Read Little's Losers Online

Authors: Robert Rayner

Little's Losers

Cover

Little's Losers

Robert Rayner

James Lorimer & Company Ltd., Publishers
Toronto

1
Losers

You have to feel sorry for Shay, picking the ball out of the back of the net again. That's the eighth goal he's let in this afternoon. It must be pretty humiliating for a goalkeeper, letting in eight goals. No — make that nine goals. I always lose count after the first six. That means this season I've lost count in most of our games.

“Lo-sers. Lo-sers.”

That's not a nice way to talk about a soccer team, is it? We're the losers, of course, and these are the supporters of the other team enjoying themselves by insulting us.

“Lo-sers. Lo-sers.”

I think the game's nearly over. I hope so. I like playing, but it's getting late and I'm starving. I'm so hungry I might even eat the soccer ball next time it comes this way.

“Toby, help.”

Do you suppose a soccer ball counts as a healthy snack? I'm trying to eat sensible foods that will help me lose weight.

“Toby, help!”

I wonder what's for supper. Scallops, with that brown rice Ma does — that'd be nice, if she can make it without turning the rice into a brown mush like she did last time.

“Toby, HELP!”

That sounds like Shay, our goalkeeper. I wonder what he wants.

“TOBY, HELP!”

“What's up, Shay?”

“You're playing soccer — remember? Look!”

He's pointing. Oh — right. I'm playing soccer, for our school, Brunswick Valley, against our old rivals St. Croix Middle School in the Southern New Brunswick Schools League. And here comes St. Croix, on the attack again. That's what Shay is pointing at. One of their forwards has the ball and is running down the wing … lipping easily past our midfielders … coming towards me. Here I go into the tackle. Oh — that's strange. I could have sworn he was in front of me, but somehow he's gotten behind me. Only Shay stands between him and the ball going into the net.

Correction: not
even
Shay stands between him and the ball going into the net.

“Sorry, Shay. I was daydreaming again.”

“You're about as much use on defence as a piece of wood, Toby.”

That's not Shay. That's Randy, the captain. He often gets mad at us because we're so bad.

Goal number ten. Double figures again.

It's not that we play badly.

We play terribly.

We're awful.

We're so bad it's embarrassing.

I suppose I don't help the team much. I try, but this is my first season playing soccer, so I'm still learning. Perhaps I'm a bit old — I'm twelve and I'm in grade seven — to be learning a new sport. I've done cross-country running before, but that's a lot different from soccer. When I'm running, all I have to worry about is me. When I'm playing soccer, I have a whole team to worry about. My friend Shay is helping me. “Toby Morton,” he says, “you've got to learn how to use the space on the soccer field better.”

“Okay. Tell me about it,” I say.

He says, “You open up space when one of our players has the ball, and close down space when one of their players has the ball. It's called the craft of making and controlling space. You've heard of handicraft and woodcraft and field craft, haven't you? Well, this is space craft.”

During the next game, the other team was coming towards me with the ball and Shay called, “Toby, space craft!”

I thought he was talking about flying saucers and looked up expecting to see invading Martians. Then the ball hit me on the head and I fell over. That led to another goal.

I think one of the reasons I'm not good at space is that I'm not the fastest soccer player in the world. This might be because I'm a bit overweight. Not seriously overweight, and I'm getting slimmer by exercising and eating healthy foods, but I've still got a long way to go. The way Shay puts it, tactfully, is, “Toby, you're a bit on the chubby side.” The only thing about me that looks athletic is my blond hair, which I have cropped close and spiky, like some of the soccer players I've seen in the sports magazines.

The other thing Shay keeps telling me is that I've got to stop daydreaming and concentrate on the game. I don't think there's much chance of that happening. It's one of the few things I do well, daydreaming. That, and running off at the mouth, usually with a few wisecracks thrown in.

It's alright to daydream when you're cross-country running. All you have to remember is to put one foot in front of the other and follow the trail. In fact when I'm running I like to daydream, usually about pizza, or fish and chips. But, like I said, in soccer you have to stay wide awake, because you've got the whole team, not to mention the other team, to worry about. On the other hand, the team — your team — is looking out for you, which feels nice.

Shay's good at looking out for others. That's how we became friends. At my very first soccer practice the coach looked me up and down, sighed, and asked if I was sure I really wanted to play soccer. I nodded.

“Can you kick with both feet?” he asked. I said not at the same time because I'd fall over. He groaned, “I don't know where to put someone like you. You'd better try fullback.”

When I got into position, I mumbled to myself, “What does he mean — someone like me?” Shay came over and said, “He means at fullback you need someone not super fast, but super
dependable
.”

There's Shay kicking the ball upfield for the game to restart. Steve, our best striker — not that that's saying anything — is taking the kickoff at centre. He's passed to Randy, who's setting off toward the other side's goal. Steve is running forward, too. I suppose he's looking for space. Randy's passing the ball back to Steve, but the pass isn't a good one, and the ball's gone out of play. It's a throw-in for the other side.

St. Croix is known as an unscrupulous team. Our coach told us that, and I had to look up ‘unscrupulous' to find out what he was talking about. It means they don't care what they have to do to win. In soccer, this means they trip and elbow and push and kick. You're not supposed to do these things. They're called fouls. Well — you can kick the
ball
, of course, but you're not supposed to kick the players on the other team.

St. Croix seems to get away with doing an awful lot of fouling. Like that. Did you see their midfielder elbow Silas, one of our forwards, out of the way? That's a foul, but the referee didn't even flinch. Now they're coming toward our goal again.

“Toby … ”

“I'm awake, Shay. Don't worry.”

This time I'm concentrating, thinking of closing down the space. Their centre has the ball and is heading straight down the middle of the field. I can see another St. Croix forward coming up the wing.

“You take the winger. I've got this one covered,” says Shay.

I move out toward the wing, thinking of controlling the space on that side. Shay moves out from his goal line, blocking the other forward. He passes the ball to my forward. It lands just in front of him. He's approaching me slowly, keeping the ball close to his feet. I hold my ground, moving sideways so that he has to take it closer to the touch line and out of play. I won't tackle him, not unless I have to, to stop him breaking for the goal. I just need to close down his space and stop him from passing the ball across our goalmouth. I keep my eyes fixed on the ball. Suddenly, I'm flat on my stomach, my face in the mud. The other St. Croix player has run into me from behind. The referee should call a foul, but I guess St. Croix will get away with it again. I look up in time to see the forward I was covering race past me toward our goal. Shay rushes out and flings himself at the forward's feet, smothering the ball.

Shay stands, holding the ball. He surveys the field, crafting spaces, I guess. Randy shouts for the ball. Shay swings his foot and kicks upfield. The ball arcs high into an empty space on the right side. Randy puts his hands on his hips and watches it go out of play.

“Why don't you put it into orbit next time?” he sneers at poor Shay.

St. Croix take the throw-in. Steve rushes forwards and intercepts. He swerves around two St. Croix players and heads for their goal. Silas and Jason are with him. We might score if Steve passes, but he won't. He says he doesn't trust anyone else to play half-decently. He's probably right. There — he's lost it.

Silas is sniping at him again: “Why didn't you pass, dummy?”

“Because you'd have messed it up,” says Steve.

“I suppose you call losing the ball
not
messing it up, do you?”

Julie, one of our midfielders, puts in, “I wish you two could play soccer as well as you bug one another.”

We go on like this all the time. It's embarrassing.

The St. Croix goalkeeper is leaning against one of the goalposts. He hasn't touched the ball since I don't know when. He's chatting and laughing with some of the kids from his school who have come to watch.

No one from our school comes to watch us. That's about the only good thing about our games. It's bad enough losing every time without people gawking at us. Well, why would anyone come to watch us? They know the result before the game even begins. They know we'll play terribly, and they know we'll lose.

Even Shay's granddad, who always came to our games at the start of the season, has given up coming to watch us, although Shay says he asks about every game. Actually, I think Shay asked him not to come because he was embarrassed about letting in so many goals with him on the sidelines.

We've got the ball again. That's one of the twins, Jillian, with it. Oh. And that's Jillian without it. She's lost it. She's not even going to try to win it back. She's just standing there with her arms out, looking helpless. Her twin, Jessica, is telling her she's useless. That's how we are. When we're not messing up, we're insulting one another.

“TOBY! HELP!”

My cue. Excuse me.

Uh-oh.

Too late.

“Sorry, Shay. I was thinking about how badly we play.”

Goal number eleven. The spectators from St. Croix Middle School who have come to watch are chanting again: “Lo-sers. Lo-sers.” You can't blame them. St. Croix is top of the league and we're bottom. We've been there since the start of the season and that's where we'll finish. And not just bottom, but way bottom.

Humiliatingly bottom.

Embarrassingly bottom.

Heartbreakingly bottom.

Ignominiously bottom.

We've lost every single game. We haven't even managed a draw.

There's the final whistle. Thank you, Mr. Referee, for putting us out of our misery.

We troop off the field, to another chorus of “Lo-sers. Lo-sers,” from the St. Croix faithful. Steve and Silas are sniping at one another again.

“I wish you'd learn to pass,” says Steve.

“I wish you'd learn to shoot straight,” Silas retorts.

Shay puts in, “Arguing won't help us win.”

Steve turns on Shay. “If you didn't let in so many goals maybe we'd have a chance of winning. You call yourself a goalkeeper … ”

Shay just shrugs. He's looking at Julie, who's in a huddle with the twins. I hear Jessica say something about if the team was all girls it would do better. She's probably right.

Here comes our coach, Mr. Cunningham, the math teacher at Brunswick Valley. He'll have something to say. Correction: he'll have something to shout. He's short and stocky and has lots of black hair and bushy eyebrows that meet in the middle. He looks fierce but he's alright, really, except that he gets mad at us when we lose, which means he's mad at us all the time. He was quite a famous player in his day. There's a team picture in the teachers' room of the Montreal Cougars the year they won the Eastern Canadian League Championship, and you can see Mr. Cunningham there, in the second row, so it must be hard for him, trying to coach a hopeless team like us. He gets so mad we think one day he might have a heart attack.

“I want all of you to come here.”

We gather around Mr. Cunningham.

“What's up, Mr. C?” I ask.

“What's up? You lost eleven to zero.”

“It could have been worse,” I say.

Mr. Cunningham glares at me, his hands on his hips. “How could it have been worse, Toby?”

“It could have been twelve to zero, or thirteen to zero, or twenty to zero, or thirty to zero, or —”

“That's enough, Toby. It's nothing to make wisecracks about. Do you people understand just how bad you are? There are six teams in the league and you're sixth.”

“That could be worse, too, Mr. C.,” I say.

Mr. Cunningham still has his hands on his hips, and he's glaring at me so hard his eyes have gone narrow. “I don't want to hear about it.”

I keep talking anyway, trying to cheer everyone up. “It would be worse if there were twenty teams in the league because then we'd be twentieth.”

Mr. Cunningham snaps, “If there were one hundred teams in the league I'm sure you'd manage to be number one hundred. I can't think of one good thing to say.”

“I can,” I say quickly. “We won't be in the playoffs.”

Mr. Cunningham is shouting now. “What's good about that?”

“We won't lose any more games.”

Mr. Cunningham is gasping for air. He's gone bright red. But he doesn't have a heart attack. Instead, he explodes. I don't mean literally, with little bits of him flying all over the field. I mean he goes nuts, verbally.

“I'm sick and tired of listening to your wisecracks, Toby. And I'm sick and tired of watching all of you play —
try
to play — soccer. You're hopeless. You're not just hopeless, you're beyond help. Not only are you awful soccer players, but on top of that you're nasty and rude to one another, and all you can do is joke about it. I've had it. I quit.”

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