In his Shadow III

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Let me be honest, prior to that point, all I knew about Russia was how cold it was. My understanding of the country was minimal at best. So when this offer came, I was quite unexcited at first. I hoped and prayed that something better would come. If the worst teams in the Spanish, English and Italian leagues had offered me less, I probably would have chosen them over Russia.

My point being, I didn’t think my chances of success was that great in a place I knew next to nothing about. I was also worried that I wouldn’t be seeing my family as much as I thought I would. It was a tough decision to make, but with each passing day it became increasingly clear that no other offers were coming.

Hector advised me to take it up and do my best on getting there. It was only a two year contract and if I played up to my abilities, other teams were sure to notice.

Begrudgingly and after much dilly dallying, I accepted and signed a contract. The pay was good and it would be an opportunity to experience a different country, but in the back of my mind I felt like I had settled for something below my abilities. My top choices had all ignored me and now I was going for the bride that wasn’t even on my radar. I’d be lying if I said I was excited about boarding that plane to my new home. I was already counting down  my exit way before reaching my destination. In retrospect I was quite immature. If I had known better, I would have embraced the opportunity, and seen it for what it was… a stepping stone onto something better. Life would definitely have been easier, but alas, I had poisoned my mind before getting there which would start things off on a rocky path.

If only I had gone into the situation with an open mind, more optimistic about what lay ahead. Perhaps I would have realized just how warm Russians were despite their deadly cold winters. Life and the city wouldn’t have looked so gray if I were willing to move past my disappointment of not signing with a big team.

Sadly this was not the case as I was testy from the get go, failing to develop the proper rapport with my new teammates and organization. I must have ostracized all the people who could help me because those first few months were most likely the loneliest in my life. I stayed to myself, rarely going out. Spending my free time skyping my friends and family back home. Since I didn’t do much on the social side, I was able to save a lot of money. The team provided accommodation and transport; there wasn’t much I was spending my checks on.

Practices and games were pretty straightforward. I showed up, did what I had to do and left. Sounds simple right? Sadly not so much. I never went the extra length, never did more than I was supposed to. I saw it as a job, clock in and clock out. The fun was gone. It’s tough to play with joy when you don’t want to be there. I am not trying to justify any of what I did back then. In fact my conduct was quite unprofessional and immature. I acted like a spoiled brat who throws up a tantrum when he doesn’t get what he wants. It was unfair to the people paying my salary, I could have done better. I should have done better!

I quickly wore out my welcome with the team and the coach. Alienating myself from the people I was supposed to be close with. I missed home, my family and friends and no matter how much I tried, where I was just couldn’t compare. We won our fair share of games, the team had a pretty decent squad back then but because of my attitude, my playing time was quite erratic. Today I’d play, only to be benched for the next three games. There was no rhyme or reason to the rotations but I had no choice but to play and shut up. After the season, we had done well enough to qualify for the UEFA cup. It was a pretty big deal for the team and its officials. They felt they were moving in the right direction. I tried to mend some of the bridges I had burned. Year one had started off badly, I needed to rectify that going into year two.

It sorta worked. I didn’t exactly become amicable with my teammates and coach over night, but it didn’t feel like there was a huge chasm of communication between us anymore. Everything changed from that point on. Suddenly the gray skies of Russia started to look bluer. The food had more taste to it and I started to find out there were people actually interested in talking to me. Of course this had always been the case, but due to my poisonous attitude when I had first arrived, none of this had presented itself.

The language issue was still a barrier but you’d be surprised at how much you can comprehend once you put in the effort. Year two was turning out to be better than expected but sadly my love for the country would only last so long. The soccer world was beginning to take notice especially with my play in the UEFA cup. I knew none of this, only focused on helping the team win and cementing my shaky relationship with my employers.

I went from not knowing if I’d play games to being a constant fixture. I wasn’t setting the league on fire by any means, but the goals were coming in. Sometimes more so than others with the highlight of my season being an incredible brace against the best team in the league and by far the richest.

If they were the big trout of the waterways, then we were the small minnows. Whereas their team was loaded with top quality international players with tons of experience; I was the only foreigner on the squad and I was definitely lacking in the experience department. Bottom line, that matchup was akin to David going against Goliath.

I had begun to notice that no matter the country, one thing remained constant and that was the rabid passion of fans for their favorite teams. Russia was no different and this matchup brought out the good and the bad. It was as if nothing else mattered in those days leading up to the game. I couldn’t go anywhere without being told to beat ‘Spartak.’

I had thought the high school championship was a big deal, but this seemed to be taking things to a new level. The media covered it non-stop, the city people talked about it like their livelihoods depended on it. As much as I tried to ignore the chatter, it seemed to find me wherever I went. I was more than relieved when game day finally arrived. I could not wait to put that behind me and move onto something else.

As our team bus made its way to the stadium, I saw fans cheering us on, decked in our team memorabilia from head to toe. I saw the excitement, even from children no older than 5. This was a very big deal to them, and if we somehow won this game, not winning the championship would be forgivable.

I suspected the other side had fans just as passionate. I expected them to be just as energized as our fans were. It’s hard not to get infected by the enthusiasm surging all around you. Your pulse starts beating faster, images of how you expect the game to turn out starts rushing through your head. For me, this one image of scoring a last minute goal kept coming back. There was no escaping it. By the time that commencement whistle was blown, my excitement level was already way above normal.

I will always give credit where it’s due, especially when opposition is involved. In this case though, there’s not much ‘good’ that can be said about our opponents’ tactics that day. I felt bad for the fans that paid good money expecting to see a great game and instead got something else. It’s a shame when players feel that by using intimidating tactics they can dominate the game as they choose. We’d heard that the other team used cheap shots and tricks during play, but we paid no mind to it. As far as we were concerned, with the amount of talent on their team, they could beat anyone at their best.

Boy! Were we wrong?

They fouled hard, hit you when the ref wasn’t looking, baited you into getting angry and trash talked the whole game. It was stunning just how unsportsmanlike they behaved on the field of play. I lost a lot of respect for them that day and I am not sure they can ever regain it. They sullied the game I loved and it pains me to have been a part of such an ugly spectacle.

Whatever their plan was, it worked as they were able to score two goals in the first half. It seemed they were trying to get us of our game and were doing a good job of it. We were too busy complaining and falling for their tricks to implement our usual style of play. I scored in the 41st minute of play, so going into the half we were only one goal down. Unfortunately for us, they were able to score another goal in the 50th minute which pretty much sealed our fate. I managed to score a goal in the 80th minute, but it was too little too late. They scored another, five minutes later, putting the final nail to the coffin. We went home heads slumped that day. It was not a good showing and we wanted nothing more than to put it behind us.

The Goal P.6

It was no easy task convincing Hilda to let her youngest son go. She was adamant that he stay and finish school. Maurizio on the other hand was patient and willing. He had dealt with her type before; the parent who saw how valuable their child’s skills were but didn’t one to let him go just for anything. They needed to be convinced of just how much said child’s talents could change the fortunes of the family. With the right tutelage, Andres could hone his skills and in little to no time start making millions. Everyone would benefit, surely Hilda could see it Maurizio’s way, he told her.

His schooling would not be jeopardized as Espanyol had one of the best youth soccer systems in the world. Tutors made sure the young men were being taught the lessons they needed to learn in school. The biggest difference Andres would have with his high school counterparts was that he would be getting paid whilst studying.

It was a tough decision for Hilda. She wanted the best for Andres but she also didn’t want to let go of her youngest son. Unlike his senior brother Vincente, Andres was quite naive. He wanted to get along with everyone, sometimes a bit too trusting. She wondered how he would adapt to leaving away from home and if he could survive on his own.

Andres on the other hand was thrilled with the opportunity. His dream was about to be realized. Contrary to what his mother thought, he wanted to get away from home. He needed to! There was a world out there that he didn’t know much about, it was calling to him and he was willing to oblige.

He pleaded with his mother to let him go. He would be alright, after all he was going to do something he loved. Besides it wasn’t as if he was leaving the country, she would still be seeing him often, it just required some effort.

After much deliberating and pleading, she finally caved in amidst tears and allowed her son to sign the form Maurizio had promptly pulled out from his pocket.

To Andres, it was the best day of his young life. In a matter of days he would be leaving his sleepy town and moving to Barcelona. It felt so surreal to him, like he was moving to another world. He had heard good things about Barcelona, about the city, its people and yes the lovely women. Even at that age, his interest in women had started to grow and was eager to see what the big city had to offer in terms of that.

Maurizio had left the very day he got him to sign but he had promised he would send travel documents for him shortly. It had arrived a few days later and Andres couldn’t stop poring over it. This was his ticket to stardom, he could sense it. He was going to miss his family but he knew he was responsible for changing their lives. God had blessed him with a gift, it was only right he gave back to his loved ones.

He was nervous as he boarded that plane flight. It was his first time on a plane and it felt so alien to him. His life was about to change completely, he wondered just how drastic it would be.

As the plane taxied off the runaway and started to soar into the skies. He peered once more, at the town below, where he had spent 16 years of his life. He wondered when next he would be back and if he would get the type of attention Tito had received. He smiled to himself, letting the thought sink in. He was prepared for whatever was coming, he was ready to win.

The Goal P.4

And so his legend was born, although it took a while to grow and spread across the region. Andres realized something that fateful day, he had discovered his calling and there was nothing that could dissuade him from achieving it.

He started getting more invites to play and never failed to deliver. He made more friends and became quite popular amongst his peers. He went from being bullied to being sought after all because of how well he played on the field. It wasn’t long before he was asked to join the school team. He was one of their youngest players, but you couldn’t tell on the field of play.

He was a natural and it showed whenever he had the ball. He scored with ease and played like a pro. Soon scouts from soccer clubs started to come watch his games after hearing about his scoring prowess. The offers started coming in, most from clubs trying to sign him to their youth teams. His mother refused, adamant that he was going to finish high school before making such a decision.

Hilda had seen what a lack of a proper education had done to her and was determined that her kids would not be reliant on others to survive. She was also smart enough to know that Andres could change the fortunes of the family with his talent. The boy was special and it showed whenever he was playing ball. It was almost as if there were two different people residing in him.

Off the field he remained shy, though his popularity had sky rocketed. He still felt uncomfortable with the attention and tried to shy away from it as much as he could. On the field, he was opposite. He played confidently, always rising to the challenge. You knew what to expect when Andres was on the field of play, his scoring prowess could never be under estimated.

Hilda probably wouldn’t have budged on her ‘wait till you graduate’ stance if she hadn’t met Maurizio. That meeting would change the lives of all the parties involved and set Andres firmly on the path of soccer super stardom.

Maurizio was the technical director for Spanish side Espanyol. In his heyday, he was widely regarded as one of the best midfielders in the world not just in Spain. He had been quite successful both as a player and as a coach. After retiring from coaching, he was persuaded to stay on in some capacity at the club. At first he declined, citing being burned out from spending so much time on the game. He took a lengthy hiatus from football to recharge his batteries.

Now he was back, his passion for the game renewed, his hunger for success needing to be satiated again. This time around he had no interest in coaching, intending to deal with the executive side of the game solely. Putting together successful teams was more compelling to him than coaching said teams. He had heard of a young Spaniard who had shown glimpses of being the next Tito. He was still only in high school but the talent was undeniable.

Maurizio set out to see this player for himself, curious as to whether the rumors were true or not. If this kid was anything like Tito, it would be imperative he signed him before the Barcelonas and the Real Madrids of the league got word about him.

European soccer had turned into an arms race with the best teams jockeying for the best talent. For some teams, acquiring players for exorbitant prices was easy for them. Backed by rich owners, assembling star squads was a priority, but for most teams, the game had to be played on a more prudent level. Discovering young talent was important, grooming them into world class players was an added benefit because said players could be sold for rich fees to improve the teams’ fortunes.

Espanyol had stayed relevant besides being in the shadow of their cross town neighbors Barcelona, who had no qualms about spending money to keep quality players on the team. They did so by scouting budding talent not only in Spain but around Europe. Hopping on their trails early, making sure they were in their ears before anyone else.

Whenever a young player was proving difficult to recruit, they would send in Maurizio who many in the organization regarded as the man with the golden voice. He had swayed many a redundant player or family member to his side, having astonishing success within the last few years to get prodigies to commit to his team.

So when he showed up at Andres’ high school game to watch him play, the top brass in Espanyol were convinced that by the end of the night they would have his ink on a contract form.

The Goal P.3

His brother looked at him quizzically. Wondering what he was up to.

“Where did you see him?”

“He was at Alberto’s. There was a large crowd there to see him.”

Vincente nodded, turned around abruptly and tried to slam the door in his brother’s face.

Andres was having none of it, he clung on to the door handle, not budging till he got the answers he wanted.

“Come on Vincente, please tell me who he is and what he does?”

“Why? Why does it matter to you so much?”

“I just want to know. I have never seen him before.”

Vincente sensing that his brother was not going to leave, shrugged and answered his question. “He plays football. He is a striker for Atletico. He’s one of the best players in the country.”

It was as if the fog had been lifted off his eyes…there and then he had his moment of clarity. Andres who up to that point cared nothing for sports had just discovered what was going to make him popular and transform his life. To him his reasons for playing football were simple. He no longer wanted to be known as the wimp. He was tired of being bullied and victimized. Football would bring him the adulation he sought, it would make people see him in a new light.

So he dedicated himself to learning the game. He watched every match that was on TV and began to practice on his skills. At first it was tough since he knew little about it. His coordination was bad, and he lacked the skills to do much.

Yet he was determined to triumph. Even his older brother was surprised at how much his football knowledge had grown in such little time. With every passing day, his skills and over all understanding of the game improved. So did his confidence which seemed to grow parallel to how well he was playing.

The kid who was once shy to associate with his peers, started asking to be included in the after school football teams. Of course it was met with resistance at first. None of the kids wanted a skinny frail ‘wimp’ on their team. Even on the field of play he was still being tormented. No one picked him, despite there being worse players than him. If Andres was disappointed by all this, he never showed it. He would take his ball and go workout on his own. Creating fictional opponents, honing his skills by himself.

His passion for football had grown incredibly. He told anyone willing to listen that he was going to be just as good as his idol Tito. One day, the kids had gathered together to play an impromptu game of football. Players were picked as usual, Andres was ignored, but this time around one of the teams was one man short and they needed a player to complete the team. Begrudgingly they selected Andres, who tried to play off his excitement by acting nonchalant about the selection.

He was quickly going to learn that just getting picked didn’t guarantee he would actually play. The kids on his team were familiar with each other and froze him out of getting the ball. Unfortunately for them, the opposing team had some really skillful players and quickly scored two goals to put them up.

Andres was fuming with rage at his lack of touches. He knew his teammates were being unfair and was going to have to take matters into his own hands.

On the very next play, he waited for the opposing team to make their move and then intercepted the ball from them.

He was off!

Cutting through defenders, sprinting down the field like his hair was on fire. With only the keeper to beat, he calmly placed the ball into the far corner of the post, scoring the team’s first goal.

Begrudgingly his teammates came over to congratulate him. From their reaction to his goal, it was clear they weren’t too excited by the manner he scored. Instead of passing to him again, they continued to freeze him, frustrating him even more.

The game remained tight, the opposing team still had the one goal lead. Sensing that he wouldn’t touch the ball unless he took matters into his own hands, Andres picked off an errant pass and ran down the field with the ball.

He was so quick that he outran most players on the field. He was left with one defender to beat and then the goalie. An image flashed in his mind briefly, he recalled watching Tito faced with a similar dilemma, but he also remembered how he had dispatched the defender to score. He was going to pull off the same move, hopefully with similar success.

The defender charged forward, Andres juked then faked like he was going to the right, but it was enough to commit the defender into biting. With a quick change of pace, he switched left and was off again, putting some serious space between the defender and bearing down on the goalie.

This time around the goalie wasn’t going to wait in his post for Andres to score an easy one, he came rushing out trying to psyche Andres out. Sadly for the keeper, Andres had seen this scene many a time on TV and was well prepared. He waited for the keeper to lunge at his feet and then niftily pushed the ball away from him, skipping over his outstretched arms and calmly knocking the ball into the post.

This time around, Andres picked up the ball and pointed to his impressed teammates.

“You better start learning how to pass to me.”

The Goal P.2

Andres had a tough childhood. He was a frail kid that was constantly picked on by school yard bullies. His confidence was severely battered, a shy kid that preferred his own company to that of others.

He hated school, not because of the classes, but rather the taunts and the beatings he would receive on a daily basis. His siblings never had the same problem, in fact both were quite popular and it sickened him every time he was compared to them, as if he were some kind of stain to their reputation.

There were numerous times he wished his father was around. Maybe he would have taught him how to handle the bullies, maybe the bullies would have backed off if they knew who his father was. Without such a presence, life was a nightmare for him or at least he thought it was at that present age.

It wasn’t until the age of 13 that things began to change and it was a chance encounter that did it for him.

He was returning home that fateful day, moping after a particularly tough incident at school when he noticed Alberto’s cafe was abuzz with excitement. People were packed all over the side walk, chattering loudly. Apparently something was going on inside. This was a rarity in that part of the world. Excitement was an anomaly, most people kept to themselves and the town kept its sleepy demeanor all year round.

Andres was curious as to what might be happening. He moved closer, hoping to catch a glimpse of what was going on. Thanks to his wiry frame he was able to maneuver himself to the front of the line.

Seated in the corner of the shop, talking to Alberto was a blonde haired man in his late twenties. He was dressed in a casual attire but one could tell he was rich. People stared at him as if he was emitting some weird aura.

“That’s Tito.” A plump lady said to her friend. They giggled nervously as they watched him dig into the meal Alberto had personally delivered to him.

He looked up at the crowd and smiled, driving a few of the younger ladies present into hysterics. This was all so fascinating to Andres. Here was a guy who was just trying to have a meal, yet even that most mundane of acts seemed to warrant so much attention.

Who was this man? What does he do and why were people so interested in him?

Those questions kept replaying in Andres’ mind like a never ending loop. His curiosity had been piqued and he needed to know more. This would turn out to be a life changing moment. For a kid who was pretty much ignored by all his peers, this was quite fascinating. He never fathomed that there were people out there that got this much attention. He wondered if one day he could be showered with such adulation.

As he slunk away from the crowd, headed for home, he was determined to find out who ‘Tito’ was. He had to know more…that man had stirred up something in him and he would not stop still he satiated that desire .

Excitedly he ran home, eager to find out who he had just seen at Alberto’s. If anyone would know, it was probably his elder brother who seemed to know everything that was going on in town, even the things he shouldn’t.

Barging into the house, Andres ran straight to his brother’s room, knocking on the door loudly.

“Vincente! Vincente!” he yelled excitedly, banging on the door with all his strength, yet no response from within. He knew his brother was in the room, he could hear the sound of music. Sometimes Vincente didn’t like to be bothered, he claimed he was working on something ‘big’ and shouldn’t be disturbed.

Usually Andres would have complied with his wishes but today he was willing to test Vincente’s wrath to get the answer he needed. He continued to knock on the door, groping and turning the knob as if he could get it open after a few tries.

Finally after what felt like an eternity to Andres, the clasp on the other side was taken off and the door was pulled back. A fuming, red-eyed Vincente stood in the doorway, towering over his brother, looking like he was about to pounce on him.

“Andres, what the fuck man? Why have you been trying to break down my door? Give me one good reason why I don’t knock your teeth out right now?”

By now, Andres would probably have been cowering in fear trying not to rile up his brother even further, but something had caught his eye, a poster he had not payed attention to in the past, yet seemed so poignant at the moment.

Atop Vincente’s bed was the man he had seen at Alberto’s, dressed in football gear, a ball beneath his feet. He looked so majestic, staring off into space, commanding the attention of all around him.

“That’s the man I saw at Alberto’s…who is he?” said Andres as he pointed at the poster.