Coming off the high of winning gold in this years’ SAIK-AC football tournament, the Dhahran High School Boys Varsity team were ecstatic to compete once again- especially on an international level. The journey to this year's’ tournament, however, started very shaky. The boy’s football coach, Mr. Liam Smith, had told the team that OASIS this year was cancelled, which was a shocking blow to many of the seniors who wanted to represent DHS one last time. By the second week of January, the team had accepted the heart-dropping realization that their season was over. Nevertheless, Mr. Smith’s perseverance to find a tournament was unparalleled. As a last minute resort, he had secured a place in The Middle Eastern Unity Cup in Dubai, UAE.
Consequently, the enthusiasm of the Varsity Football team was at an all-time high. Practice for the tournament soon commenced, which ran three times a week ranging from cardiovascular exercises to specific in-game plays. The determination of the team to win the upcoming competition grew day by day, and the boys’ tenacity continued to focus in on first place.
Finally, on January 31st at 5:40 am, the team gathered in Dhahran High School and headed towards King Fahad International Airport. Anticipation for the tournament had fueled the sleepless athletes to power through the short trip. Lack of sleep, however, had finally caught up. To fight drowsiness and hunger, Mr.Smith sent the boys to Dubai Mall to rejuvenate their mind and bodies for the tournament the following day.
The next morning, the team headed out to the venue. The constant bickering between Mr. Smith’s disagreement with Mahmoud Shanaa’s questionable song choices, coupled with the refreshing morning breeze, echoed throughout the bus ride. The blistering Arabian sun provided a fiery spirit between the players and cultivated a sense of readiness marked by trickles of sweat. Within twenty minutes, the team had finally arrived to their playing fields.
The boys’ first game was against Arkis Bahrain. Their length, as well as their bright yellow kits, provided a feeling of intimidation, but nothing new to the boys. The captain, Saif Ghanayem, led the team to a series of pregame warmups, which filled the fields with aching moans and groans as a result of muscle tightness. By the time the boys got loose, their uniforms had already been outlined by sweat marks. The scorching sun did not help at all. From kick-off, the boys had controlled the tempo of the game. The first half ended 0-0, although DHS dominated it entirely. An inspiring speech by Coach Smith compelled the boys to score an early freekick by Abdullah Hammad early in the second half. The first goal by the team in the tournament gave the boys the much needed motivation to hold on. Unfortunately, it was short-lasting before the opposition scored. The match ended 1-1: a disappointing result after the team had dominated the game comfortably.
The next game would be played against First Point SCH Dubai, in which the boys completely showed out their football prowess, ending the game 5-0 to DHS. By this point, the boys had found their rhythm and team chemistry had evidently peaked.
After lunch, DHS’ following game would come against Dhahran Ahliyya Schools (DAS), their local rivals in the Dhahran Private School League (DPSL). It was evident from the start of the game that the opponents were not up to their usual standards, which allowed DHS to direct the flow of the game. Although the team had a multitude of scoring opportunities, they just couldn’t finish. The boys finally scored, but soon after, the other team scored a lucky rebound off a corner kick. It was incredibly disheartening because the game would end in a draw, in a match that the boys clearly should’ve won.
At this point, the notion of poor execution circulated the team, and frustration rose. The boys had dominated all their games, but couldn’t finish their chances. Agitation would not help. Another setback, however, was waiting right around the corner. On the way back from the field to the resting area, aches from the captain, Saif Ghanayem, rendered the team’s ears. The boys would soon realize that this was a serious matter. Saif took off his socks, where his ankle protruded the side of his foot looking like the top of a snow cone. To make matters worse, Layth Amra’s knee gave out, and Zaid Murrar had a migraine. That day the team had lost three pivotal players to their squad; there was a moment where the boys loathed in their misfortune. But the tournament wasn’t over yet.
The resilience of the team was about to be tested, through the leadership of the new captain, Abdullah Hammad. The boys were about to play their last game of the day against the American International School Riyadh (AISR), which would be the toughest team DHS would encounter. The morale of the team was down, having key players were injured, but, that did not stop DHS from scoring an early goal; courtesy of George Saadeh. This uplifted the team, creating a new found desire to push forward and close out the day with a W. To the team’s disappointment, AISR would score two rapid goals after that. Both teams relentlessly went at each other in a suspenseful game, but finishing was a major issue the boys faced. Unfortunately, as the team went on an all-out attack on the last play, they suffered a detrimental counter attack that would result in DHS conceding a third goal. This would be the first and only loss the team would experience. By the end of the first day of the tournament, the theme of injuries and the inability to execute resonated throughout the team. To the team’s surprise, however, they were still in second place, even through the detrimental struggles they sustained. This would mean that the boys still had a chance to make the finals, but the odds were against them.
The second day of the tournament was marked by extreme focus. The boys could afford nothing less of winning all their games in order to play in the finals. The first game would be played versus the Universal American School Kuwait, which the boys easily converted into a win. The boys still had to win two more games to play in the finals, and their nerves continued to ascend.
The second game of the day against the American International School Jeddah (AISJ) was the most important. The point difference between DHS and AISJ was 1 point, making this match a must win. The game opened by an early goal for AISJ, which sent a chill down the boys’ spines knowing that they must come back from this deficit. The game maintained its competitiveness, but once again the team couldn’t convert plays into goals. As the clock ticked down, agitation within the team continued to rise. The referee’s final minute mark signalled one last hope for the team. Luckily, in the final seconds, DHS was given a free kick. Abdullah Hammad stepped up to take it, carrying the weight of the team on his shoulders. The whole team stood on the field praying it would go in. His confident gait running up before the strike filled the team with optimism. The keeper saved it, and the boys thought their chance to advance to the finals was over. The referee blew the whistle and the hearts of the players dropped, thinking the game had ended with their loss. Fortunately, the referee had whistled as a result of a technical error by the other team, which resulted in a redo of the free kick. This time Abdullah Hammad would make sure the ball hit the back of the net, and so it did. It was a miracle. The game would end 1-1. There was still hope, however. Although the team was not in the most favorable circumstance, they still had a chance to make the finals. Two games in the tournament were left, one between DAS and AISJ, and the other between DHS and St. Christopher’s. If DHS would win their last game, and the game between DAS and AISJ would result in a tie, then DHS would advance to the finals. Although it was a longshot, and luck played a major factor, the boys still had positive ambitions to play in the finals.
Fatigue had clearly taken the toll on the team by the last game against St. Christopher’s. The team’s injuries manifested itself through a slow paced game, where the boys’ locus of focus was not synchronized. It was still a competitive match, and by the second half, DHS was winning 1-0- after an elegant goal by Francesco Leopardi- which would be the final score. The team had done their job by winning their last game, but the odds were not in their favor. Unfortunately, the other game between DAS and AISJ did not end up in a tie. It was no surprise that the boys were disgruntled. They had deserved to play in the finals, but a series of misfortunate events prevented it. Although the team was discontent by playing for bronze medals, they did not let pessimism take over; but used it as a propellant to finish the tournament with a win.
The battle for third place would be against DHS and ST. Christopher’s. The boys did not hold out and gave the opposition five goals- completing obliterating them. It was the last game for many of the varsity players, who are graduating this year. The heartfelt bond between the boys was cultivated during this final stretch. Sportsmanship and sincere sentiment outshone the gluttonous desire to win; the boys were playing for each other. All the values that Coach Smith had preached all season long fell into harmony. Finally, a feeling of content spread throughout the team. Whether the team had ended up with bronze or gold medals was irrelevant. It was the bond that was formed during the two emotional days, which was the ultimate success.
By Mansour A.