Featured / The Pine Barrens League

The Pine Barrens League, Part 8:The Final—How to beat the great Lobanovsky?

Editor’s note: For your offseason pleasure, PSP is happy to present an multi-part fiction series entitled The Pine Barrens League. In part 8, Schnauzer and company play a team of Russians hired by the organizers who don’t want to give up their money. 

It felt like the world had come down on us when we arrived at the “field.” To our horror, we were looking at a sheet of concrete in a huge shipping ware house. The pillars that carried the roof were standing only a few feet from the touch line. The floor was as shiny as a dance floor and none of us had brought indoor shoes. Creepy marching music was blaring through rinky-dink speakers. We panicked, nobody was even wearing sneakers, we were all wearing comfort shoes and slippers. Bunga Bunga suggested we’d find a shop somewhere in the building to sand down the bottom of our cleats. It was the driver of the van, who had come to like us after all these weeks, who suggested he’d drive back to the outlet mall, we drive by earlier, to buy all of us new shoes. Win gave him his credit card and Hung quickly wrote down the sizes. “Get tennis shoes if they are out of soccer shoes,” he demanded. “No running shoes.”


Slim started to lead us in simple stationary warm ups. Although the field was set up—there clearly were provisional bleachers, and extra lights on the ceiling—I wasn’t able to see anyone. No players, no Russians, no audience, no waiters, just that ridiculous music.

“So how are we going to do this,” Minotaur said with a loud voice.

“We play, and if we win, we take the money, share it, go home,” Win said.

“They’re good for it?” Minotaur asked. The whole team was staring at Win, because we all had our doubts.

Win smiled. “I trust them,” he said. “Everything they promised they have fulfilled.”

“We should ask to see it before we start,” Bunga Bunga said. We all murmured in agreement. Win looked at me. “That’s your job,” he said.


To our relief, at 8 o’clock, the official starting time, nothing happened. By 8:30 the driver had returned with the shoes. He was a hockey player himself and, for what it was worth, threw in some stick wax and a couple of rolls of tape.

The shoes fit, but not snugly. We wrapped the tape around our ankles.

At 9:00 we were kicking a ball around. There still weren’t any uniforms to change into. Win wasn’t bothered by the delay. Bunga Bunga was the first to lose his composure. “What the fuck!” he shouted. His was barely able to shout over the marching music. I tried to calm him down. “They want to get us off our game,” I said. He looked at me, sheepishly. “So what are you saying? They want us to play the fucking game?” I nodded. “Then where the fuck are they?” Bunga Bunga shouted. “Hey!! Where the fuck are you? Come out here and fucking play!!” Nothing happened, except for the music, which became louder, someone was listening.

We continued to stay loose by kicking the ball around. My concern was mostly nutrition. We were used to eating and drinking at the right time in order to be prepared for the game, but there was no cart, no cooler, nothing. I thought about asking the driver to make another run, but was afraid that if the game commenced and something bad suddenly happened he wouldn’t be here to drive us away.

It wasn’t until after 9:30 when things started to happen. The annoying marching music went, and the lights dimmed. A large hangar door was pushed aside, and the sound of Country & Western music filled the room, followed by small groups of people who came in with drinks in their hands and smiles on their faces. The Russians were probably liquoring them up to induce higher bets.


It took about ten minutes or so for the audience to settle. Then, my God, you wouldn’t believe it, they killed the lights, turned on a couple of spotlight and started playing Wagner. An actual MC started to introduce their players one by one. She was in the middle of the pack. There was one other woman. The guys were clearly good soccer players. They seemed focused and devoted. They wore high end custom-made uniforms, while we were still in our warm up clothes.

The refs came in and stopped in their tracks because we weren’t wearing jerseys. The audience was laughing and screaming to get the game underway. Win started to walk to the platform where the Russians were gathering when a golf cart showed up from behind a few shipping containers. What I sort of expected happened. As part of their intimidation and distraction scheme the uniforms were about a size too small.

When the ref called for the captains she finally introduced herself to me—her name was Yulia. “Do you want to change shirts after the game?” she asked with a huge grin on her face. “It looks nice on you,” she continued with a heavy accent. “Don’t you think this is a little ridiculous?” I asked. I made sure the ref could hear us. Her smile disappeared. “Listen,” she said it like a weapons dealer about to walk away from an agreement. “If you want to give up…”

“Ha – ha – ha,” I replied dryly.

“It will save you the embarrassment,” she said with some venom.

“We don’t have anything to lose,” I stated confident. “Only to gain. You on the other hand, what’s going to happen to you when you lose? Back to the coal mines?”

As stand offs go, this one wasn’t a bad one. She almost flinched, but caught herself.

“I don’t lose,” she said while staring at me with her two Balkan black pearls of eyes. A shiver went over my spine, but she didn’t notice it.

“There’s a first time for everything,” I replied.


I won the toss. While staring at Yulia I called to Knees. “What?!” she replied. “Ball?” I asked. “Yes!” She answered. “We take the ball,” I said to the ref. “We take that goal,” she pointed at the direction of the large shipping containers, to the left of the audience.


“Where’s the money!? Minotaur suddenly shouted. I looked at the ref, who pulled up his shoulders in a shrug. I looked at the Russians on the platform, who didn’t respond. I started walking toward the platform—”Don’t do it,” Yulia hissed under her breath—I owed it to my team and to Win. “Where’s the money?!?” I yelled at the Russians. They conferred for a brief moment and a few seconds later a young man came forward with an attache case. He opened it. Everybody was looking. I grabbed one pack of hundreds to make sure they were for real. I put it back, took the case from the young man and put it on the mark where touch line and midfield connect, but slightly more on our side. When I returned to the field I gave her the what-do-you-know look. She turned away.


Apparently, Yulia was both coach and captain. She called her players in for a huddle, speaking Russian with them. Win called us in as well. He took a deep breath. The audience had stopped laughing and screaming, as if they wanted to listen in.

“We’ve come a long way together,” he began. “I have never seen a more committed group of people, of people committed to the team, than you guys—and you even didn’t know each other before this started.” He took a short pause, looked for his cigarettes instinctively, but decide not to smoke. He sniffled and suddenly got a strange glare in his eyes. “You know in soccer there’s this one mythological game you cannot lose? Well, this is that game.” He looked all of us in the eye, one by one. “That team is better,” he said. “Excellent players…” He paused before continuing. “I have to apologize, but I’m afraid we have to go Broadstreet on them.” Then he turned to me. “You like her, don’t you?” I nodded. “Take her down, hard. I want to see blood.” I felt my heart pounding in my throat. I’ve played my whole life and During that time I have played many rough games. I”ve also have taken out guys. But I have never received an assignment to take some one out who I had developed feelings for. “You can do it Schnauz,” Doc said. “You’re a bad-ass motherfucker,” Minotaur added. “She’s been playing you all this time,” Hung said. “She is pretty, that’s what pretty women do best, and you are extra sensitive, considering your situation at home.”

“Forget about it,” Bunga Bunga said. We all looked at him. “You know…. ” he started while trying to make a gesture representing the female genitalia. Knees sighed. “Pussy, he means. Forget about the pussy.”


When Duke saw Yulia coming up in the first minute of the game, he passed to me hoping she would attack me, but she stayed back. I dribbled up to challenge her. She smiled her beautiful smile, stepped up, and with mercurial speed, took the ball from me. I touched her heel enough the make her trip on her own legs and she landed with her head on the concrete, hard. The ref didn’t see the foul. Minotaur quickly recovered the ball and pushed it towards Doc. I stretched out my hand to help Yulia up but she refused furiously. She had scratches on her face and on her knees. None of the players on her team stood up for her. She slowly got up on her own. “If that is how you want to win…,” she said.

Doc rolled the ball to Bunga Bunga, who immediately was pressured by their number 14, a tall muscular guy with thin lips and straw blonde hair. Bunga Bunga faked a pass, and was able to shake him off long enough to find Knees, who touched it to Jericho, who had decided to stick with the Old Testament for the game.

“Then the king commanded,” he recited as he moved with the ball, “and they brought Daniel, and cast him into the den of lions.” Their number 10, a short, dark-haired guy who looked more like a university professor than a soccer player, came in to close Jericho down. He hesitated in making a move and the professor quickly turned his body into the ball and pushed Jericho off. He took a few steps with the ball and then passed it to his center mid, number 9—shaved head, looked like a young Putin. This guy took off like a maniac. Fortunately, Hung was smart enough not to attack him, but to force him to his right where Bunga Bunga stepped up. Putin must have seen from the corner of his eye he saw that Doc wasn’t covering the back post so he chipped the ball over his head. Fortunately Minotaur noticed the hole and was already close enough to head the ball into Doc’s hands. Doc realized a huge disaster had been averted. Putin gave Yulia a quick glance, as if to apologize. It seemed she had this team totally under control.

“Lobanovsky,” I said out loud. “Lobawhat?” Hung replied. “Lobanovsky—he developed the scientific method for soccer, brilliant coach from Dynamo Kiev in the seventies. Lobanovksy!!” I yelled at Win while pointing at Yulia. Win acknowledged and locked his eyes on Yulia.

Doc rolled the ball out to me. I received and watched what would happen next. I noticed how Yulia, who wasn’t paying attention to me, used subtle hand signals to command her troops. Not only did the team morph seamlessly from an attacking 3–4–2–1  to a defensive 5–4–1 formation, she also switched a few players around.

I suddenly realized how stupid I had been—I’m such an idiot, thinking she actually liked me. She came to all those games to take notes. She knew Jericho and Slim’s strengths. She knew I wasn’t going to give up the ball. She was also aware that there was no harm in letting us move the ball up, because she knew how to contain Pope and Sandler. When her whole team was set up the way she wanted she came up to me. “Are you going to play?”

“I will,” I replied. “Come get it.”  She stepped up another yard—I wanted to slap her. Her knees and elbows were still bleeding a little. When she attacked I toe-poked the ball to Hung. She went after the ball like a rabies-infested cat. Hung turned away and let her fly by hoping she’s fall. He touched it back to me, I tapped it to Minotaur, who found Slim while Yulia was relentlessly chasing the ball by herself. Only after a few minutes did she signal her midfielders to step up.

She had taken her plays literally out of Lobanovksy’s play book. The player you’d think would shoot would pass the ball one more time, because, in theory, the other guy would have the better shot. She tried that a couple of times and every time Hung and I were in the right position to intercept. Our attack however didn’t go anywhere, much like our plan to go Broad Street on them—we didn’t even get a shot at goal the first half.

We needed a drastic change, and fast.

 Look for the conclusion of The Pine Barrens League next Monday morning.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *