Our Greatest Comeback: Thanks to your beautiful light
"What's up with that girl?"
Hiroshi, who was second in line among Tsuno's players, was intrigued by the sight of a teenager on the substitute bench. She appeared really small next to the team's taller and broader men. Her hunched and timid posture didn't help hide the difference either.
Takashi was right behind Hiroshi, closely observing the "TANAKA" and the number 9 emblazoned on the back of his jersey.
"Oh, don't you remember? It's Nao, the girl I hit with the ball yesterday," Takashi smiled shyly. "The coach invited her to the substitute bench."
"No, I understood that," he added matter-of-factly. "I mean... did the hit not affect her at all?"
Takashi understood the reason behind the comment. He observed an oddity in Nao's demeanor as she sat at the far end of the substitute bench. Despite two vacant seats before the first substitute, her nervousness showed. Her restless feet tapped the floor, hands fidgeted in her lap, and her gaze darted around.
"What's wrong with her?" Takashi inquired. "Could it be that..."
Nao in a blue yukata.
A white animal.
Takashi grew weary of these recurring thoughts. "Enough, focus. I'll ask her later," he reminded himself, shaking off the distractions.
Suddenly, he felt a tap on the back of his neck. It was Jun, who else.
"Relax, Takashi. We've practiced a lot for this. Just enjoy the game," Jun reassured, sporting the team's number 7.
"Oh, I know. Same to you," Takashi replied and continued looking ahead. "That will be difficult, though.”
Finally, the referee gave the signal, and both teams took the field. Surrounded by the roaring stadium, it was Tsuno's turn to kick off. Takashi approached the ball to take the initial kick, being the team's center forward. The only one they had.
For a moment, Nao's nervousness appeared to dissipate. Her attention fixated on Takashi, her beautiful brown eyes unwavering.
"I hope history won't repeat itself."
Nao was surprised to see Shiraito addressing her a few steps away, his gaze fixed on the field while his hands remained behind his back.
"The missed shot. His determination is clear, but... sometimes it can obscure more than it aids."
Nao continued observing him, her focus unbroken, until she startled, realizing their gazes had interlocked. Takashi's shy smile was met by her own, tinted with admiration and concern. Yet, she felt the impact of that gaze.
"Alright. It's time. The moment I've been preparing for so long. So many nights wishing for this opportunity..."
He cast a final glance at his team: Sasaki, Kenjiro, Kato, Yoshida, both Jun and Hiroshi. But there was also him.
"And I'll seize it!”
Takashi kicked off after the whistle, and the match between Tsuno and Hyuga began, surrounded by the roaring cheers of the spectators. The twenty-two players began giving their best effort. Especially Kenjiro, who quickly had a clear opportunity.
"Nakamura!" Jun surged from the left flank to receive the ball from Kenjiro, originating from the midfield. Kenjiro advanced to outpace his marker, while Jun performed a clever feint before executing a through pass. One of the opposing defenders rushed to intercept, but Kenjiro veered to the right and struck from beyond the box. Seizing the advantage of a "cold" goalkeeper, the ball curled gently into the net near the far post.
The entire team jumped with joy, and the nearby pursued Kenjiro to the corner flag, where number 10 celebrated with uplifted fists.
"Well done, Kenjiro!" Hiroshi shouted, getting very excited while playing football.
"That was a great goal!" Yoshida exclaimed, jumping to hug him in a hurry.
Kenjiro, however, merely smiled. Even in moments of success, he was a man of few words.
"Thanks. Nakamura, good pass," he said while high-fiving Jun.
"Good job," Jun responded.
"Nice goal, Kenjiro."
Takashi approached, his characteristic shy smile in place. A fleeting glance from Kenjiro communicated a smile not meant for him but for the triumph. Takashi understood this silent exchange, feeling genuine happiness for the achievement.
"Alright, we are in the lead since the first minute. I hope the next goal will be mine," he thought determinedly as the stadium was delighted.
On the substitute bench, Nao seemed completely astonished by the early goal.
"Ah, if this isn't football, where is football?" Shiraito exclaimed, putting a lollipop in his mouth as he repeated a catchphrase.
Amid the electric atmosphere, Nao couldn't shake her unease. Her attention stayed laser-focused on Takashi, tracking his every move with an enthusiasm as if she were witnessing the mastery of a world-class player. Unspoken, this notion may have briefly graced Takashi's mind, though he remained far from such stature.
Ten minutes later, Kenjiro passed the ball to Takashi, who received it with his back to the goal. His control was poor and delayed the play.
"What are you doing?" Kenjiro shouted angrily. "Pass it!"
More out of instinct than personal preference, Takashi executed a small sideways pass to Kimura. His experiences had taught him that simplicity was often the wiser route. The ball swiftly found Hiroshi from above, placing him in a prime position for a header.
"Let's go!" number 9 said with enthusiasm.
As the goalkeeper advanced, Hiroshi unleashed a powerful header toward the center, where Kenjiro and Takashi were poised for action.
To the goalkeeper's astonishment, Watanabe opted not to shoot, allowing the ball to glide past him into Takashi’s position. He was ready to take the shot. He always was.
"Let's go," Takashi internally shouted.
He missed the ball. An open goal. The greatest embarrassment for an attacking player.
"No..." Takashi felt a void inside him. And from Nao's reaction of disbelief, she felt something similar.
Just when he thought all was lost, Jun appeared from the left flank and pushed it inside. Once again, the stadium erupted in madness. 2-0 in ten minutes.
"Yes!" Jun shouted with his arms open wide as he ran towards the corner flag. Once again, everyone nearby embraced him, including Takashi, who quickly stood up after his mistake.
"Nice goal, Jun! Hiroshi, I'm really sorry for that."
"It's alright! It was a good pass to Kimura earlier, keep it up," Jun reassured, while Hiroshi offered a supportive pat as he passed by.
"So, it's already two-nil... um... you're doing a great j-," ‘Job’ was what Nao tried to say before the coach interrupted her, completely ignoring her speech.
"Ueda! Quicker passing! Tanaka! Risky move, cut down the hesitation! Kato! Maintain the offside line, damn it!"
Nao was terrified by Shiraito's tense movements as he directed his players.
Shiraito's intense gestures left Nao trembling. As he directed his players, her anxiety led her to grip her pants around her thighs, attempting to quell the tension. She struggled to comprehend the irrationality of Coach Shiraito – a coach who, even when victorious, vented his frustrations on his team.
But amidst many things that could be critiqued about Coach Shiraito, football definitely was not one of them.
Hyuga's goal. Another Hyuga’s goal.
"No! You did everything wrong!"
Shiraito's frustration propelled a water bottle into the air, heightening Nao's distress.
"Oh my God..." she said before turning her gaze to the field. "Takashi..."
Takashi's demeanor was far from composed. As the chaos of Hyuga's celebration engulfed the team, he appeared defeated.
"Sasaki, make a save for goodness' sake!" Kato's urgent plea resonated.
"What?! You should've closed down the angle before his shot!" The goalkeeper's response brimmed with intimidation, as he approached Kato.
"That's enough! Wake up and do your job!"
Following Kenjiro's eruption, they settled into their positions. The stern gaze of the commanding captain settled on Takashi. It bore an unspoken challenge.
Show us if you can score.
Despite his earnest efforts, Takashi's attempts couldn't yield a goal. Even the persistent crosses into the box couldn't stave off his every shot's misdirection.
"God, you're hopeless," Kenjiro scorned.
Breathless and drained, Takashi met Kenjiro's gaze. "I know. There's no need to remind me. God, why can't one go in?"
Then, the referee's whistle punctured the air. A substitution for Tsuno was signaled. Number 11 was coming off. Ueda, number 11. Takashi. The useless forward.
With these thoughts in tow, he hastened off the field, a sense of disappointment enveloping him. "Once again, I messed up everything." He fist-bumped Otsuka, his replacement, who played as an attacking midfielder. Not as a center forward.
"Well done, Ueda. Rest," the coach's words carried a gentle and genuine touch as he offered a tap on the back of Takashi's neck while passing.
We don't need you anymore.
That’s what Takashi felt, sitting in one of the rightmost seats. He pulled his shirt collar to his forehead and tugged it up, frustrated.
Takashi let go of his shirt and looked to his right. Nao was looking at him with a shy smile but with visible concern.
"Thanks," he replied.
She is just being polite.
The sharp pang in his chest grew along with his nerves. And his unease. Takashi didn't feel that way about Nao out of contempt, much less. It was an instinctive response. When he encountered such moments, be it with Nao, his friends, or anyone else expressing such sentiments, he couldn't help but sense that disappointment would be justifiable. Ultimately, the match culminated in a 2-2 draw.
"I let them down again," was what he felt.