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Broken But Not Defeated!


by chimp_chicken_fish

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In a clean house near the top of Shenkuu’s misty mountain, a Brown Gnorbu was spending her time exploring her Safety Deposit Box for a particular item. She took her time; there was no rush. Yooyuball practice was over for today.

     Mirsha Grelinek, the Captain of Team Shenkuu in the annual Altador Cup tournament, spent the entire time wondering how her team had suffered such a brutal defeat last season. How does a Second Place team plunge nine places after a year?! It was shameful.

     So here she was, sifting through boxes of sporting equipment and old school notes she couldn’t part with to find her “good fortune” pendant... which was nowhere to be found!

     The pendant she was looking for was a 14 carat gold Pandaphant design with the words “good fortune” engraved in Shenkuuvian letters on the back. It was a gift from her mother in the early days of Mirsha’s Yooyuballing career and she believed that it held a tiny but effective amount of luck that had carried her team through three successful tournaments in the past. Losing this pendant was nothing short of a bad omen.

     “Oh, please don’t tell me I’ve lost it!” Mirsha exclaimed in frustration to herself. It was funny how that one sentence could have more than one meaning given the circumstances. “I only put it away during Altador Cup V whilst the games were on... Maybe it’s with the grooming items...?”

     There was a knock on her bedroom door and a timid voice carried through the wood. "Mirsha? It's me, Xana. Can I come in?"

     Xana DiLanche, Team Shenkuu’s goalkeeper, was a Pink Lutari renowned for her nerves on the pitch and for her uncanny ability to stop a Yooyu from entering the net. She had long, black hair pinned up nicely in a bun on her head, a style that she still liked to adopt even during the off-season.

     The front door to the house was unlocked, allowing the Lutari free access to the address because Mirsha was expecting her to come. There was no risk of theft because the Emperor had imperial guards dotted all over the mountain and even a ghost would have trouble getting past them!

     Mirsha’s room was spacious with a neutral colour scheme, brightened up by various coloured floral arrangements local to Shenkuu. Her room was on the ground floor with double-doors leading out to the patio in her back garden. Those doors were open at the time to allow the fresh breeze to circulate the air in the room. When Mirsha was younger, she used to hope that she would glimpse a Kazeriu or a Pandaphant in the grass, or hidden in the bushes, but there never seemed to be any there. She had not seen any in her garden, even a decade on from those innocent years and she was now generally too busy with tournament practice to spend her mornings looking out for those elusive petpets.

     The young goalkeeper bowed respectfully towards her friend and casually sat down on Mirsha’s bed. She got straight to the point. “We have a few problems, Captain... I think placing Eleventh last season has lost us supporters. The media are still speculating over what happened and they do not think we can perform very well this year. Our reputation as champions has been seriously damaged!”

     Mirsha was back in her SDB and sighed.

     “I know that the fans and the media are unimpressed with us, Xana,” she replied tiredly, picking up a photo of her team from the Altador Cup II Finals where they came Third Place, “but there really is not a lot we can do about that now.”

     Xana frowned. “The atmosphere was all wrong last season. How could we lose support when we needed it the most?”

     Mirsha tired of searching for her pendant and sat on the bed next to her friend. “Xana, I ask that question myself... but we have to wonder what the fans really wanted. They wanted the trophy and we did not deliver the level of performance they expected. Instead of the supporters we were used to in Altador Cup II to IV, the ones who said that they would stand by our sides no matter what rank we achieved, we gained supporters who did not care about Shenkuu’s Spirit. Once we were relegated from the first and second tournament brackets last year, they abandoned us... Unfortunately that was beyond our control as Yooyuball players, and as Team Captain I’m naturally the one who got the blame.”

     The Lutari sympathised with her Captain. She knew that the Altador Cup made Neopians competitive and emotional, but that was no excuse to show bad sportsmanship. Obviously not all the fans were horrible, that was the last thing they wanted to say! Shenkuu love their supporters – the TRUE supporters – because they’re the ones that lift morale on a bad day and the fan mail was always a pleasure to read. There just felt like an absence of those supporters last year and it was not good for team morale!

     Xana placed her hand supportively on Mirsha’s shoulder. “We had an unfortunate year, Captain. It was not our turn in the spotlight.”

     Mirsha nodded. “Although I do not wish for us to be publically humiliated again, I am happy for our opponents. It was an interesting year.”

     “Um, Mirsha...”

     “Yes?”

     “There’s a bigger problem.”

     The Captain looked at her friend curiously and enquired, “What happened?”

     The Lutari toyed with the bangles on her wrist anxiously and stammered, “I-I also came to tell you that Foltaggio cannot practice for a while... He has injured his knee.”

     Mirsha groaned and buried her face in her hands. Great, that will set back tournament practice even further, she thought unhappily. Foltaggio was her equal on the field – a fellow Forward player – and even with one eye permanently out of action that never stopped him from becoming an expert Yooyuballer.

     “Are you okay, Captain?”

     “I’m fine, Xana. Where is Foltaggio now? We should make sure that he is being cared for appropriately.”

     * * *

     Mirsha and Xana walked down the mountain to get to Foltaggio’s Neohome, past the familiar blossom trees and market stalls that afternoon. The scent of spices and flowers followed them the whole way, like a lonely spirit in a strange town. Mirsha soon learnt from her teammate that their fellow Forward had twisted his knee after falling down a set of stairs in his home.

     The girls entered their teammate’s bedroom and immediately saw that he had left dirty socks arbitrarily around the room and had a game console untouched for months, which was gathering dust, on a desk opposite his bed. Although this seems quite careless of the Mynci, that was the extent of his messiness. Foltaggio had kept the window open and his bedside table had a pitcher of water with a half-full glass next to it. He sipped it before greeting his friends. The visually impaired Shadow Mynci smiled as the girls announced their arrival.

     His right eye sported an eye-patch, which had become a key part of his identity and regardless of speculation from others, he was not a pirate; he just couldn’t see out of that eye. There was nothing stopping him from teasing others about how he lost his vision, though! Once he said that he had lost his eye in a fight with thieves. Another time he said that he had been blinded by Reptillior venom! The truth was that his sight had gone forever as a child, playing with a sparkler during the Lunar Festival fireworks display. He had learnt the “don’t play with fire” rule the hard way. But let’s bring the story back to the present day!

     Foltaggio was now lying in his bed under doctor’s orders not to move unless he needed the bathroom because his knee was still very sore. “Thanks for coming, ladies!” he cried enthusiastically, glad that some familiar faces had come to see him.

     Mirsha rolled her eyes. “Honestly, Folty, you pick your times to fall over and hurt yourself, don’t you?” she joked half-heartedly.

     He shrugged, still smiling. “Sadly I’m not invincible.”

     “How long will you be out of commission?” That was the question that was really gnawing at Mirsha’s mind.

     “The doc’ says for at least three weeks.”

     “That long?”

     “I should be fit again before ACVI, Captain. No need to fret.”

     But his Captain was fretting.

     “We need a miracle to happen before next season...” she mumbled unhappily, starting to pace on the wooden floor. “One bad year should not ruin our shot at the Cup!”

     “We’ll try our best, Captain,” Xana said hesitantly, sensing her friend’s frustration like an invisible radiation field. “We may be broken but we are not defeated! We belong with the champions.”

     Mirsha’s pacing was making Foltaggio dizzy.

     “Captain, please stand still; you’re giving me a headache.”

     “I already have a headache,” she retorted a little bit too sharply. “I’ve been trying to figure out where we went wrong all season and during this off-season but I cannot fathom why we failed so catastrophically.”

     “We were under a lot of pressure, Mirsha,” Xana reminded her helpfully. “I think the stress got the best of us and the fans.”

     “But that never stopped teams Darigan Citadel, Roo Island or Krawk Island from rising from Second to First Place in successive years. We were in the same boat as them, but instead of reaching safe land, we sank! Nobody wants excuses, there are no excuses, but I have no way of justifying what happened. We are very lucky that the Emperor did not fire us on the spot because of last season. Do either of you have an answer for that? Because the Emperor certainly looked livid.”

     Foltaggio pondered this for a moment before reaching a conclusion. “We are still a valuable team; that’s why he did not take our jobs away, Captain. We were champions for three years in a row, and you were Top Goal Scorer for two years straight!” He was now beaming, lifting the moods of his colleagues. “The real fans still look up to us, and even though Altador Cup V practically destroyed our team image and ethos, we have those that remember our real strength.”

     “That’s right!” Xana chimed, clapping her hands enthusiastically. “Our team took on a lot of responsibility last year and with it came greed—”

     “We weren’t being greedy, Xana,” Mirsha corrected her quickly. “Of course we wanted to succeed, but regardless of rank all we wanted was the supporters to stand by us. That’s all we ask for every season and we couldn’t even sustain that.”

     The Lutari knew that her Captain was still upset about the entire sequence of events that occurred but carried on in spite of this. Her tone was gentle. “When I say ‘our team’, I am referring to everyone that becomes a part of Team Shenkuu. There was greed present, there was distress and confusion too. We lost control, and I think that’s what scared you the most, Captain. We didn’t just lose control, though... we lost our voice. We could not defend ourselves against the media, or against our fans and certainly not against our rivals in the tournament. The moment we lost our voice, we were powerless. I do not think we could have changed that.”

     As Team Shenkuu plummeted down the ranks in ACV, there was an instant where the squad had faded into obscurity and no one apart from their opponents at the time acknowledged their presence. It was only a burst of time when that happened but it was a moment of invisibility that the team did not manage to turn to their advantage.

     The Gnorbu had stopped pacing and was staring at her goalkeeper with a look of understanding. It made sense! Without a voice they could not reinforce the real Spirit of Shenkuu – a voice of harmony, synchronisation and good sportsmanship – that voice was lost during the First Round Robin of Altador Cup V and with it their window of opportunity had sealed shut.

     “That’s what happened!” Mirsha gasped in realisation, sitting on the edge of Foltaggio’s bed, careful not to jolt him too much to prevent hurting his leg with the sudden movement. Her mind was now trying to work out how to recover that lost voice. “No one would listen to us because we could not be heard. Our decline was not graceful because morale was so low. Not even the Top Goal Scorer achievement could satisfy the fans because they had lost the meaning of the tournament... That’s why we fell. We were beyond saving.”

     “Or no one thought that we were worthy of being saved,” Foltaggio interjected grimly. “That’s what it boils down to; there was no respect for us by the end of the competition.”

     Mirsha considered this before standing up resolutely, fuelled by a sudden desire to pull her team out of this nosedive. “I know what’s wrong! We have to fix this problem immediately.”

     Xana shrugged and asked, “What’s the plan?”

     “There is one significant difference between our performance in Altador Cup V and previous years.” She paused for dramatic effect. “We all took the tournament way too seriously last season. All of us did from this very squad to our own fans being too competitive... but the one major element we were missing last year was FUN.”

     Xana almost facepalmed. Fun... FUN! How could they forget to have any fun last season? It was so simple, yet ridiculously easy to overlook when faced with high expectations and a billion obstacles blocking their paths to that goal.

     Foltaggio seemed almost ashamed of this conclusion. “I believe you’re right, Mirsha. We weren’t enjoying ourselves in our matches. In previous years we just enjoyed Yooyuball for the sake of the game.”

     “Exactly!” Mirsha replied adamantly. “No excuses this year – no matter what rank we end up in, no matter how much the media sets us up and knocks us down – we will promise to have fun. Agreed?”

     “Agreed,” her friends said in unison, feeling much better about the situation.

     “Good. I’m still proud of you all and hopefully the Spirit of Shenkuu will shine upon us once again.”

     * * *

     The Altador Cup becomes a way of life for Yooyuball players, where every team has their fan base, and every team has their own voice. Some of the weaker teams are unheard, whereas the stronger teams manage to find themselves in the spotlight quite frequently. It is a time for Neopians worldwide to support their favourite lands in an event that gets everybody talking!

     Mirsha never regretted joining the Altador Cup; in fact she loved every minute of it, and despite the painful upset her team endured last season, she would still carry on playing. It was nice knowing that regardless of the collapse in the ranks, her team would continue to gain supporters who wanted to support them vocally and in spirit, Neopians that would cheer their team efforts towards success, even if they failed trying. That type of support was worth playing for, and she knew that her days leading the team as Captain were not in danger any time soon. That was comforting...

     Success was something Mirsha strived to achieve in every tournament though, because she secretly wanted to become Most Valuable Player (MVP) one day, but that’s another story. “Patience is the key to success”, so the Top Chop Master says, and she will wait until that day arrives.

     Later on that evening Mirsha returned to her home and stared at the SDB in her bedroom. She now felt that there was no need to hunt for her missing “good fortune” pendant. It was a mere trinket with no relevance to her needs anymore.

     As she got ready for bed, she thought back to what Xana had said earlier today: “We may be broken but we are not defeated!”

     Mirsha allowed herself to giggle before settling down in bed, switching off her lamp. She disagreed with Xana aloud to herself. “No, quite the opposite. We were defeated, but we are by no means broken. Our days are not over yet in this tournament.”

The End

 
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