IT’S NOW OR NEVER
Two minutes left on the clock.
The crowd watch with their hands clasped on top of their heads. Scarves hang loosely around their necks. Some of them puff their cheeks out.
It’s now or never.
The ball is chipped in from midfield and finds him on the edge of the box. He takes it down on his chest and sidesteps the incoming defender. He pulls his foot back to take a shot but dummies instead, cutting inside the next tackle.
The crowd rise to their feet as he surges into the box.
The defenders slide to try and stop his shot, but his touch has taken the ball beyond their reach. The goalkeeper steps forward, arms stretched wide, eyes fixed on the ball. The crowd watch through their fingers.
Then he shoots.
The ball fires past the goalkeeper’s fingertips. But for a split second – a heartbeat – it looks as though it might go over the crossbar. The crowd gasp. And then, as the ball hits the back of the net, they erupt.
Real Madrid are the new champions!
I run off to celebrate and slide on my knees. The little stones on the ground scrape against my skin, and as I get up I feel blood trickling down my leg. I rattle the rusty corrugated fence so it sounds like thousands of fans jumping and cheering in the stands. The crumbling apartment blocks rise up like a stadium on every side, and I roar loud enough for even the deaf old men on the fifth floor to hear. I put my fingers and thumbs together to make the shape of a heart, and pound my chest where the Real Madrid badge should be. The Indonesian wonder kid strikes again!
The heart shape is my trademark celebration. Whenever Uston scores he crosses his chest and points to the sky, even though he’s supposed to be Muslim. We keep telling him that Allah will be angry if he makes the sign of the cross, but Uston says it doesn’t matter because he’s only pretending. I still don’t think it’s worth the risk.
Rochy comes over and puts his arm around my shoulders.
“What a goal, Budi! You left them for dead!”
I look across the square at Uston and Widodo lying on the ground. The warm, evening air is thick with dust from their sliding tackles, and it smells like money.
The square isn’t technically a square, it’s a quadrilateral quadrangle. I know this because Rochy told me. And Rochy is a genius. He went to school until he was thirteen so he knows pretty much everything, although a lot of it is useless stuff like quadrilateral quadrangles, ancient history and something he calls “physics”. He told me recently that the universe is expanding, but I don’t really understand what that means. He’s tried to explain it, but I’m not a scientific genius like him, I’m a footballing genius like Kieran Wakefield. And one day I’m going to be a world-famous footballer like him, too. So normally I just nod and say cool and ask Rochy to tell me something interesting about football instead.
Fachry, the goalkeeper, leans against the corrugated fence we use as a goal, pulling a piece of plastic coating from the football. Fachry has to go in goal because he’s Catholic. Catholic is just a type of Christian – there’s more than one type. They all support the same god (who isn’t Allah) but still don’t agree. It’s like Manchester United and Manchester City. They don’t agree on anything other than being from Manchester. Fachry doesn’t like going in goal but it’s four Muslims against one Catholic. Rochy says that’s democracy, and you can’t argue with democracy.
Behind the fence is where the bins are kept. On one of the balconies above the bins, a scrawny man watches us with his feet resting in a groove where the wall has crumbled away. The soles of his feet are black. He chews his nails and spits them over the wall. The smell of fried vegetables and spices wafts across the pitch. The clank of pots and pans reaches us from three sides of the square, but the far end is eerily quiet.
This is where the Dragon lives.
Some people think the Dragon is called the Dragon because he comes from Komodo, which is true but it’s not the reason. Komodo is where they used to send all the criminals, so everyone who comes from there is descended from a convict. This explains a lot, but it isn’t the reason why the Dragon is called the Dragon.
Other people think the Dragon is called the Dragon because he looks like one. They say he got the nickname because of his big stomach and the jewelled rings he wears on every finger and the thick gold chains around his neck. In fact, he was called the Dragon before those things. His big belly and rings and chains are because he’s rich. Mega-rich. Like a footballer. He’s the main landlord and moneylender for the area, so everyone owes the Dragon something. And if you don’t, it’s probably because you just paid him.
The real reason why the Dragon got his nickname has got nothing to do with where he’s from or how he looks. The Dragon is called the Dragon because if you cross him or betray him or bad-mouth him, he’ll chew you up and spit out your bones. And he won’t bother burying what’s left of you, either.
As the dust settles it sticks to the sweat on my skin. Widodo is up on his feet, brushing the dirt from his shorts. When he offers to help his brother up, Uston slaps his hand away.
“Come on, Uston,” Rochy says. “Don’t be a sore loser.”
“I want a rematch,” Uston says, sitting up and hanging his head between his knees.
“It’s too late now,” Rochy says. “I have to get home.”
“What about golden goal?”
“Forget it, Uston,” I say. “You only have golden goal if the teams draw, and we beat you.”
“Shut up, Budi, that goal was a fluke.”
“No, it wasn’t.”
“Yes, it was! I bet if we play another match you won’t score any. How about we play one-on-one: Barcelona versus Real Madrid? Fachry can stay in goal, and Rochy can run home to his mummy.”
“What about me?” Widodo asks.
“You can referee,” Uston says.
Widodo frowns and starts dusting his shorts again. You’d expect Uston to be a better loser by now – me and Rochy have given him plenty of practice – but I suppose anyone who thinks that Barcelona are better than Real Madrid must have a lot of problems. I really want to stay and beat him, but I know I shouldn’t be late home for dinner.
“Budi!” Rochy shouts suddenly. “Your leg!”
I look down just as the trail of blood reaches my ankle. The drop spills over the plastic tongue of my boot and seeps into the laces. It’s the most impressive injury I’ve ever had.
“Whoa! That’s a nasty one,” Rochy says. “You should go home and get that cleaned up.”
The others gather round and admire the cut in my knee. When I bend my leg it feels sore, and a fresh dribble of blood seeps out.
“Yeah, you should go home,” Fachry says.
I pick up my football and start hobbling home. It doesn’t really hurt that much, but you’ve got to make the most of it. That’s what footballers do. Above my head, washing lines droop between the buildings, and the clothes, bleached by the summer sun, are like Madrid flags. Like we’ve won La Liga. Like this is the homecoming.
My chest fills with pride, and I pat my T-shirt where the Real Madrid badge should be.
“I’ll play you one-on-one tomorrow night, Uston,” I call over my shoulder, breaking into a stiff jog. “Barca are going down!”
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Winner of the 2018 Branford Boase Award.
Selected for The Reading Agency's Summer Reading Challenge 2018.
Budi's plan is simple.
He's going to be a star.
Budi's going to play for the greatest team on earth, instead of sweating over each stitch he sews, each football boot he makes.
But one unlucky kick brings Budi's world crashing down. Now he owes the Dragon, the most dangerous man in Jakarta. Soon it isn't only Budi's dreams at stake, but his life.
A story about dreaming big, about hope and heroes, and never letting anything stand in your way.
“A brilliant debut.”
John Boyne, author of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas
“A fantastically original debut that champions hope, dogged optimism in the face of adversity, and friendship”
M. G. Leonard, author of Beetle Boy and Branford Boase Award judge
After graduating from the University of East Anglia with an award-winning first class degree in English Literature with Creative Writing, Mitch completed Kick, his debut novel for middle grade readers. He was inspired to write it while working in a sports shop where he discovered a discarded, crumpled drinks sachet left in a shoebox between a brand-new pair of football boots. Mitch now works as a bookseller at Waterstones, Norwich, and writes in his spare time.
Visit www.mitchjohnsonauthor.com/ to find out more.
Renaissance Quiz Writers Choice Award
The Mal Peet Children's Award
See more readers’ reviews at Goodreads.com.
Read the following reviews or write one of your own.
This book is about a boy called Budi who lives in Indonesia. He sews football boot stitching and he dreams that, one day, he will become a footballer for Real Madrid. But he makes a deal with the treacherous ‘Dragon’, which changes his life from a walk to a rollercoaster ride, with big twists and turns topped off with a fast and dramatic ending. This realistic and exciting book is perfect for football fans.
“skillfully written and perfectly paced. Mitch Johnston has produced a fantastically original debut that champions hope, dogged optimism in the face of adversity, and friendship.”
M.G. Leonard, author of Beetle Boy
“A fast-paced, compelling read about so much more than the beautiful game. It's about the cost of friendship, about having to make agonisingly difficult choices and about keeping hope alive while life delivers some hard blows”
Toppsta reader review
“A dazzling story of family, fate and football and one game-changing friendship.”
Peter Bunzl, author of The Cogheart Adventures
“Lively, funny, always optimistic, Budi will win readers' hearts and his positivity ensures the book remains an accessible page-turner even as his life gets very bleak indeed.”
Andrea Reece, Lovereading4kids
“A must-read for fans of Mal Peet.”
Tom Palmer, author of Football Academy
“To grow up with stories like these is the beginning of finding another world, lying at our feet.”
Khalid Abdalla, star of The Kite Runner
“Fast-paced, funny and involving. Mitch Johnson is a brilliant writer.”
Anjali Joseph, author of Saraswati Park
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