Messi's Penalty

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Lionel Messi walked slowly towards the penalty spot. He was painfully aware that a billion pairs of eyes followed in glorious high-definition every drop of sweat running from his forehead down to his beard. Acid reflux burned his throat and it took all his willpower not to gag and vomit. He felt completely naked and exposed, but he was determined to show no emotion.

Everybody knew that if the game ended in a tie the German machine would win the penalty shoot-out. There were only two possibilities. Either he scored that overtime penalty or he didn't. Either he would be a world champion, or the loser of a second consecutive final; either he would be a hero forever, perhaps the best player of all time, or forever the target of scorn.

Lev Golokov climbed down the metal ladder and looked back at the detector. Everything was ready for the experiment at the Infifatron accelerator in the Institute for High Energy Physics, just a few kilometers south of the stadium but a universe away. Golokov was vaguely aware that the World Cup was taking place in Russia, but he couldn't care less. All he cared about were fundamental particles coming in and out of existence and combining for fleeting instants so short that the human mind could not comprehend. In particular, he was looking for a sort of molecule made of a meson and a neutron that his theory predicted.

When Golokov entered the control room, Miroslava greeted him with a smile. She was the only one seated in front of a row of computer monitors.
“Where are the guys?”
“In the cafeteria. It seems the world cup final went into overtime.”
Golokov grunted.
“Let's go ahead. I won't wait for their stupid game.”
“All the systems are ready, Professor.”
Golokov's hand hovered over the large red button.

Messi noticed a bug crawling over the ball and gave it an extra spin before placing it on the small white circle, slightly shifted towards the goal. Around the world everybody speculated if he looked nervous or confident. Neuer looked the latter as he tried to make eye contact. The tall German goalkeeper had studied every penalty shot the diminutive Argentinian had taken over the last two years. Messi walked backwards, looking at the goal but trying to avoid paying attention to Neuer who was jumping side to side and flailing his arms. His throat was on fire, his legs felt heavy as lead, his ears buzzed. Messi knew Neuer was too good a goalkeeper to risk shooting at the center hoping he would commit to one side. There were only two possibilities: either he shot to the right or to the left post.

The giant screen on the stadium briefly showed a couple of fans with their faces painted white and blue, the man biting his knuckles while she only dared to peek through her fingers. Crosses were kissed in Buenos Aires, beer jugs laid still in Berlin. The Italian referee raised his left hand and made sure everybody was ready before taking the whistle to his mouth. Few would have dared to call a penalty in the last second of a World Cup final, but it had been a clear foul so he had no regrets. He gave the signal. Messi lowered his head and trotted forward while the stadium and a good part of the world´s population held its breath.

At the same instant Messi's shoe hit the ball, Golokov pressed the red bottom. There was a loud clang followed by a low humming noise. The accelerator began shooting a beam of particles to the specially prepared target. The old professor knew this would be his last big project and felt anxious. But this was his lucky day. Just ten seconds into the run a Golokov particle was created, perhaps the only one in the whole galaxy, just to disintegrate inside the detector a picosecond later. Out of its demise, a muon flew away unimpeded by wall and rocks, over grazing cows in the farmland and empty streets in the suburbs of Moscow, to finally go through the south bleachers of the Luzhniki stadium.

The ball flew right, mid height, close to the post exactly where Messi had aimed. But incredibly, Neuer reached it with the tips of his fingers. The ball hit the side post, then the crossbar, and came down behind Neurer's back. The goalkeeper fell over the ball, which disappeared from view before reappearing between his legs. Messi and Neurer stared at each other, uncertain of the result, their futures entangled, pointing in opposite but unknown directions. Had the ball entered the goal or hadn't it? There were only two possibilities: yes or no.

All eyes were now on the referee. He placed his hand over his ear, indicating that he wanted to hear what the goal referee determined. But soon his expression began to change and show panic. The goal-line technology had failed. The decision was completely in his hands. His long career would be defined by just this decision. The players of both teams came at him fast, imploring, shouting and gesticulating. He raised his hand, still unsure if he was going to point down or up the field.

The Golokov's muon decided for him. Its lifetime extended by relativity just enough to disintegrate inside his head, it started an electrical cascade in his neural circuits. The Italian became just an observer as his hand came down, collapsing the two possible answers, goal or no goal, into one hard reality.

Messi, despondent, closed his eyes, unable to hide his disgust. Later, careful replay analysis would show that the ball had in fact crossed the goal line. But in the end, it didn't matter. To everybody's surprise, the Argentinians won the penalty shoot-out, five to four, Messi scoring the last one.

There was a third possibility, after all!

About the Author: 
The author works in photonics but has written numerous short stories and recently published his first novel (in Spanish), a science fiction mystery (Los Siete Padres de Kimera.)