There is that one dazzling slo-mo moment, when the kick goes up and the ball ascends towards the heavens, and with it, the booming empyrean of a hundred thousand devoted souls – not to mention those that worship from afar by GPS, in crowds in pubs and clubs and homes and corner stores, with eyes transfixed on the diminutive bladder of air as it begins its giddy rise.
This is my moment. Pushed hard on our line and just ahead, defence is all, and my eye, my whole being, is awakened. This is the moment I have trained for. The years of mud and grind, the wet evenings in sleet and clammy rugby kit, the constant crash of bone and muscle against men built like concrete pill boxes garbed in brightly coloured jerseys, the savagery of the ruck and rake, the dislocated joints and medical tape, the exfoliating stench of menthol creams, the ice baths and beer froth, the media parade and the shelves of plastic trophies back at home. This is the warp and weft of my life; what I was made for.
At its zenith there is a pause, a hiatus in time, when the ball is suspended flightless in the thin air.
At that moment we are lovers, espying each other from our corners of our worlds. She is heaven found, I earth bound, and we dance the dance of distance and delight. Come my love, I will catch you. I am trained for safe hands. It’s what I do.
And when she begins her descent I duck through several opponents and leap. She is a missive from the heavens. An orb of victory and I spring to pluck her from the golden skies. She is to be mine. The crowds roar, my arms stretch out and up and up with fingers arched like a swan towards the kiss of the gods. I will cradle you. I will be your stronghold, and you our salvation!
Undaunted the cuckold ball slips through a hole in my grasp and tumbles to the battered turf below. It is scooped up by a concrete pillar wearing the wrong colours and, with hammers for thighs, he weaves his thunderous bulk through an alley of my teammates and flails across the line.
Victory is not ours.
I did not hear myself hit the grass amidst the ruinous and jubilant cacophony, but I did hear my heart shatter into a myriad fragments. I saw the grass in my face when I fell, and the force of my shame swamped me. I saw flags being waved, people crying and falling over, and half the world had joy as their companion through the night. I did not share the ice bath, or the beers, and was spurned by media, teammates and supporters. “Choker” they said. “Fucking dreamer threw the championship.” I did not watch the replay, as many millions did, the record of my shame and guilt and failure, and the end of my career.