I felt the wind get knocked out of my body as Pepito’s shot got blocked by Muller. I felt the collective sigh of disappointment from my countrymen, engulf us like a shroud. The stadium was theirs and it erupted with fans literally falling off their stands. We felt like a lonely band of soldiers in red uniforms, far away from home, outnumbered and nearly outplayed.
I watched Seguro, our coach, biting his fingers off along with his nails, pacing up and down as Scholler walked up to take his penalty kick. We had all seen him play in our video sessions. The calmest and the wiliest playmaker, I have ever come across.
My team mates stood beside me with my closest friend Marco standing to my right. With an arm around me, his usual jovial self stood replaced by a sombre, expressionless statue, staring at the goal post. We never thought that we would reach the quarter finals of the World Cup. It felt like a dream and a haze of high emotions until now. This was reality.
Jorge ran out to hug Pepito as he walked the walk of shame from the penalty box. He looked like a ghost, with tears starting to form little rivulets around his cheeks and we could see his hands shivering. He had failed. He knew that and now he had to live with that for the rest of his life. No player deserves such a burden, but then, sometimes we don’t have the luxury of that choice.
Scholler showed us how it’s done. As calm as Lake Titicaca on a windless, summer day, he took all the time in the world. From this distance I couldn’t quite see the expression on Carlito’s face, as he prepared to protect his goal with his life.
It was all over in a flash. Scholler waltzed up to the ball, with his eyes fixed to his right side and Carlito was the first to crack. He lunged to his left and Scholler went down the middle. With barely any power in the shot, he simply passed the ball into the net. As easy as kicking a stray ball back to some kids playing on a beach. The crowds went delirious and Scholler started walking back, without even a smile on his face. Like he did quarterfinal penalties every morning, after breakfast.
Now it was my turn.
“Ruiz, whatever happens, do not change your mind in the last second,” whispered Marco, as I broke ranks from our line up. All eyes were upon me as I embarked upon the longest journey of my life: from the halfway line to the penalty box.
My mind was a blur. I felt some people patting me on my back, some whispering blessings in my ears. I felt terribly alone, even though I was surrounded by my brothers-in-arms and 40,000 spectators.
As I walked the walk, the stands looked all white with specks of red, like blood on a crisp white shirt.
Someone thrust the ball in my hands as I entered the penalty box. I watched Muller take his position. He was a penalty shooter’s nightmare. We had seen videos of him, playing at Bayern. He wouldn’t fall. He stood his ground till the last millisecond. He had the hard, poker face and cold blue eyes of a Nazi general from one of those WW2 movies. His eyes gave away nothing.
I will go left. Ground ball to the left corner. But isn’t Muller great with ground balls? No, wait, I shall go with the top left corner. But, what if…I nearly felt like crying, as the hopes and expectations of my team and my country slammed into my back like heavy spears. I couldn’t think straight and then I heard the Ref blow his whistle.
After that, I can’t remember what happened really. The noise from the crowds died in my ears and was replaced by a ringing sound. I started having memories flash in front of me, as I started my run up for my shot. Muller flickered out from my vision and it was my father, smiling at me, teaching me how to kick a curve ball.
“Here, use the top left edge of your foot and get it below the ball. It’s easy, you can do it,” he said.
I kicked the shot of my life and time chose to stand still, that evening in Munich.
Photo Credit – Steve Rogers – Flickr Commons