The Changing ROOm
The air is heavy with tension. Each inward breath seems to crush the lungs tighter, a band of iron across your chest. The muscles strain to be still, the hands clench around a water bottle or a practice Yooyu, but the nervous energy reverberates across your sinews and shudders across your mind. You are in the changing room.
This is a place of time. A place of the last three minutes before the whistle blows, and the match begins. It is more than just a place for changing clothes – it is a place for changing yourself.
How much have you given up to be here? The muscles flex, strong and lithe from years of training, the long hours wound tightly around your frame, the scars of the rebounds gone wrong writing a path of your history. How hard you played, how much you fought, the sacrifices you made, to be here. Feel your body coil under you, full of potential waiting to be unleashed. Feel the climax of your life, closing in on you. You are at your peak, raring to go. You are the most ready you have been, or ever will be. Just waiting for the whistle to blow, in the last three minutes.
Yet here is also where it all begins. You are just starting. A beginner still, a rookie, and the pre-match nerves never quite go away. Sitting here, in the three minutes before the whistle blows and you are summoned out to play, you feel the same as before your first ever match. Your mind jitters around your skull, your heart beats in your mouth, and even your slow and steady breathing rattles around your body.
This time for inward reflection is for the calm before the storm. To gather up all your thoughts to mental completeness, to stretch every muscle to perfect readiness, before exploding outwards in one burst of pure energy, before racing down the pitch with the Yooyuball in your hand and your heart singing in your ears and the sun dazzling the feverish eyes of the crowd and the noise of the game all around you. To play.
This was never just a game, though. It never can be. For here, Yooyuball is life. Every goal is a vindication of your self and a victory for your team; every loss like a physical pain, that strikes at the heart. Game is too light a word. Here you play for the honour of your team, your homeland and yourself.
Lilo Blumario spins a Yooyuball idly between his paws, feeling the worn leather of his gloves warm and soften in response to the familiar touch of the Petpet. Hadn’t he tossed a hundred, a thousand such, in his quest to be an All-Star? The brightest of the bright. His dazzling career, his boldness on the field, his inspirational leadership had all earned him honours and plaudits beyond believe. But he could imagine no greater honour than this – to play for his home team in the Altador Cup. His vividly coloured costume blurs in his vision, as he stares at it - Roo colours, Roo pride. He’d given up his lucrative contract for this privilege - to lead his home team to victory. But what were Neopoints to him anyway? He rather fight side by side with his compatriots, than buy another Neohome he didn’t need and never lived in. He’d rather be a Roo Islander than rich. They said a Roo could leave Roo Island, but that the Island would never leave him. Lilo Blumario was starting to see how true that was.
Jair Tollet admires the colours down her armband, red, yellow, green and blue. Bold and bright, not a bad outfit – full of spirit and energy at least. Another season and another team and new colours once again. It was strange to swap around so much, to leave behind newly made friends and team-mates and then to face them down on the field. To drift through all the colours of the rainbow. But this team had an edge to them that made her pause. The underdogs last year, they had caused a huge upset to many of the bigger, more professional and more polished squads, despite their ramshackle line-up. She saw the spirit in them she saw in herself, that she so admired – the pluck, the energy, the willingness and determination that made a good Yooyuball squad... great. Sure, she had a number of teams competing for her talents, bidding her up. At the time, she’d thought she could leave Maraqua without a backwards glance. And in a mercenary way, she’d chosen the biggest pay, of course, chasing the money all her career, with this last huge contract cementing her reputation as one of the best players of her generation. Or so she’d thought. But she had met in Lilo Blumario qualities she’d forgotten about, qualities she had missed before on the Altador Cup pitch in her quest for fame, fortune. Humility, for one. Team spirit. A sense of belonging and pride. She felt she knew what she was missing now. She was rediscovering what being a team was all about, and how Yooyuball had always been bigger than her, bigger than just any one person. Jair Tollet fought for Roo Island now, with more of her heart than she’d known she had.
Clutch Billaban stretched out his claws in quiet contemplation and checked the shields on his wings were still tightly secured for the fifth time, feeling their reassuring tug. His pre-match ritual was complete – the years of superstition like clockwork now – and now his time was his own, to steel his nerves once more. The last line of resistance, old Clutch, the last bastion of hope for any stray Yooyus that shot through the defence and came streaking towards the back of his net. He guarded the goal fiercely, protectively, like the Pteri’s own nest, still surprisingly nimble after all these years of playing. Clutch had stood in the way of the great goals that never were. The spectacular slides, with his beak in the mud but the Yooyu clutched tight to his chest, the dives, the swoops, the plunges. The cheers for good old Clutch, coming through for this team once more. Ah, he remembered his old team-mates, long gone now, retired to bask on Roo Island’s sunny shores. But he, having served in a thousand incarnations of the Rooligans, battled on. The prospect loomed over him – the sudden injury or the slow decline – his glorious and distinguished career would come to an end, sooner or later. But, this year, he would do them all proud, those ancient veterans, those proud newcomers. While he had breath left, Clutch Billaban would fight for Roo Island.
Fenny Vail’s bright blue eyes sparkled behind her heavy fringe, as she tapped her paw quietly on the worn floor, her bunches bouncing with each movement. Those who thought of her as a ditz, as a carefree, happy-go-lucky Usul, would have been surprised to see the dedication and intensity in her eyes now. Small in stature, with a fondness for ribbons and pretty things, she’d been overlooked by many of her competitors before now. Throughout her childhood, the hulking defenders of other teams would scoff and laugh as the diminutive Usul came out to play, her red ribbons proudly displayed, telling her to go back to the cheerleading squad, the beauty salon, the audience. And then they would gape in amazement when she would streak out of nowhere to tackle their leading striker, to nimbly steal the ball from under their clumsy paws, to dodge, weave, pass, score. Maybe then, after the match, a few would come over, humbled, shake her paw, and ask her name. And that was how Fenny Vail had risen up the Yooyuball ranks. Overlooked, ignored, an underdog through and through – just like the Roo Islanders had been. She, and her team, were living proof of the dangers of under-estimating your competition. Last year, their run of success had been improbable, impossible, stunning, in the Altador Cup’s officials’ own words. This year, it had been stratospheric. As Roo Island scaled the highest heights, so did Fenny Vail – her eyes alight with the challenge of proving everyone wrong, overturning every expectation, just as she had been doing all her life.
Gordo Gunnels felt a potent mixture of anger and grim determination begin to pulse around his system, his claws sinking into the soft wooden bench as he fought himself to wait. He could not wait to get out there, face the opposition down, roar his fury and play the hardest he had ever played. What was more satisfying in the world than a tough match? The crushing tackles, the astounding blocks, the explosive launches of the Yooyuball from his mighty arms. He once had scorned the Roos, wondering how their reliance on frail and slight players, how their “niceness”, could ever amount to the muscle and power and raw aggression he deemed necessary to win a Yooyuball match. But signing up in an attempt to boost his home team to victory, he found a strength that belied their quiet and unassuming nature. Their power was in their minds, their attitudes, their team spirit, that bound them together and gave them their steel and he was beginning to understand their true power. Before, Gordo Gunnels would have stormed out of any matches lost, blaming his team-mates, his coach, the cheating opposition, the officials, cursing and spitting with rage; now he was learning to congratulate, to shake opponents’ hands over biting off their heads. And this time, as the familiar adrenaline pumped through his muscles, he felt the strength of his team flow through his mind – adding cold fire to burn at the heart of his fury, and reminding Gordo Gunnels that there was more than one way to win a match.
The whistle blew.
And there, then, to victory or to loss, they headed out, shoulder to shoulder, as a team.
Author’s note – I am a supporter of Roo Island and a proud Rooligan, as if that wasn’t obvious by now. :P I would like to congratulate all teams that participated in the Cup this year. It’s been fun playing against you, and fun playing with you. I wish you all the best of luck for next year. Win or lose, team spirit and good sportsmanship is something we can all be proud of. ~ oily106
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