I’m Manchester United and I’ve got the ball and everything is good.
There’s no smoke, or nerve gas, or sand-storms. I can’t even hear any explosions. Which is really good. Bomb wind can really put you off your soccer skills.
Newcastle United lunges at me. I dodge the tackle. Aziz is a small kid but he’s fast and he comes back for a second lunge.
I dazzle him with footwork. I weave one way, then the other. The ball at my feet is a blur, and not just because the heat coming off the desert is making the air wobble.
Mussa, who’s also Newcastle United, tries to remove my feet from my ankles. He could, he’s a year older than me. But I manage to avoid his big boots and flick the ball between his legs.
‘You always do that,’ he complains.
Grinning, I duck past him, steer the ball round the mudguard of a wrecked troop carrier, and find myself in front of the goal.
Only Yusuf, who’s goalkeeper and referee, to beat.
Yusuf crouches between two piles of rubble, not taking his eyes off the ball at my toes.
‘Over here, Jamal,’ screams Zoltan, who’s Manchester United with me. ‘Pass.’
Normally I would. I’m known for it. Ask any of the seven kids in my school. ‘Jamal’s a good dribbler,’ they’ll say, ‘and a very brilliant passer.’ If I had an unexploded shell for every goal I’ve set up for other people, I could go into the scrap metal business.
But this time I want to score myself. I want to give a desert warrior whoop and smack the ball with all my strength and watch it whiz past Yusuf like a Scud missile.
‘Jamal,’ screams Zoltan, flapping his arms like a buzzard with belly-ache. ‘Over here.’
I ignore him. I decide to shoot low and try for a curve. You have to with Yusuf. He’s really good at diving saves, specially for a kid with only one leg.
I can hear Aziz and Mussa thudding towards me.
I steady myself and shoot.
I’ve sliced it. Just like last time. And all the times before that.
The ball trickles towards Yusuf. He doesn’t even pretend it’s a good shot. Doesn’t dive on it or anything. Just picks it up and chucks it back over my head.
‘Weak,’ laughs Aziz behind me.
Zoltan is looking at me as though an American air strike has hit me in the head and scrambled my brains.
‘Jamal,’ he says. ‘I was unmarked.’
‘Sorry,’ I say, waiting for him and Aziz and Mussa to make unkind comments about midfield players who think they’re strikers but aren’t.
Nobody says a word.
I realise they’re not even looking at me. They’re staring at something behind me. Their faces are frozen. Their mouths are open. They’re in shock.
For a horrible moment I think it’s the government. Soccer isn’t officially banned, but the government doesn’t like people playing it. I think they’re embarrassed that we don’t have any international stars here in Afghanistan.
I turn and look fearfully at the figure behind us.
It’s not what I thought. It’s not an angry man in black robes with a long beard and an even longer swishing cane. It’s something even scarier. A kid in a very familiar dress and headcloth.
‘Bibi,’ I gasp.
‘Eeek,’ croaks Aziz, face slack with amazement. ‘It’s your sister.’
For a moment there’s silence except for the wind blowing in off the open desert and the distant sound of someone drilling bomb fragments out of their wall in the village.
Bibi has the ball at her feet. She starts dribbling towards us.
‘I want to play,’ she says.
We all back away.
‘No,’ Mussa begs Bibi. ‘You can’t.’
Bibi ignores him. ‘I’m sick of being stuck indoors,’ she says. ‘I want to play soccer. Come on, you soft lumps of camel poop, tackle me.’
The others are still backing away and looking at me and I realise I have to do something. This person putting us all in danger is a member of my family.
My first thought is to yell at her. Then I remember she’s only nine. Two years ago I used to get distracted and forget things too. Bibi must have forgotten that girls aren’t allowed to leave the house without a parent. She must have forgotten that females have to keep their faces covered at all times out of doors. And it must have slipped her mind that girls playing soccer is completely, totally and absolutely against the law.
‘Do something,’ Aziz mutters at me.
I open my mouth to remind Bibi about all this, then close it. There’s no time for talk. She’s only metres away from us now, eyes glinting as she dribbles the ball with her bare feet. If a government official out for a walk in the desert sees this, he’ll be slashing us with his cane before I can say ‘she’s only nine.’ And then the government police will come round to our place and drag Mum and Dad off for not controlling their daughter.
‘Tackle her,’ I say to the others.
They stare at me, confused.
‘Get the ball off her,’ I say.
Now they understand. We all lunge at Bibi. Without slowing down she sidesteps Aziz, weaves past Mussa, and flicks the ball between my legs.
I can’t believe it. She’s remembered every single ball skill I’ve taught her.
‘That’s not fair,’ I yell as I sprint after her. ‘You promised you’d only do soccer in your bedroom. You promised.’
She ignores me and heads for goal. Yusuf, uncertain, crouches on the goal line, eyes on the ball.
Zoltan has caught up with her.
‘Bibi,’ he yells. ‘Over here. Pass.’
I can’t believe it. All Zoltan can think about is getting a shot at goal. Suddenly I don’t want Bibi to pass to him. I want her to have a shot herself.
‘Me,’ screams Zoltan.
Bibi ignores him. Without steadying herself or pausing to pull up her skirt, she shoots.
It’s a great shot, low and hard.
Yusuf dives, but the ball scuds past his fingers and hurtles into the rocket crater behind him.
‘Yes,’ I hear myself yell.
‘Goal for Afghanistan,’ yells Bibi.
Panting, she gives me a proud grin. I grin back. Then I remember I’m her older brother and it’s my job to be stern with her when she’s risking everyone’s safety, including hers.
Aziz and Mussa and Zoltan are staring dumbstruck after the ball, which has disappeared over the other side of the rocket crater.
‘I’m going home,’ says Aziz.
‘Me too,’ says Mussa.
‘Me too,’ says Zoltan.
The three of them sprint away.
‘I think they’re going home to practise in their bedrooms,’ says Bibi. She doesn’t seem to realise I’m giving her a very stern glare. ‘I’ll get the ball,’ she says, ‘then we can play one a side with Yusuf in goal.’
Before I can stop her, she’s running towards the rocket crater.
‘Bibi,’ I yell. ‘Come back.’
‘Get after her,’ says Yusuf, still sprawled in the dust.
Normally I’d help Yusuf to his foot after a big dive like that, but there’s no time.
I sprint after Bibi.
On the other side of the rocket crater is the open desert.
Bibi must have forgotten why we don’t go there.
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