Zain never stood a chance today and he knew it. A beautiful day in fact, with just a couple sunlit hours left to go. The day was in fact slightly cold, where wind-stoked chills can stir discomforts for those idling on the bleachers. From that perspective, Zain had it easy even as he struggled to keep up with other players who moved past him seemingly twice as fast. Spotting a good opportunity at the right wing, he directed a long-range air pass, which sent the soccer ball sailing past the fullback’s head into the open space beyond.
Crkkk. Crkkk. This used to be easier, he muttered in his head, fingers massaging his left lower-back. From the line, the rookie winger bolted to where his pass landed, dribbling a few yards before crossing the ball towards Barker’s forehead near the center of the opposition box. A valiant heading attempt met by an equally valiant save, setting up a corner play. Taking a deep breath, Zain started jogging forward, doing his best to forget the recently healed fracture from preseason practice.
Somehow, Zain played through the whole 90 minutes of that game, a tidy 2-2 finish that should have been a win. The head coach felt similarly, though he did not seem to be directing disappointment towards Zain’s way. Still, Zain felt responsible. His passing was quite admirable that game. His positioning on and off the ball would have equally satisfied any scout watching from the stands. Zain ran half-heartedly however, catching himself saving energy in such a way that his ego one year ago would have understood, two years ago felt sympathy for, and five years ago regarded as unthinkable.
The coach’s decision to start him on the backside of midfield no doubt took his 33-year-old physique into account. “You’re captain, Zain, of course you’re going to play. Don’t be silly.” Yes, captain. Role model and mentor too, the shining exemplar of dedicated service to the club. Adding to the list this year would be “uncle,” as the kids like to affectionately tease him during practice. “Look alive guys, Uncle’s back,” he heard one said the first day he returned after being sidelined by injury. For the first time in his career, Zain felt less like a player affecting the course of the game and more a passive witness at the center of the action.
He knew his day would come. All great players fear retirement even as they joyously anticipate respite from the daily drills and dribbles. Zain would hardly consider himself great, but he was at least good. Good enough at any rate to know that he would soon be testing his head coach’s dedication. Five years ago, a performance such as todays would have motivated a few extra plays during their next practice. Two days from now, Zain will be pushing himself just to keep up with the standard routine. Just the thought itself lit a defiant blaze in his eyes, but eyes do not dribble soccer balls.
A capacity crowd roared thunderously today, over 40,000 packed to watch the season opener versus their league archenemy. Zain has always reveled in excitement for such games where many other players cracked under the intensity. He lived for these moments, the do-or-die games that test the depths of one’s conviction. And Zain, for his part, was a true believer of the most devout and pious sort. He would stand out there, proud, alert, and stoic, radiating calmness to the rookies who look mid-ward for their captain’s guidance. He would also be there for the link-up passes, a steady banner for those forward to rally around. All these thoughts and more Zain fantasized while watching the game unfolded from his seat on the bench.
The coach hasn’t said much to him that day, or the couple days leading to the game — there was no need. They’ve worked together now for nine years, and had Zain insisted upon his seniority he no doubt would have been part of the starting lineup. He’s sat out from important games before of course. Today felt different though. Today he felt unneeded.
The players circled the head coach at the 45, clearly expressing his disappointment at the team’s inability to make plays. “Show me something else in the second half,” he pleaded, before disbanding the group rally whole and working his way through individuals, starting with the strikers up front. They were only down 0-1, but Zain can understand the frustration from the bench. Through balls falling short of their intended distance. Crosses deemed offsides, one of which was a clear goal from Barker. Zain did not hold ill will against the refs of course: nobody is near-sighted by choice.
Soon, the second half began, with his team in possession of the ball. Zain entertained a flight of fancy while watching the players get into position. Against their formation, switching into a 4-3-3 would probably work, he thought, noting where he felt passes should go with three strikers up front that would most likely lead to a couple goals being scored and rounding out the game. If I was a coach, I would do this and this…it dawned on Zain that coaching wouldn’t be so bad. If he had to watch instead of play, better to do it from the sidelines than the stands. With the clock and players running back and forth upon the field, Zain seriously contemplated for the first time what retirement would look like at the season’s end.
A particularly nasty tackle snapped him back into the cheers and jeers of the game. Although the challenge was deemed fair, his partner Hutchens needed help limping off the field. In the commotion of the pause, he heard his name being called from a few feet down left. His gaze in the direction found his head coach’s eyes, eyes probing his resolve. For a brief few seconds, nothing else was said — there was no need. Zain’s feet instinctively walked him towards the head coach, as he has been doing for the past nine years. “Think you can handle 30 minutes on the field?” There was a faintest smile there, as much as professionalism would allow when injury substitutions are involved. “Made it 60 on the bench so far, boss.” A playful smirk accompanied his response, though largely suppressed out of politeness for the situation.
For today at least, his team still needed Zain. With some light stretches and a couple deep breaths, their captain jogged briskly towards the middle of the field, greeted by rapturous cheers from the fans overhead. Retirement will have to wait.