilliant analysis!” Liang Ke applauded.
Brilliant analysis… Ultimately, because they were teammates and classmates for three years, they could probably even tell each other’s movements with their eyes closed!
“Everyone, give your best to win tomorrow’s game. No errors in the first round! Understand?”
Liang Ke flashed a glance at Zhang Jun. He was the only one who did not answer, and with his blank eyes, there was no telling what he was thinking.
On the noisy pitch where players of both teams were warming up, Zhang Jun’s ball rolled into Kai Ta’s half.
“Please help…” he said as he met a very familiar face.
Yuan Gang picked the ball up and approached him. “Hello, Zhang Jun. Didn’t expect to see you here after a year of losing touch. What a coincidence!”
But there was no joy over the reunion in the eyes of Kai Ta’s captain. There were only sparks of irrepressible anger.
“I won’t hold back!”
Zhang Jun woke up; it was the first time he had ever dreamed of Yuan Gang. It was weird. Why was there such an unfamiliar expression on such a familiar face? Especially when he said, “I won’t hold back!”
It was already late; he had no memory of when he fell asleep the night before. His head was filled with thoughts about his old friends and he finally fell back into dreamland somewhere along the way.
After getting out of bed and washing up, he went to get some air on the balcony, only to find Su Fei there too. The enlarged match schedule had to be her work again? Dis she do it in one night? Her knees were probably hurting very much? But why did they have to be against Kai Ta―that Kai Ta where he and Yang Pan used to study?
Su Fei, noticing his appearance, smiled. “No ‘good morning’ today?”
Zhang Jun pointed at the sun hanging overhead. “It’s noon, what’s there to ‘good morning’ about?”
“Oh? So you’re not muddled by sleep today!”
What was happening? He was about three meters away from Su Fei, but why did her smile and her voice feel so far away? Was he still sleepy?
Zhang Jun shook his head and looked at the sky above. It was extraordinarily blue today―a good day to exercise outside.
Yuan Guang looked at the azure sky and mumbled to himself, “Great weather. Bright sky, less clouds, no draft and an optimum temperature… A nice day for soccer…”