‘I’m sorry I have to drop you guys from the squad.’
This revelation hits us like a bullet to the chest. Everyone is too dazed to say a word, but the look in our eyes says everything. Fancy a man who’s had his marriage proposal turned down by his dream woman in the last minute. For my part, it feels like someone has pulled my intestines from the inside out. The FIFA U20 World Cup is only weeks away. What haven’t we done just so we can earn a place on the team?
Picture four young men, who wake up as early as 4 or 5a.m. each day and go jogging. Can you hear them panting as their tired feet scrape the earth? They would later go to the gym to work out. Can you feel the stickiness of their moist skin? They don’t eat what they crave- they follow the nutritionist’s dietary advice. And they never arrive late at the training camp. All this just so they can make the team! They’ve had to endure fractures, sprains, muscle pulls, you name it. But at long last, that coach with a protruding belly walks up to them and says, ‘Sorry, you are not good enough to make the team.’
The four of us decide to go out to an eatery. Hot eba and egusi soup might do some good. And maybe roast chicken and some ice cream too. Chigozie keeps staring at his phone all the time, as if expecting a phone call from the coach, withdrawing his decision. But everyone knows that Coach Maxwell won’t change his mind for nothing. A credit alert is sure to do the trick.
‘It’s really hard, guys,’ Faruk says, ‘but… life goes on.’
He further says he’s going to try his hands on something else. Street photography, likely. He says he had equal passion for football and photography, and was torn between both choices, but in the end he settled for the former.
‘But over the years, I’ve not really had luck with professional football. Well, I’ll still play football with the guys on the street.’
I look up at Chigozie all of a sudden. He’s on his third bottle of Heineken.
‘Come on, Gozie. Contrary to popular belief, drinks don’t drown troubles. They worsen them instead.’
He gives me a long hard look as if I had conspired with the coach to drop him from the team. He makes an attempt to speak but his voice sounds like rain splattering on glass. He finally gets the words out with some difficulty.
‘It’s true what they say. In life, it’s not what you know that matters, but who you know. I’ve been playing football since I was three or four. Is this all I get for my hard work?’
He gulps down some beer and coughs noisily. He says we were dropped from the team because we were not from the upper class. That some politicians had bribed Coach Maxwell, so their kids can play at our expense.
Watching him, it looks as if he’s going to burst into tears the next minute.
He says he’s the best player for the ‘solo striker’ position. But because some men in agbada had given the coach a thick wad of naira notes, he lost his place to Gerald- a boy, who, according to him, scores one out of eleven chances. He turns to face Amatesiro.
‘You are supposed to be the first-choice goalkeeper, but you’ve lost your place to that boy they call Ajayi because Coach Max is in love with his sister. He’s trying to get her attention by making her brother the first-choice goalkeeper. That boy is as round as a car tyre; he can’t catch a fly, talk more of a skillful volley by an experienced left foot.’
Amatesiro laughs as he scoops some ice cream into his mouth.
‘It’s all good. My pastor taught me to always move on. I don’t bear any grudges with the coach or anyone.’
‘Pastor’s boy!’ Chigozie says and laughs somewhat mechanically.
‘If it’s God’s will, I will play. If it’s not, fine.’
There is a round of silence.
‘For me, I’m done with football,’ I say. ‘I ran away from the house to chase this dream. I don’t have my father’s blessings- there’s no way it’s going to work out for me. I’m going back to school. I’m going to be a lawyer. And I will fight for justice for oppressed people like us.’
Faruk laughs first, then Chigozie joins him.
‘Everybody is leaving football. Thank you Coach Max for killing our dreams.’
It’s almost time to say goodbye to Lagos. Everybody is leaving next week. Back to those we love, those we left behind- our family, our friends. Faruk to Kaduna. Amatesiro to Warri. Chigozie to Onitsha. For me, Ibadan awaits me with open arms. But Amatesiro’s phone rings suddenly. You won’t believe it. The coach wants him back on the team. Ajayi the goalkeeper is confined to a wheelchair as a result of a road accident. You need to see the look on Amatesiro’s face. Like, is this an April Fool joke or what?
‘Tesiro, Please talk to the coach about me,’ says Chigozie. ‘I really need to play. Football is my life.’
I wake up to a text on my phone. It is from Chigozie.
Bye, Abiodun. I had no choice.
I jump out of bed. My mind is in a whirl. My phone rings. It’s Faruk.
‘I got a text…’
I’m finally leaving for Ibadan. This was not the kind of return I had anticipated when I was leaving for Lagos. I had anticipated a return with a medal around my neck, and a group of supporters singing my praise songs. But instead, I am coming back home to study and become a lawyer- and the picture of Chigozie’s suicide is constantly in my head. I phone Faruk.
‘Safe journey, bro. I just boarded a bus.’
The newscaster on radio appears to be saying something.
…a minute silence for the departed.
I ask the man sitting next to me what the news report is about.
He says the last thing I expect to hear.
‘It’s sad. The plane conveying our U20 football team got caught in a crash- and there were no survivors.’
I open my mouth to scream, but my throat goes limp. I bend my face and mutter to myself, ‘Tesiro, sleep soundly. I love you, bro.’
My phone beeps. It’s a WhatsApp message. It can’t be true. It’s Amatesiro.
Where are you, Abiodun? I didn’t go with the team again. I couldn’t leave you guys behind.