Of Pride and Loss
Devastation. That was the only word in Loogan's mind after the match that confirmed that the all-mighty Krawk Island yooyuball team had failed to place among the four best on Altador Cup V. The young pirate Aisha's heart was heavy with grief that soon turned into denial.
“This can't be happening. It's impossible. It can't be happening,” she thought to herself, in an endless loop that was driving her crazy. “How can such a talented team not make it into the first tier finals?”
The truth is that Loogan and all the many Krawk Island's supporters weren't used to lose. Krawk Island had been a powerhouse in yooyuball since the first Altador Cup, always going further in the cup than the year before until their AC IV much-celebrated win. Though they all have been aware of the winner's curse, they had never really considered not being one of AC's four best. Now it had happened: the illusion of breaking the curse held strong, even after they were off to a bad start, and now the pain was palpable. The consternation was visible in every Krawk Islander's visage.
In the end, ol' Dasher, their legendary forward, couldn't carry them over, and their captain and best goalkeeper in Neopia, Garven Hale, couldn't save them from all their defensive problems. Individual talent simply wasn't enough. Krawk Island fell short and even getting into the second tier wasn't easy. For Krawk Island supporters like Loogan, though, the second tier finals were a very bitter outcome, seen with disinterest and an utter lack of enthusiasm and motivation. Krawk Islanders' spirits were crushed. That seemed to reflect on the team, that lost to the same Virtupets they had defeated in the end of double round robin, leaving them dangerously close to an 8th place final standing. A standing that Loogan considered dishonorable and an overall fiasco for a team that has always been a favorite.
With that in her mind and heart, Loogan walked around the yooyuball training summer camp she was attending in Neopia Central. An ambitious right forward full with dreams of future Altador Cup success for herself, she now held her head down while kicking dirt off the ground absentmindedly. An enthusiastic chanting managed to finally pull her out of her sadness and she looked up to see Virtupets' fans celebrating their team with all they had. By watching and hearing them, one might think they were celebrating the first tier finals, or even the title, but no. They were cheering for getting into the same second tier finals Krawk Island was on. That puzzled Loogan.
A small team, Virtupets had managed minor improvements in standings from cup to cup, but their best placing so far had been 12th in AC IV. They quickly became AC V's most celebrated underdogs, though, rising to the first tier and eventually going to the second-tier finals sure to achieve their best placement to date. It was generally agreed that their team had important technical and tactical flaws, but they overcame them through team spirit, dedication and fearlessness. Virtupets never gave up on a match, just like their supporters never lost heart – despite the years of bad cup performances, they loved and cheered for their team anyway.
Loogan could appreciate the loyalty and team spirit and she understood that for them it might have been an accomplishment. Still, such a vigorous party for a campaign that in the end was similar to the one that broke her heart – it bothered her somehow, yet she couldn't quite put her finger on why.
She approached one of the Virtupets supporters she knew, left defender Zeenax the purple Grundo, and asked him, “How can you be so happy if you lost?”
Zeenax answered her with a huge smile in his face. “But of course we're happy! At first, no one believed we could get this far. Now look at us! We played such a great Cup! They've done more than their duty to us. They've honored us not only with our best campaign to date, but also with a great showing of team spirit, love for your jersey and bravery. I think we should always celebrate those that put in all the effort they could – like our guys, and like yours.”
“Hm... It's easy for you to say that. You had such low expectations before the Cup started.”
“That doesn't change the fact that you should love your team not only when they win and for their victories, but for what they do. One can win and be dishonorable... Being admirable has nothing to do with winning the match. Our guys always kept the fair play and they overcame their shortcomings by playing with their heart. How can we not celebrate them when they gave it all and showed everyone spirit, valor and bravery? The way they represented us is more important than any win. They were fearless and they went down fighting, and that's why we couldn't be prouder of them. I guess those fans whose team always wins end up forgetting what it really means to love and support your players...”
Loogan could only nod to that. As Zeenax went back to the party, the Aisha couldn't stop thinking about his words. Maybe she should reconsider... Maybe he was right and small teams really could teach Krawk Island and everyone else about support and about the game at large. They couldn't let their high expectations make them feel entitled to win... and they certainly shouldn't be so used to great placings that they turned their back on their team the first time things didn't turn out so well. It was not a fiasco: she knew they hadn't lost because of a lack of heart. They had really tried and that should be recognized, even though in the end it wasn't enough. They've made a valiant effort against the winner's curse and, as Virtupets, they went down fighting. So there was nothing to be ashamed of – they should learn from what didn't work and bounce back next year, as proud as ever.
That train of thought managed to lift her spirit considerably but still she couldn't regard the situation quite as Zeenax. Her heart was still heavy with loss: a sinking feeling that came not from disappointment but from love for the players. She knew that might have been the last chance for Dasher and others... Yet she felt no more anger or bitterness out of her grief. She could now hold her head higher and see things more clearly. It wasn't a failure and there were no villains. They gave it all but the other teams were simply better and that had to be recognized. On the other hand, Krawk Island was brave and fought to the end, and about that Zeenax was 100% right: that is exactly what should make fans proud.
The most important day so far in their lives has arrived. Virtupets' and Krawk Island's players enter the arena for Altador Cup IX final match. Half of them will reach their ultimate dream and become AC champions; the other half will go home falling just short of it. The importance of the match looms large in everyone's minds.
Krawk Island's captain, Loogan Cutlass, is facing Virtupets' captain, her long-time friend Zeenax Vors, for the toss of the coin. They shake hands warmly but don't let go immediately. Instead, they step closer together, hands still locked.
“Good luck, my friend,” says Loogan, smiling and looking into Zeenax's eyes to show her utter sincerity.
Zeenax smiles hugely, remembering their many talks in the old days when they were together at yooyuball training camps, and replies, “Win or lose, let's make the fans proud.”