The sky is grey and there’s a cold wind blowing plastic packets across the open expanse of land in front of Du Noon. Ayanda, a girl from school, has put down rows of flattened cardboard boxes to protect her from the mud, and is practicing gymnastics on the field where I train. She moves them across to practice on the sidelines when our group approaches – she can see something serious is about to happen.

I’m feeling so tired. I’ve hardly slept thinking about the soccer skills challenge against Khaya. Even Ronaldo is quiet as he watches us square off.

My hands feel sweaty and I have a feeling in my chest like I’m about to get into a fight – which, in a way, I am. I guess I’m fighting for the right to hold my head up when I walk down the street – and to prove to Khaya that I’m not inferior to him. It may just be a soccer skills challenge, but for me it’s a vital contest.

“The first exercise,” the Professor says, “is sprinting.” 

Khaya glances towards me and laughs derisively, “This is going to be easy.”

The two of us make our way through the mud to one side of the field. The Professor raises his hand and when he drops it Khaya and I rocket down the field. To my surprise Khaya isn’t as fast as he thinks and we get to the end at the same time, both of us slipping, then sprawling to the muddy ground in our attempt to reach the end first.

“I’m just warming up,” Khaya says, wiping the mud off his hands and staring daggers at me.

The Professor puts us through progressively harder soccer training and each time I manage to keep pace with Khaya. The fitness that I’ve built up is really helping! Khaya is getting tired. I know Khaya is a talented player but I can tell that he’s been too lazy to spend time doing fitness training.

“This next test is to see how well you play in the box,” the Professor announces. 

He places two bricks on the ground to make goals. 

“Rose will take a corner kick, and if you get the last touch into the goal, the point is yours. We’ll play best out of five.”

Rose neatly chips the ball in and in an instant Khaya is on it, pushing me out of the way and heading the ball into the goal.

“Ladummmma,” Khaya shouts. 

He holds out his hand to help me up. As I take it, Khaya pushes me back down to the ground.

“I don’t help losers,” he sneers.

Rose fetches the ball and prepares herself for another kick, while Khaya jostles me as we wait for the ball.

I find myself thinking about the angles in my geometry textbook. I can see where Rose is angled and where Khaya will jump. As soon as the ball comes in I sidestep him and volley the ball between the bricks for a goal. 

Khaya is angry now, and at the next corner kick he trips me as the ball comes in, then dribbles the ball into the goal.

“Face it,” Khaya says, “you’re not good enough.”

The next corner kick comes in and Khaya slams into me hard, then falls to the ground clutching his face. I take the opportunity to chip the ball between the bricks.

“Foul!” Khaya shouts.

“You dive almost as convincingly as Suarez,” I retort.

Khaya gets up and glares at me. 

“You’re going to pay for that,” he says. 

The score is two all. The next goal will decide the challenge.

Image: J Mcpherson, CC-BY-NC-SA-2.0