Chapter 67: Debut
Translator: EndlessFantasy Translation Editor: EndlessFantasy Translation
After changing, players would have 20 minutes to warm-up. It was a chance for both teams to show off in front of everyone.
A banner that read, “The 15th National High School Championship: Luoyang Regional Qualifiers – Chenguang High School Soccer Tournament” stood above the stands, swaying with the wind.
There was an incessant assortment of sounds from the seats, climaxing as the two teams stepped out for their warm-up.
Xie Yu gingerly stepped on the grass carpet, afraid of ruining it.
“Wow! So soft! It’s just like a mattress!”
“Tut, tut! Such glistening greenness! It’s so easy on the eyes!”
“We won’t have to be afraid of hurting ourselves from flying tackles when we play on this surface, right? No wonder there are so many exciting angles in professional matches! It won’t hurt even if a player falls!”
“Look! You can lift it up!”
“Don’t touch it! Put it back! You can’t pay for it even if you sell yourself!”
Like peasants who were stepping into the city for the very first time, the Shu Guang players got face-down on the ground and examined the grass closely—prompting laughter from the stands. The Shu Guang students felt like taking off their uniforms and hiding them; their players were such a complete embarrassment in front of the tens of thousands of fans.
Zhang Jun did not research the carpet grass and jogged alone around the pitch.
It was the first time he had ever faced such a crowd; there were just a few hundred heads watching during the grand final back when he was a third-year middle school student. There was no live broadcast either. Even as a national champion, he needed to get used to it.
Surely Yang Pan would have been sub-zero calm if he was here? That brat could sleep peacefully even if it was the eve of the National’s grand final.
Noting that he was thinking of his best friend again, the interim captain shook his head; he was captain now!
He stopped and glanced over at his teammates. They were still kneeling on the floor and “studying” it intently. He then he kicked a ball at them.
“Stand up, all of you! Warm-up!”
Like startled birds, they scattered, taking the ball along with them to the pitch while flashing some high-level moves.
Liang Ke looked at them, unable to decide if he wanted to laugh or cry. However, he was content; the players were not feeling too nervous over their first game in such a formal place.
Liu Wei noticed that the Shu Guang captain—who clocked in at 10.52 seconds in hundred-meter dashes and could shoot 180 km/h balls—was not on the pitch.
Surprised, he looked at their coach, who was busy laughing and joking around with the beautiful manager without a shred of nervousness in his debut.
What cards would that fellow play without Yang Pan? Liu Wei could not tell.
Chen Huafeng finally confirmed for himself that Yang Pan was not with the team!
Learning that, a bigger question begged. If this was such an important match, why was the captain—who was also a key player—absent? Did Liang Ke have a winning strategy without Yang Pan?
The 20 minutes for warm-ups quickly slipped by. Both teams left the court and entered their locker room; they had 30 minutes to prepare before kick-off.
Liang Ke repeated his analysis of Dingding, albeit a watered-down version of it. Naturally, he touched on the key points, stating that Dingding was balanced across the lines and that the team played in a stable manner. Plus, Fan Cunjie was their linchpin.
Finishing his “moot” points, the coach swept a glance over all of his players; it appeared that Yang Pan’s absence did not deal such a huge blow on them.
“Dingding plays steadily; they will be our greatest challenge yet. Still, it’s better to stick to our own style rather than wait for them to offer an opening or make a mistake. Shu Guang plays its own brand of soccer.”
The coach looked at his watch—there was not much time left.
“The rest is up to you,” he said. Then, he walked out the door.
The stands were fired up with cheers while flags as well as banners of various kinds and sizes soared in the wind. TV technicians were busy with their setup procedures 17 minutes ahead of showtime.
How many kings-in-waiting were born in that stadium; did they number more than the fallen champions?
Liang Ke leaned against the entrance to the players’ passage. The afternoon sun shone upon him as he looked out at the noisy world; he could only squint.
Five years ago, when he graduated and got placed in Shu Guang High School, the principal had asked if he was interested in coaching their soccer team. They never had any good results and the squad itself was doom and gloom.
The former coaches of mining and factory teams would bail as soon as they realized that there was no reward to be had. As such, the absence of any leadership left the team in complete tatters.
Still, Liang Ke agreed almost immediately—expecting his own passion and love for soccer to reinvigorate the team.
Four years went by without any change to their results, and the team was still all doom and gloom. He was unable to bring life and spirit to the players eitherhi. Instead, his efforts had drained him off his passion and enthusiasm.
Therefore, he often questioned himself: was it worth it? Four years of his time spent in static there: was it worth it?
Was his choice the right one in the first place?
After getting knocked out in the first-round of every qualifier’s match, he would console the players with the line, “There’s nothing to regret as long as you do your best.” But, was there really nothing?
Was there truly nothing to be disappointed about as long as they gave it their all?
It was fortunate that Zhang Jun, Yang Pan and their band came when they did. They brought fresh blood, liveliness and spirit to the sullen team.
And now, they were in Xigong Stadium. They were in no hurry to return to their former state since they had gotten to this stage. Awaiting them was a whole new world; a larger soccer pitch, more cheering supporters and greater glory.
Liang Ke clenched his fist.
“Cao Po, you’ll be marking Kaka since Yang Pan is absent.”
Liu Wei quickly adjusted tactics to the sudden disappearance of Shu Guang’s captain.
“That Brazilian is not your average player; he is difficult to tangle with and must not be allowed to make plays.”
“Yao Wang, Ya Dong, you two will do a double team up against Zhang Jun. A substitute striker will probably not combine well with the other three front-liners without Yang Pan. That’s why they’ve most likely switched to a formation with two forwards. That will allow our own defenders to be more relaxed.” The coach scribbled on the board.
“Zhang Jun is a formidable striker. The two of you have to stick to him and deny him any chance in making an effort. Xia Bo, I heard what you told the reporters. It’s not that I don’t trust you—this match is simply too important. Unless it’s unavoidable, I would rather you see less of the ball.”
Xia Bo nodded, opening his arms.
“Yeah, yeah, I’m willing to do nothing the whole game for the team. Heh! Yao Wang and Ya Dong will mark Zhang Jun, and Cao Po will be on the Brazilian. Tang Liang and Su Rui, the three of us will be playing chase then?”
The locker room exploded into laughter. Liu Wei shook his head, smiling sardonically.
But, Fan Cunjie did not join in the festivities like he always had.
“Do you want me to buy each of you a bottle of soda too?” he spat coldly. “This is the semi-final, not a warm-up match; a spot in the final is at stake. Xiao Bo, don’t even think of putting up a ‘performance’.”
The captain was not being loud, but like a pail of cold water doused on burning iron, the laughs quickly died down. All of them knew that their captain had not been himself for the past week—he was like a woman going through menopause, temperamental and quick to blow up. That said, he was still their captain—their boss.
Xia Bo held his tongue back and straightened his face.
Liu Wei looked on, not knowing if he should be nodding approvingly with a smile, or sighing while shaking his head.
Fan Cunjie always had a good handle of himself against any opponent at any stage. However, he looked really jittery that day. He seemed more driven to win. Did it bode well for Dingding?
The loudspeakers of the stadium sounded and the live commentary began.
“Good afternoon, everyone! Today we’re bringing you the first semi-final match of the Chenguang Cup—the Luoyang Regional Qualifiers for the 15th National High School Soccer Championship. On one side we have the ‘Uncrowned Kings’ among the Luoyang high schools, Dingding! While Shu Guang High School, who has been on the rise for the last two years is on the other. I’m Wang Qiang, bringing you the live commentary for this game alongside our special guest Mr. Zhou, a specialist on high school soccer who will also be our pundit for the day.”
“Good afternoon, everyone!”
“Hehe! It’s our fourth year doing commentary on this tournament together.”
“What’s your take on these two teams?”
“Well, Dingding has been at this stage often. There’s no doubt that the team is very capable. That said, Fan Cunjie, Bin Fei, Xia Bo, Yao Wang, Shi Yan and Cao Po are all third-years now. It’s their last chance to enter the Nationals and that is why they’ll be giving their all. This would be horrifying for any opponent.”
“Then, there’s Shu Guang…”
“Oh. Shu Guang’s improvement in the last two years is something else. They were great going forward, but they lack a lot in experience compared to Dingding. In such a vital game, this could prove to be key.”
“Mr. Zhou, does this mean you believe that Dingding will have a better chance of winning?”
“Hehe! That’s right! Furthermore, I’d like to see Zhao Defeng and Fan Cunjie clashing once again—it is their final year after all.”
Liu Qi looked up at the huge speakers and said what every Shu Guang member was thinking.
“This critic is so despicable!”
Zhang Jun sat quietly on a chair. Normally, he would have been messing around with An Ke, Kaka, Ren Yu De and Yang Pan.
Su Fei approached him, grabbed his hand and dug her nails deeper and deeper into his flesh.
Though clearly holding back his voice, he reacted. “Su Fei! What are you doing? It hurts!”
She replied with a sugary smile. “I thought you were dreaming, so I came to check. So, you weren’t napping after all!”
“Dreaming?” Zhang Jun looked at her.
“Will you be needing a hairband today? I brought a thin one.” She opened her hand to show it lying quietly in her palm.
Zhang Jun pulled his front hair down and it reached the bridge of his nose. Without noticing, it had already grown that long.
“Don’t need one. Do you have a rubber band?”
“Yeah.” She reached behind her head and loosed her braided ponytail. Her hair dropped like a cascading waterfall and a rubber band appeared in her hand.
“Help me make a braid?” He asked, looking straight into her eyes.
“Right, that’s all I can say. Just remember that your target isn’t just little Luoyang—it’s the Nationals, the target every single one of you set your eyes on when you joined the team!” Slightly emotional, Liu Wei raised his voice.
How many years had Dingding been shouting their objective of “entering the nationals” but never bringing it to fruition. This time, their team had the experience and skill as well as dedicated supporters; it would be their best shot—failure was unacceptable.
The silence in the locker room was deafening; everyone had the words “entering the nationals” weigh heavy on their mind.
Su Fei marveled upon her own handiwork and smiled in satisfaction. The players surrounding them were also praiseful.
“Tut, tut! Never knew that a guy could look good in braids!”
“Heh! Quite the spirited Look!” Xie Yu said, tugging at his own short, curly hair. Realizing that it was not long enough to be tied, he sighed begrudgingly.
An Ke leaped out. “Su Fei! Help me fix my hair too!” He drew his hair to its full length, which was just enough to make a “mini tail”.
Su Fei smiled, spreading her arms. “There aren’t any rubber bands left.”
There was more than one sigh. An Ke was the most disappointed, but Su Fei’s hair, which dropped to her shoulders was proof that there really was no rubber bands left.
“I have one,” Ren Yu De said over in a corner.
“Really?” An Ke replied with extra delight. “Where? Give it here!”
An Ke pulled at his shorts and it indeed had a rubber band. “Here. Although, it’s not exactly practical to take it out.”
An Ke stared blankly, and then, he chased after Ren Yu De wildly.
“Ren Yu De! Stop right there!”
Everyone broke into laughter. Su Fei even felt tears coming out. That was when she realized that Zhang Jun was not joining in their chorus. He was just staring at her vacantly without a word.
“What are you looking at?”
Zhang Jun smiled and shook his head in reply. “It’s nothing, I just wanted to look.”
Even more embarrassed, the manager quickly changed topics. “You look nice with braids, very spirited!”
“Is that so? Then I’ll never trim my hair ever again and keep it for you to braid.”
She stretched a hand out.
“Pay up! Pay up!” Su Fei huffed. “My work needs to be rewarded!”
She looked indescribably adorable and Zhang Jun was at a loss for words.
The then door opened and Liang Ke entered.
“It’s time! Let’s go!”