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The Pine Barrens League, part 5: Catenaccio!

Editor’s note: For your offseason pleasure, PSP is happy to present an multi-part fiction series entitled The Pine Barrens League. In part 5, Scnauzer and company struggle to “unbolt the door.” Look for each new installment on Monday mornings through the end of January.

I’m not going to bother you with my personal issues this time (it’s going to be couples therapy), but my God, what a game.

I told you last week we were at that school, right? Last Saturday we were using that same field, but now there were at least a thousand people, maybe more. Everybody was dressed up to go to a fancy AC New Years Party, there was a great atmosphere.

Apparently last year one of the players of the other team was stabbed by another player during the game. Now the team insisted all players should be scanned for weapons. A guy in black fatigues, who I suspected to be one of the snipers, used a handheld metal detector to check the players and the coaches for weapons, while another guy went over to the benches to check all the bags. Neither of them found anything but scissors to cut tape.

 —0—

These guys already had their turbos on during warm up. On three small-sided fields they were playing keep-away, but hard, like they were preparing for Armageddon. Win called us in before the warm up. “These guys are good,” he said. “Most of them have played in Mexico and Honduras. They are playing the intimidation game the way it’s supposed to be played, OK? We should stick to our own warm up routine and later on to our own game. If these guys get to us we’re screwed. Is that understood?” He had gotten himself all riled up. “Is that understood?!” He screamed. “Yes sir!!” we yelled in unison. He smiled a cautious smile, “Warm up.”

“He’s nervous,” Hung said a little later when we were doing light stretches. Win was staring at the other team taking notes and smoking cigarettes. “We’re up to $2700 each now.” He grabbed my shoulder to stretch his quadriceps. “Next game $8100, then $ 24,300. Final, seventy two thousand nine hundred smackaroos. If we win… I can buy my wife a new car. Pay off my debts. I’m home free. You have no idea.” He stared into eternity for a brief moment. “And if we lose…well, that would suck.”

“How about the others?” I wondered. “Dunno,” Hung answered. “Duke has a sick kid, I know that.” He sighed. “Most of us are having a pretty hard time, I think.”

He started to stretch his calves. On the other side of the field our opponents were still playing keep-away.

“What do you think?” I asked. Hung was staring at the ground while he flexed his leg. “Intelligent players. They’re going to let us make the play and take the initiative. They’re playing everybody back. At least, that’s what I’ve heard.”

Win whistled us in. “Catenaccio!” Bunga Bunga had overheard our conversation and yelled it hard enough for them to hear it. “Mother fuckers!”

Win gave us a quick run down of his analysis of their players, he had given them all a name. Number 8, “Xander,” was “playing against doctor’s orders.” Number 12, “Fidelio,” seemed neurotic because he was biting his nails all the time. And “Christiano,” their number 19, had a slight limp with his left leg. “Don’t step in his foot,” he said with a devious grin on his face. “The goalie has Ochoa’s hairdo, but not his skills. One mistake will take him out of the game. He’s bound to be on his wrong leg some time. Use that, even if you miss. Guys like this are able to grow into a game and become better unless you stop them.”

  —0—

I know catenaccio is a bad word to use in soccer, but Jeez.. They won the toss and gave us the kick off—and waited. Pope kicked it to Sandler who expected someone with exposed teeth flying at him. Instead their forward, Christiano, actually stepped back as if to say, come on, go ahead, show me what you got. The ball went all the way back to me and I kicked it to Doc. He dribbled it up and down the eighteen a couple of times until the audience started to boo—they wanted to see some action. He toe-poked the ball to Hung, who touched it Knees, she to Duke, Duke to Jericho, who was silent. That wasn’t a good sign. He had doubt in his heart. He dribbled the ball up to Fidelio, the nail biter. Fidelio, the neurotic, gained possession by sticking the ball to the sole of his shoe. Jericho was annoyed with himself, “Behold, there is a people come out of Egypt, which covereth the face of the earth: come now, curse me them; peradventure I shall be able to overcome them, and drive them out.” But to no avail. Fidelio was able to get the ball to Xander, who was in no hurry to start an attack.

Pope usually liked to go after the ball like a puppy, but now he didn’t. He just moved a few steps up to cut off the path to their other forward, David, a scrawny man whose face looked to be ten years older than his legs. Xander heeled it to the goalie who kicked it to Juan, their—according to Win—”average” left defender. Juan dribbled the ball up towards Sandler, who wanted to attack, but decided to cut off his path.

All of us were extremely focused, it felt like we were playing a Champions League final. I’m sure the audience must have been bored because the ball never came close to the goal in the first twenty or twenty five minutes.

The powers that be decided to spruce up the game.

In the 29th minute they got a free kick off a foul of Bunga Bunga, who attacked “Face,” who clearly had dropped himself to the ground. The ref was glad something had finally happened, and he awarded an indirect free kick. Bunga Bunga didn’t protest because he didn’t want to risk the rubber bullets. Five women suddenly broke away from the crowd, ran towards the corner flag, then along the goal line to the goal. They were all gorgeous. They screamed and laughed to get Doc’s attention. We all were staring at the women who—of course—dropped their fur coats when the whistle blew. The ball landed behind Doc, after a nice volley by Face, and we were still staring. Knees was yelling furiously, “Guys come on!! This is fucking ridiculous.”

The audience burst out in laughter, and cheer. Win was staring at the stars, trying to keep his calm. Doc realized he was punk’d and, always the gentle man, helped the girls back in their coats, and then walked them back towards the corner flag.

—0—

The lady in white was waving at me from the stands. I could hear her laughing from where I was standing. She sounded like a singer, a nice ripe shiny copper voice. When she saw me looking she gestured, “Now what?!” I waved the “go away” sign and she started to laugh even louder.

—0—

I walked up to the ref. “Do they have more pranks up their sleeves,” I asked. “Play!” He yelled.

 —0—

He blew the whistle to get the game started again. The ball was already waiting for us, but Sandler wanted to wait until everyone was in position.

Win whistled. He pointed at Slim and then up field. Slim nodded and stepped up to become the third forward. He then pointed at Minotaur to move up too. We were going to a 3–3–1–3 while they were still playing with five on the back line.

“Come 90, they will beg for mercy,” Hung prophesied.

Pope and Sandler were still standing next to the ball, waiting for us to get organized. I signaled Duke and Knees that we should start working on the goalie. They chatted for a brief moment and yelled out a plan to Pope and Sandler, who both gave them the thumbs up.

We kicked off. The ball went to Duke, while Sandler, Slim and Pope ran into enemy territory. Their defense barely moved, while their midfielders gravitated towards our forwards. Face, their striker, went to meet Duke, who had no problem with him. By now our guys were at their defensive line, moving constantly up and down the line from left to right, and back again. Intuitively their defense wanted to play man-to-man, but they couldn’t, our movement was confusing to them. Duke still had the ball. When he was approached by Eusebio he pulled to the right. He then passed the ball to Knees who overlapped him on his right side, thereby creating a hole in the middle. Center midfielder “Eusebio,” who didn’t look like Eusebio, but more like Luis Hernandez, wasn’t sure whether to go after Knees, who was awaited by three defenders, or to stay in the hole which was about to be entered by our only open player, Minotaur. That moment was enough for Knees to accelerate and get their defensive line in to action. The ball went to Pope, then back to Knees, then to Duke who was still on the right. He blasted it to Slim on the left, who volleyed it to Sandler who was able to get Not-Ochoa to dive into the left corner and head it hard towards the right goal post. It went wide. Not-Ochoa was not happy with his decision to fly to the wrong corner, nor was his defense happy with him. Xander was yelling at him and pointing at the opposite post.

As if that wasn’t enough Not-Ochoa screwed up the goal kick, which landed out of bounds on the left at the 30 yard line. Duke grabbed the ball, threw it hard towards the corner flag, where Jericho received. “Therefore I will give thanks unto thee, O LORD, among the heathen, and I will sing praises unto thy name,” he yelled while driving the ball towards the goal along the goal line, cutting out Miguel, their left defender. He was covered by José, who kept a secure distance, thereby slowing him down and forcing the pass. The ball went back to Duke and all of their defenders stepped up immediately to open up the off side trap. Jericho was off, as was Slim. Hung touched it to Knees for a volley, who didn’t have to think twice. She hit the crossbar, but Not-Ochoa was ball watching instead of making the dive. That was a good, sign. Now we have to create some scoring chances.

 —0—

At half time Not-Ochoa stayed on the field with their right defender to take practice shots. Win didn’t say anything. We rested, had a drink. Knees was filling me in on the investigation. She said the FBI was focusing on the gambling more than on Kel. Apparently there were quite a lot of people out there who wanted him dead.

“Hey!” Hung suddenly yelled at me, “tell us about the lady in white.” I blushed, and the whole team started laughing like a bunch of kindergartners who had just discovered the word “poop.”

“She’s indeed good looking, from up close,” I said. “She’s the captain of the final team.”

“She’s with them. They don’t want to give us the money,” Win said. “So they’ll make us lose, set up a rivalry. Win-win for them, and for her.”

“Let’s focus on this game first,” I said.

Win gave me a quick stare. “OK,” he said. He sounded tired. “We get a goal, it will be the end of the goalie. The guy probably bullshitted himself into the team. My prediction is that they’re going to prevent us from taking shots from outside the 18. So we’ll taken them from 20 or 25. They’re not going to attack until we score. If we score we have to kick them again right after, understood? They’re a touchy bunch. Man, I love this game.”

  —0—

They were playing like Win predicted. No attacks, they weren’t even looking at our half. So we gave them a run for their money. It took about five minutes. I kicked the ball to Slim who dribbled it to their 18. He passed to Sandler, who was double teamed immediately. Not-Ochoa was yelling at his defense, but nobody seemed to listen. Sandler faked a shot, then faked a pass back to Slim. He was able to get the ball past Xander to Duke, who pounded it into the right side of the goal, waist height. The ball seemed to go into the net, but just missed.  Not-Ochoa was standing on the six, way out of position.

“Where the hell did you get that goalie?” I asked Face. He was startled, but didn’t respond. I pointed at Non-Ochoa. “Portero. De dónde te encuentras the portero?” He looked at me, gave me a nasty grin, “Es un idiota!” he screamed.

  —0—

That was exactly what I wanted to hear. After their goal kick they were able to come close to the goal quickly but Bunga Bunga forced Christiano to take a shot by cutting off his options. Fortunately he had no angle, only power. Doc didn’t wait to take the goal kick short to me. Their two forwards had retreated. They knew we had to score twice to persevere. I received and took the ball up to midfield. Their forwards were on my right side as if they wanted me to move into their left field. Slim was calling for the ball, as was Knees. Sandler was stepping back from the defensive line with Pedro stuck to him like a tick in a fat-roll. I kicked it hard and low to his left, and he was able to receive while turning away from Pedro. Suddenly he stood face to face with Not-Ochoa. Instead of taking him on he decided to curve the ball around him with his inside right foot. The ball went into the right direction, but did not have enough speed. Xander sprinted to the goal line and was able to slide kick the ball over the goal. The ball went over the cross bar, and Xander stayed down. Not-Ochoa tried to pull him up, but he gestured he needed a minute.

Because he was lying in the goal but off the field, the game continued, with a corner. Jericho murmured a few blessings when he placed the ball down. He stared at the ball then at the goal. He knew Bunga Bunga, waiting at half field, was ready to do a Pujol. He had to sprint forty yards. Jericho stepped back while he was gesturing with Sandler, the tallest guy on the field, where he wanted the ball. I was counting the seconds. One Mississippi. Two Mississippi. Jericho faked a step in, Bunga Bunga started to run. Sandler stepped to the left pulling two defenders with him. There was little space on the right corner of the six. Xander looked up. Three Mississippi. Xander started yelling and pointed at Bunga Bunga. Four Mississippi. He was almost there. Five Mississippi. The ball went in a straight line. Six Mississippi. Bunga Bunga banged it in with his head, Not-Ochoa did not have a chance. 1-1.

For the first time since we had started playing together we doggie piled. This goal was worth it (although it did revive bad World Cup memories). This 55th minute goal put us back in the game and them out of hibernation. The audience was cheering and singing Olé olé! My nemesis-to-be in white, was smiling a broad smile and clapping her hands—she seemed relieved.

Xander was back in the game. Their coach, who had been quiet since the opening whistle, was yelling his head off because his team seemed to have lost focus.

At kick off they were back to the same line up as when the game started. Pope and Sandler still seemed fresh, and started to chase the ball. Xander played up a little bit more, he shouted at Miguel and José, his left and right defender, to step up, too. I could see the look in his eyes, a look I recognized: he wanted to win at all cost. Initiated by frustration, they started to play much more physical. Knees was taken down hard, but she laughed it off. Sandler and Pope both were pummeled when the ref wasn’t looking, but they didn’t get complain either.

In the 60th minute,. Knees hammered another nail in Not-Ochoa’s coffin. Duke intercepted a pass at midfield. Not-Ochoa was standing at the 18, very cocky, with his hands on his hips. Duke touched it to Knees who lobbed it over Not-Ochoa, who was now running back hard. Until he fell. The ball bounced off the crossbar right into his hands. Now everybody was yelling at him for being so far out if his goal. Duke high-fived Knees, who couldn’t believe she missed.

From this moment on they were doing everything to get us out of our game and away from the ball. Elbows, punches, ball-grabs, Achilles-traps, you name it. The ref was probably tallying all their fouls, because in the 85th minute he was fed up. It might have been a minor mistake, a push from the back by Juan, but the ref called it and we had a great opportunity about 25 yards from the goal. Knees was going to take it. Everybody on the field knew that ball was going to go in, so they decided to use up as much time as possible to get the wall situated, at the right distance and the right angle. The clock was ticking slowly towards 90. Xander tried to fake an injury and the argument that ensued took another minute. In the 88th minute the ref finally blew the whistle. Knees was about to step in when suddenly Doc materialized out of thin air and hammered the ball past Xander’s head against Not-Ochoa’s hands. The sheer force of the ball folded his hands backwards and it passed the goal line. We were at 89 minutes and it took us a long time to get back to our half, about one minute I’d say. The other team was too tired to get upset.

 —0—

Win awaited us shaking his head. “Listen guys,” he said. I was sure he was going to complain about waiting for the last minute to win the game, but he didn’t. “You guys just played the best soccer I have seen in my life. It was creative, it was fast, the game had great energy. And you were disciplined, worked as a team.” There was actually a tear running down his cheek. “Thank you guys,” he said before he turned and tried to find another cigarette. We all had goose bumps, and we all wanted to stay here for eternity to wallow in our glory.

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