Our Greatest Comeback: Thanks to your beautiful light
"Let's go, Takachiho, we have to wiiin!"
The small Japanese town felt like it had mystically transported itself to a forgotten South American corner. Taiko drums resounded mightily, beats puncturing the air with resolve. Fans, brimming with passion, lifted their voices heavenward, as if every word was an offering to Inari, ancestral protector of Takachiho. The sun radiantly bathed the town's main stadium, illuminating players and spectators with eager faces.
"Wow, it's really crowded," Takashi marveled.
"Isn't it? The atmosphere’s incredible," Yoshida, his light brown-haired teammate, chimed in on his left. Jun was on the opposite, with Hiroshi following.
The words echoed in the air like an unquestionable truth: football had the power to gather crowds in that region. In a distant corner, a ten-thousand-strong town gathered at a small stadium, as if defying physics. Nine thousand filled the stands, forming a tidal wave of passion and fervency.
The atmosphere intensified as teams entered the field, led by referees. One side adorned in green and yellow, the other in blue and yellow. The opening match was imminent.
"Let's review one last time," Takashi reassured himself as he remembered the fixture. "The tournament features five teams, so there are two matches per round. Today, Takachiho opens the tournament against Kadokawa, and we'll play against Hyuga later. Nobeoka has a bye."
Tsuno would have their rest day on the third round, which was ideal for distributing fatigue. "It's great that we're not playing on the third round. The coach was really happy," Takashi recalled, remembering Shiraito's joy upon finding out they would have a ‘tactical advantage’.
The teams greeted each other, and after taking their positions, the match began. Both teams put on a great show, displaying quality and determination. The enthusiasm of the locals for the game was evident as they cheered for the home team. While it was common for spectators to cheer for all the teams, there was no chance of that happening when Takachiho played.
"Both teams are playing very well," Takashi thought, once again feeling concerned.
Victory held greater significance than city pride, already immense. Triumph in Northern Miyazaki meant facing the Southern champion on neutral grounds, and a win there secured a spot in the National High School Tournament—the pinnacle for high school football club members, and a gateway to professional football in Japan.
However, it was clear that they would have to overcome several strong teams to qualify, especially Nobeoka, the largest participating city team and the one that usually won the regional tournament. It wasn't going to be easy.
The stadium thundered as, early in the second half and after almost an hour of play, a Takachiho player netted the match's first goal. The crowd's fierce roar mingled with players' embraces—winners rejoicing, losers lamenting.
"So many emotions of hope, nervousness, passion, and courage blend together in a goal. This is football. And I want to enjoy it," Takashi reflected, being a devoted fan of the sport.
Yet, his attention shifted when he noticed, at the farthest stadium corner, a family rejoicing over the goal. The couple's daughter bore a faintly familiar face.
“Nao,” Takashi thought and grinned. He hadn't spotted her until now, but her presence filled him with happiness, for reasons he couldn't quite fathom.
The match continued after the goal, with Kadogawa actively seeking an equalizer. Takashi constantly conversed with his teammates, occasionally pausing to check if Nao was still there or if she would leave before he could talk to her. Meanwhile, the coach diligently noted everything he observed about the teams, just like Kenjiro, who remained silent throughout the entire match. They experienced football in different ways, each in their own unique manner.
Kadogawa's last-minute equalizer disappointed the home crowd, resulting in a 1-1 draw as the final whistle blew. Local fans felt the loss of valuable points, but applause greeted both teams as they left the field.
“Alright everyone! Head to the dressing rooms and start warming up right away!” Coach Shiraito directed. The players began to disperse, but Takashi had a different plan.
"I'll be right back," he said as he hurried to his right.
"Oh? Takashi?" Jun and Hiroshi wondered, bewildered.
Takashi jogged to the far right, finding Nao alone, distant from other spectators. She waved, shouting toward the field with a radiant smile. A mere five steps away, their eyes connected, turning her warm smile into panicked red cheeks.
"Eh?! T-Takashi?" she said nervously.
"I found you! How are you, Nao?"
Suppressing anxiety, she conjured the most enthusiastic smile her racing heart allowed.
"I-I'm good, and you?" she replied.
"I'm good, eager to play," Takashi said, smiling with great enthusiasm. "By the way, who were you waving to?" he asked, briefly perplexing Nao.
"Ah, see that boy there?"
Nao pointed at the edge of the field, to a short boy in a green and yellow jersey. Two people, possibly his parents, stood around him— the same people who were with Nao.
"That's my younger brother, Haruki. He just played his first match for Takachiho in the tournament."
"Eh? He scored the goal for Takachiho. He's really fast."
"Yes! He was always running around when he was little, so I think that helped him. It was truly incredible. I'm really happy for him," Nao's face radiated tenderness as she observed her brother. Captivated by her expression, Takashi paused.
"Wait a moment," Takashi was surprised by something else. "Did you say younger brother If he's debuting in the tournament... he's my age."
"Eh? You're in first year, Takashi? So, you're..."
Nao's face suddenly seemed to catch fire. Takashi shared that sentiment, surprised.
"So, you're older than me. I'm sorry, senpai," Takashi laughed.
"That's not true! I'm only one year older than Haru. I'm in my third year, so it's nothing to be surprised about," Nao blushed, revealing a mix of affection and annoyance.
"Eh? Don't you mean second year?"
Nao abruptly stopped. She was completely confused.
"Silly! You're confusing me!" she said while lightly hitting his shoulder.
Takashi couldn't stop laughing, despite a touch of embarrassment. A girl he barely knew treating him so naturally caught him off guard. "Where does she get such confidence?" he mused, aspiring to attain it himself one day.
"Ueda!" a deep, hoarse voice shouted from behind.
Coach Shiraito was briskly approaching from below. Takashi could predict his message as he felt nervousness, not in himself, but in the person beside him. Nao abandoned her natural posture and retreated upon the arrival of a new person.
"Stop wasting time here and go warm up..." Shiraito paused abruptly upon seeing Nao. "You, you're the girl from yesterday. Are you feeling better?"
"Ah, um... yes," she replied hesitantly.
"Thank goodness," he said before pointing intermittently at them. "Nao, Takashi. Takashi, Nao. Who would have thought that destiny would bring you together again?"
"But you already told her my name, old man," Takashi thought. He was surprised because Shiraito actually had a very good memory.
"You're right," Nao said, strangely, with fewer doubts than in her previous sentence. Then she turned to Takashi. "Well, you better go. Good luck in the match," she smiled at Takashi.
"Oh, thanks," he thought, "Say something else or I won’t see her again…
…so, I want to see her again? Why?”
Helplessly, he decided he would look for her later, so he began to turn around.
"Why don't you watch the match from the substitutes' bench?"
Takashi was as surprised as Nao, who stepped back in reflex.
"Eh? Um... well..."
"It's the least we can do after yesterday. If you're okay with it," Shiraito's nobility showed.
Nao, however, remained hesitant. Takashi noticed anxious movements in her hands, the same ones he sometimes had.
"Um, you see, I wanted to go to the festival with my family, and..."
She paused when her eyes met Takashi's. The poor boy looked at her expectantly, somewhat uncomfortable with the situation. As if seeing him calmed her down, Nao's expression solidified, and she made up her mind.
"Okay, I'll go," a timid smile accompanied her words.
"Fantastic. Ueda! Go warm up! I'll guide her”
“Oh, alright,” he turned to run off. “See you!”
“Ah, um... good luck!” Nao shouted somewhat shyly as she waved goodbye.
After the sudden decision, Takashi descended the stairs and headed to the dressing rooms to join his team. Anticipation buzzed for the forthcoming match, which would be a test of his courage. Thus, a touch of unease mingled in his excitement.
"Calm down, Takashi. Everything will be fine," he repeated to himself, thinking about the match, his teammates, and Nao, as subconsciously he felt that something in her response wasn't quite right. As if...
A girl in a blue yukata.
Nao in a blue yukata.
As he entered the tunnel leading to the dressing rooms, Takashi realized that his mind was a mess.
"Focus, Takashi. An important match is coming," he reminded himself, stepping into the dressing rooms.