San Olympus – Saturni, Kumbha 7, 2077, m249
Over 5,000 football fans descended on Olympus Park for the largest single gathering ever for a Mars event to witness the Marineris Comets stun the favoured San Olympus Titans with a decisive 4-1 victory to capture the first ever MAFL championship.
Residents from across the colonies congregated at San Olympus, inflating the usual 12,000 population to almost 18,000 these past days. This unforeseen population spike had officials panicking all week on whether they could keep the colony afloat.
So crews worked around the clock to transform public areas and even cargo bays into event facilities.
Surplus air, water and other supplies were ordered weeks in advance in anticipation of this potential final. However, the sheer onslaught of visitors moved the other colonies to offer their support to help San Olympus breathe more easily.
The inter-colony audience overflowed the parkade at Olympus Park, which was bursting at the seams. Never had so many Spectator transports been packed so closely before as 5,128 fans watched and proudly displayed their favourite MAFL colours.
And no two colours shined more brightly than the Titans’ Purple and the Comets’ Blue as the two teams put on a scintillating classic that delivered drama and action throughout the match.
While San Olympus A-list socialite Sasha Bayley made her appearance with her rendition of the national anthem, her boyfriend would not. Readale Nash, the Titans leading scorer, reinjured himself during practice and was not suited for the match. Also missing in action, MAFL goalkeeper of the year, Icilio De Sisto of the Titans who suffered a shoulder injury in the semi-final match against the Immortals.
This made for a naturally frenetic match and the Comets poured on the offense to take advantage of the Titans’ key absences.
The genesis of a chance emerged with pressure from Stephen Liu on a loose ball that ultimately opened an opportunity for team-mate Luz Obregón, who sought the far right corner with a low drive from an acute angle, but dragged the effort a bit wide of the net.
Titans’ defender Alberto Rubio went down with injury in his feverish pursuit of Obregón on the play.
One less Titan allowed for the Comets to dominate possession for the better half of the quarter-hour as in succession: Liu and Liddell Bradley had reachable targets inside the danger zone but were left bemoaning their efforts as Titan goalkeeper Usian Busara was looking sharp.
After narrowly holding off the early burst of Comets’ intensity, the Titans finally rallied back.
With 20 minutes on the clock, it looked like Jube Terrell opened scoring as she controlled a Raenia Ware delivery and quickly blasted it past Zaida Agre. But luck would desert her as the officials rightly adjudged her offside to keep the match goalless.
A minute later, Terrell collected a pass from Baja Avdi just inside the penalty box and tried to guide home the ball with a side-foot past Agre who managed to poke the ball out of harm’s way.
And just as it looked like Ware would put her team on top with a rush down the right flank, the Comets Vitor Vargas Medina played her a snug too tight causing both players to crash to the ground.
While Medina got up, Ware did not. Ware’s ankle, injured for a significant portion of the season, couldn't hold up. Ware refused to go to the locker room and demanded to remain on the sidelines to give her teammates ongoing encouragement.
But the Titans’ injuries continued to piled on. Backup goalkeeper Usian Busara was taken out at the 27th minute, forcing Titan manager, Paulo Salgado, to insert unproven defender, Satsaroop Saprai, into an unbelievably high stake, high pressure situation.
In efforts to protect their untested goalkeeper, the Titans overcompensated which led to defender Terry Park overexerting and becoming the next victim to injury with 3 minutes remaining in the half.
With Rubio, Ware, Busara and now Park all gone (in addition to Nash and De Sisto being out), the Comets could smell blood.
Despite this, Titans’ Tarik Lema Girma fought back with a well-timed boost that propelled a stunning strike that flew into the top left corner from just inside the penalty area for the 1st goal of the match.
Titans 1 Comets 0.
Unfortunately, this momentum would not last as the Titans would display a slew of uncharacteristic mistakes.
The first came in the final minute of the half as a weak clearing attempt from Saprai was intercepted by Liu who fed a pass to Amanda Coronel who thundered a header precisely into the right post corner as a hesitant Saprai watched.
Titans 1 Comets 1.
The pace from the outset of the second half was relentless.
On the sidelines, Ware encouraged her teammates on. Despite the Comets focus on containing Terrell, she caused some alarm by galloping along the right touchline and to the near post before finally getting crowded out by a combination of defence and goalkeeper.
With each passing minute, the match became increasingly stretched, with neither team yielding in their attacking ambitions.
Then at the 74th minute, the decisive moment arrived. Liu intercepted an errant pass from the Titans, dribbled from the halfway line past three Titans defenders and then clipped the ball to Luz Obregón. The 24-year-old used exquisite technique to cushion the ball on his chest and then watch his cool side-foot drift over Saprai and into the top right corner.
Comets 2 Titans 1.
That goal would open the flood gates as the Comets rushed through with another goal two minutes later. Another misplayed pass from the Titans landed onto Bradley’s foot where he sent a cross from the right, which was met by Jonathan Elliot with a sliding volley into the lower left corner.
Comets 3 Titans 1.
The Titans tried to mount an attack, but were met by a swarm of Comets. A series of crisp pass combinations would allow Alessandro Ferraz to finish with a low shot that easily beat the hapless Saprai.
Comets 4 Titans 1.
The tired and crippled Titans valiantly fought to the end, but the final whistle marked a stunning ending to their season and redemption for the Comets.
“They said we couldn’t beat them but we did when it counted most,” said Bradley as he was showered with champagne by his jubilant teammates in the locker room. “They can have the MAFL Team of the Year Award – I’d rather be hoisting the Championship!”
“We’ve developed a team spirit which has been unbelievable based on the tumultuous season we’ve had with Warren’s death,” said Comets Manager Gordan J. Pryce, “I think it’s just fitting that the first Mars colony would also be home to the first ever MAFL championship.”
“My players were warriors and I congratulated them afterwards because, beyond the disappointment of the result, they played their hearts out”, said a dejected but composed Titans Manager, Salgado. “When you lose key players, you know it's difficult to turn it around but it's clear they gave everything for the Titans jersey today. However, I congratulate Marineris on winning the title.”
As would Commissioner Aiger Masing during the championship trophy ceremony.
“First off I would like to thank San Olympus for a fabulous job in hosting this week of festivities. However, this could not have happened without the help of all the colonies pitching in. We started this project ten years ago and what has happened today is the result of many years' of planning and failed attempts, but we never gave up. Today was a shining example of what we can all achieve here on Mars. Join me in celebrating your first ever MAFL champions, the Marineris Comets!”
And as Masing presented the Championship trophy to Captain Bradley, the broadcast channel erupted with applause from all the combined feeds including Spectator Transports, public gatherings, and home viewers across the colonies... followed 10 minutes later on Earth.
This concludes Season 1 of the Martian Aero Football League. Though season 2 is not slated until Mesha, 4 Martian Months away, fans will be eager to see post-season activity within the clubs and follow whether the MAFL will expand with any of the proposals from Wendland, Korolev and Osumi.
Play on, Mars!