Chapter 16: An Unexpected Encounter
Wednesday March 13
Kakeru froze for a moment as he recognized the voice speaking to him with a Scottish accent. Kakeru's eyes widened when he identified the legendary old man sitting at the other end of the table; this was no illusion. "Sir... Sir Alex Ferguson?" Kakeru asked.
When Nana went through the door and saw the man known as the Boss, she stood still with her mouth wide open in amazement.
"Please have a seat. We have something to discuss about." Sir Alex said.
"Oh... Yes... Of course." Kakeru replied.
"Well... If this involves only Kakeru, then please excuse me for intruding." Nana said with a bow in apology.
"It's fine, Ms. Mishima. M. Iwaki told me that any discussion involving M. Aizawa would also be important for you to know. And since you're legally underage in Japan, we also requested your mother to be here. So please have a seat too." Sir Alex said to Nana.
Nana didn't know what to say, but Coach Iwaki gave her a nod indicating that she could stay. "If you say so…" Nana said.
Once Kakeru, Nana and Coach Iwaki got to their seats, side by side, Miwa closed the door. A tall middle-aged Englishman wearing a business suit and a Japanese middle-aged man were seated alongside Sir Alex. Kakeru didn't know who the Englishman was, but knew who the Japanese man was.
"On my left, you probably recognize the General Secretary of the Japanese Football Association (JFA), M. Kenji Sawada. On my right, this is Manchester United's Chief Executive, M. Daniel A. Gill." Sir Alex introduced the people who came with him.
"Welcome to this meeting and congratulations for your graduation."
"Thank you, M. Gill." Kakeru and Nana replied altogether.
"I'm sure you're probably asking what brings us to Japan. Before we start, may I call you by your first names? It's just an old habit when addressing to people who are much younger than me." Sir Alex said.
"Yes, of course. We're fine with that, Sir Ferguson." Kakeru replied.
"First of all, Kakeru, our scouts followed your performances and progress since October. You have several qualities that we are looking in a top complete forward for the future. Hence we came here today to offer you a pre-contract with the opportunity of becoming a Manchester United player after a 2-week tryout in May before we negotiate a real contract. If you succeed, we have a proposal for a 5-year deal on the table for you. You would mainly play with the Under-21s and in a few cup matches to begin with during next season, but you would also have a chance to prove yourself with the first team if you perform well." Sir Alex said.
Kakeru remained speechless for a moment before he replied: "Well... I'm really honored by your offer, but I'm also registered at Tokyo Medical University (TMU) and the first semester starts in April. I'm not sure how both paths would be compatible. Medical studies are also important for me since I aspire to become a doctor as well as a successful professional football player like Sócrates used to do."
"Shibata-san informed Sir Ferguson, M. Gill and the JFA about your academic aspirations. The JFA already contacted with the TMU. They have agreed to put you on their distance education program during the summer break if you succeed the tryout and then sign the contract." M. Sawada replied to Kakeru. At the same time, Miwa was translating the last part for both United representatives.
"In the case you become a Manchester United player, the University of Manchester would receive electronic versions of your examinations from the TMU and reserve a room on test days. Then your exams would be scanned and sent back to the TMU electronically. You would also be provided access to all available resources and have the option of attending lectures of your choice as an auditing student in Manchester. Both institutions have been consistently in contact with each other since you passed the TMU's entrance exams magnificently, and both reached an agreement in the measure that you accept the offer." M. Gill added.
"What is the ranking of the University of Manchester?" Nana asked.
"According to the Academic Ranking of World Universities in 2012: 40th worldwide and 5th in Britain. To give you an idea, the University of Tokyo and Kyoto University are the only Japanese universities ranked above Manchester at respectively 20th and 26th according to those rankings, Ms. Mishima." M. Gill replied.
"What do you mean by giving my son access to all the available resources?" Mrs. Aizawa asked.
"He would have full access to the medical library, to online medical journals, and to other facilities linked with the Faculty to support his studies, Mrs. Aizawa." M. Gill replied.
"It's really wonderful and very thoughtful that you sorted out the academics part to complement the generous offer. It would be a great honor for me to take this tryout and hope to be part a team that I admired for years. Still, I have one very important question left. It's not for me, but for Sev... for Nana Mishima. Is there a women's team at Manchester United?" Kakeru asked.
"Unfortunately, it had been disbanded in 2005. We have the United girls' academy that allows girls up to age 18 to train at the club, but nothing for girls older than 18. We are receiving several demands to reintroduce a women's team, but the board can't promise anything on that front at the moment." M. Gill replied.
Suddenly, silence reigned in the conference room. Apparently, Nana had 2 choices if Kakeru succeeds in his tryout and then signs a contract: stay alone in Japan to improve as a player and fulfill her dream of playing for Nadeshiko Japan, or follow Kakeru in Manchester at the risk of sacrificing her dream due to lack of playing minutes.
Kakeru took several seconds to ponder everything before he started replying. He also turned on the side to see Nana's reaction and noticed that his girlfriend was in utter shock at the prospect of choosing between 2 difficult choices. Holding true to the promise he made to her the day before, Kakeru finally replied.
"I'm really sorry, but I can't. Nana already sacrificed a lot over the years to help me overcome my weaknesses and become the player I am today, but I also realized the risks she took on her own playing career by doing so. I really don't want to upset you, but it would be unfair for her if I leave her behind for our respective careers' sake after the long way we made together. It would be too much for us to endure."
"Kakeru..." Nana said softly.
After Kakeru's reply, Miwa came closer to Sir Alex and whispered something into his ear. Then the Scot replied: "I understand your position since Ms. Shibata spoke to me in great detail about your unique situation. So far, we've only discussed about you, Kakeru, and I should now go straight to the point: you won't have to worry about any effects on Nana's aspirations, academic or professional."
"What do you mean?" Kakeru asked.
"Besides your case, Ms. Shibata and I also discussed about some of her other clients in our meetings. I came to Japan hoping to give tryouts for 2 of her clients in the same period in May. One of them is you, Kakeru." Sir Alex said before he paused for a few seconds in his reply. "The other player... is you, Nana."
Kakeru, Nana, Mrs. Aizawa and Mrs. Mishima were left totally baffled by the Scot's reply.
"My daughter?" Mrs. Mishima asked.
"What? Me... Having a tryout with Manchester United?" Nana also asked, perplexed by the offer.
"That's right. You'd be subject to the same pre-contract as M. Aizawa. If you succeed, we'd look forward to sign you for 5 years with your contract terms to be mainly the same as the ones in M. Aizawa's contract except for some details that are more appropriate for you." M. Gill replied.
"But, Sir, how? Are you really serious about this?"
"We are currently looking for midfielders because of Paul Scholes' upcoming retirement and because of the fitness issues with some of our midfielders. While our scouts were following Kakeru, they also spotted you outperforming boys of your age in training with the same team. They also saw you do superbly well against male university footballers older than you, and they also analyzed all your matches for Nadeshiko Japan. I wasn't sure about the idea at first, but the scouts kept pleading your case and they showed me everything they could find about you. Furthermore, Shinji told me that you're guaranteed for success after he saw you play for years, and Paul said that you have a huge potential as a midfielder based on what he saw of you at the Olympics before you got injured in the semi-finals against France. If any of us believed that you don't have solid qualities to play against men, we wouldn't be offering you a tryout at the same time I'm offering one to Kakeru right now." Sir Alex said.
"Regarding academics, you'd also take courses at the TMU during the first semester. In the case you sign after a successful tryout, you would join Aizawa-kun on their distance education program after July while you would also have the same medical resources at your disposal at the University of Manchester. Although I'm just the General Secretary for the JFA, I strongly recommend you to grab this opportunity. Sir Ferguson assured me that you would be treated like any Manchester United player, and not merely as a marketing ploy." M. Sawada told Nana while Miwa was translating in English again.
"If you perform at the level that is said about you, chances are that you'll become a full-time member of the main squad that will play regularly against the best in just 2 or 3 years if everything goes right. The same applies to Kakeru too." Sir Alex added.
"B-but what about FIFA? They hold a firm position against mixed-sex football teams since 2004. I would like nothing less to prove them wrong. But even if I succeed in the tryout, I might get banned before I can even play one game with the Reserves." Nana expressed her biggest concern.
"Since the prospect of you playing for us came up, we made sure to have our legal defenses ready with the help of our best lawyers in the case that FIFA take us to court. I'm not sure they would like to look more sexist than they already are, especially if a big club ends up giving such opportunity this time." M. Gill said.
"All players who are part of Manchester United always have a chance to show what they are made of. Ms. Shibata and M. Iwaki said a lot of good things about the two of you when we called them. They told us about how you both worked hard to mutually improve your skills and overcome any weakness." Sir Alex added.
"You spoke with them, Iwaki-sensei?" Kakeru asked.
"When they called me and expressed their interest for both of you, I provided them information about your strengths, weaknesses and overall attitude in all honesty. Still, they are convinced that you deserve to have this tryout, and I agree with them."
"That's why I was out of the country recently and told you not to sign anything for any club until today, Kakeru-kun. I was working hard on getting all parties on the same wavelength and we finally are indeed. This is a very solid offer that matches both you and Nana-chan's professional and academic ambitions. The only step you have to take before going for a contract is to succeed in May." Miwa said in English in order to make sure everyone could understand.
At that point, Kakeru and Nana refused to meet anyone's gaze, and both remained silent. They were not sure how to answer since it was probably the biggest decision they would have to make in their entire lives so far.
"Perhaps this is not quite the best day because of the ceremony and all of that. I guess you're all a little tired." Sir Alex said as he got up from his seat.
"What should we do now?" Nana asked.
"You don't have to answer now. Take your time to think about it and then give us your answer when ready." M. Gill said as he and Sir Alex passed a few business cards to everyone.
"Those cards have all our numbers on them. Give us a ring when you’ll both make your decision. I have to get on a plane tomorrow just before noon to fly back to Manchester and prepare my team for Saturday's match. Meanwhile, M. Gill will remain in Japan for the upcoming week negotiating with M. Sawada and several local commercial partners ahead of the upcoming July pre-season tour games in Japan. My door is always open if you consider taking this opportunity." Sir Alex added.
"It's a big thing you're asking from the kids, Sir Ferguson: traveling around half of the world, trying to find their way in a completely different culture, and fighting for their place in a top club. Please answer us frankly: can Kakeru and Nana really both succeed as professionals in England?" Mrs. Aizawa asked.
"It's my firm belief that they are more than capable of becoming excellent players for this great club, even long after I'm retired. The rest is up to them." Sir Alex replied before he went to shake hands with Kakeru. "It was good to meet you, Kakeru."
"Yeah, it was an honor to meet you, Sir Ferguson." Kakeru replied.
"Nana, it was a pleasure." Sir Alex said as he shook hands with Nana.
"Same for me, Sir Ferguson." Nana replied.
After the handshakes, Sir Alex and M. Gill bid goodbye to Kakeru, Nana and their mothers with a bow in respect to Japanese customs. After the 2 Japanese youngsters and their parents returned the bow and left, the remaining people still in the conference room were discussing about their impressions regarding the last meeting.
"I'm really sorry, Gentlemen. I was hoping that my clients would accept your proposal considering the huge efforts we made to come up with this." Miwa said.
"We shouldn't worry too much about it, Ms. Shibata. I'm very confident of seeing both of them in a red shirt." Sir Alex said.
"You're sure they have not turned you down?" M. Sawada asked.
"They will take this tryout and they are more than likely to succeed; that's what my instinct says." Sir Alex replied.
"I have the same feeling too. They only need time to feel ready enough to do this." Coach Iwaki added.
"Is that the intuition of a person working in the coaching domain?" M. Gill asked.
"You could say that, Daniel." Sir Alex replied.
"Before you leave, I was wondering if you have a few minutes to give some advice on a few questions from a fellow coach. I will probably be scolded by the principal for being late at the teachers' lunch. Still, it would really be appreciated I can receive some advice on a couple of things from the great Sir Alex Ferguson." Coach Iwaki said.
"Well, you're asking the right person. I'm always in the mood to help younger people on various subjects by offering some advice if I can, especially regarding football management and sometimes about life. We can have this discussion around a glass of red wine if you want." Sir Alex replied.
"Thank you very much." Coach Iwaki finished. His eyes were sparkling as the great Sir Alex accepted to give some advice as a fellow coach.
After Kakeru and Nana left the conference room, they immediately asked their friends to cancel the lunch at the restaurant and didn’t give any further explanation before heading straight for the Aizawas' house. However, Kaoru, Kouta and Takase knew there was something wrong, and decided to visit at Kakeru's house later in the afternoon. At that time, the group of 5 friends gathered in the living room. Meanwhile, Mrs. Aizawa and Mrs. Mishima were busy in the kitchen, and Mito was in her bedroom doing homework.
"I don't know what happened earlier, but there's clearly something bugging both of you." Kaoru said.
"He's right, Kakeru." Kouta added. "You were in a very good mood just after the ceremony and before Iwaki-sensei called for you. What happened?"
"Well... It's just that Seven and I were suddenly given something to seriously think about." Kakeru said.
"If it's that serious, then I guess it has something to do with your future." Takase asked.
"Indeed." Nana replied.
"Is there something that gets your medical studies compromised?" Kouta asked.
"No." Kakeru replied.
"If it's not about academics, then it must be your respective playing careers. Please tell us, so we can finally understand what's going on here." Kaoru said.
Then Nana finally gave a slight nod, leading Kakeru to reveal the truth: "Very well... Sir Alex Ferguson and Chief Executive Daniel Gill secretly came to school to meet both of us. They offered us a tryout in May at Manchester United and a chance to earn a contract if we succeed. In other words, it's a pre-contract offer."
"WHAT?!" Kaoru, Kouta and Takase exclaimed.
"It was a shock for us too." Kakeru replied.
"That's not all. United and the JFA managed to obtain an agreement between the TMU and the University of Manchester to support our medical studies if we end up signing with United. We would leave Japan during the summer break in July and study under the TMU's distance education program while Manchester would give us access to all kinds of resources if we accept the offer." Nana added.
"Wow! That's something big!" Kouta said.
"Congratulations to both of you!" Takase added.
"We... We haven't given our decision on that yet." Kakeru said.
Suddenly, it was silence for a few seconds until Kaoru spoke first: "Why, Kakeru? You always admired Manchester United, even more since Shinji Kagawa signed for them."
"Your medical studies would also be well covered by 2 institutions working together if you succeed, and I know both of you have what it takes to succeed. Where is the problem?" Takase asked.
Kakeru sighed before he replied: "The offer itself is beyond our wildest dreams. We have been lucky so far in making so many wonderful friends since we were kids and practice soccer in an environment that we've come to love. However, we don't know if we can cut it in England, in a completely different culture and on our own."
"Kakeru, Nana-chan... We always knew that both of you have something special. That extra something is what sets top players miles apart from those who are average. I believe you were destined for that kind of challenge. No matter what decision you'll make, we will always support you all the way." Kaoru said.
"You have something special as Kaoru said. Nevertheless, you will do alright with any choice you'll make as long as you're happy with your choice." Takase added.
"We have been friends for a long time, you two. Whatever you will do, we will always be friends and I know you will succeed wherever you go. Araki-san would have said the same thing too." Kouta said.
Kakeru and Nana didn't know how to respond, but they were not insensible to their friends' words of support. Meanwhile, Mrs. Aizawa and Mrs. Mishima overheard the entire conversation.
"I think it would be wise if we leave now and let you think about it. We'll be around if you need us." Kaoru said.
"Yeah. Thanks for the words, guys." Kakeru replied before his 3 friends left the house.
Later in the afternoon, Miwa sat down with Kakeru, Nana and their respective mothers to expose the full details surrounding the tryout and the preliminary contract offer. However, the main issue was still whether or not Kakeru and Nana would feel ready to move abroad in order to live their dream. When M. Aizawa was informed of the situation, he immediately rushed home after work. Nana, Mrs. Mishima and Miwa took their leave for the night after M. Aizawa was briefed about the tryout and the possible pro contract offer. In the evening, all members of the Aizawa family sat down for a talk.
"I went through the documents that Shibata-san brought us, Kakeru; the bulk of the proposal looks good to me for a pre-contract. With this tryout, you'd get the opportunity to move one step closer of facing the best players in the world. You might even play against top class players in training too. It's the next step in your dream of winning the World Cup." M. Aizawa said.
"I know, Dad." Kakeru replied dully.
"Shibata-san did a great job in having all parties agreeing on supporting your medical studies. And yet you couldn't give them an answer after such a proposal. What is bothering you, son?" M. Aizawa said.
"I still have a hard time realizing everything that was said today. For the first time in my life, the prospect of possibly facing the best players on the planet regardless of their age is so close of becoming a reality. I knew this day would come, but I never expected it would come so quickly."
"Ever since the day soccer became more than just a game for Suguru and you, we always knew that such fateful day would come. Even though the prospect of seeing a child leave the family house for a new life is always difficult for any parent, we prepared ourselves for it a long time ago. Sir Ferguson is a sincere man; I saw it in his eyes." Mrs. Aizawa said.
"I really don't know if I'm ready to leave almost everyone so far behind and so soon for the sake of following my dream. I never put too much thought about it." Kakeru replied.
"Even if you leave, whether it is for somewhere else in Japan or abroad, there's always the off-season to enjoy plenty of quality time among family and friends. Also, taking your friends and us into your heart can only make you stronger ahead of a journey on uncharted waters." M. Aizawa said.
"Your friends said it earlier in the afternoon: they are behind you all the way. We believe the same way too because we all want you to be happy as you follow your dream. If you feel you're happy even if you decline the offer, then it's OK. You are our son and you'll always be welcome in this house with open arms. The bond between parents and their children is always a very strong bond that transcends distance, Kakeru. I'm sure Mishima-san is telling the same thing to Nana-chan right now." Mrs. Aizawa added.
Kakeru tightly hugged his parents, who also returned the embrace. He realized how supportive his parents were in this dilemma situation. At the same time, Mito also hugged Kakeru.
"Thank you, everyone, for reminding me how much you support me." Kakeru said.
"You'll be alright, Kake-nii. Either way, you won't have to hear me teasing about you and Seven anymore. Uncle's got you a room in his apartment building in Tokyo just for the two of you." Mito said.
"Come here." Kakeru said as he wrapped his arm around Mito's shoulder. "You know that there will be no one around to make sure you do your homework, right?"
"She will do it. She's good at keeping her feet on the ground, just like me." Mrs. Aizawa said between chuckles.
"We are really proud that you made it this far in such a short time and managed to get this tryout as a result. No matter the path you'll take, the most important is that you never lose sight of your dreams and that you find your own happiness." M. Aizawa finished.
Although Kakeru didn't make his decision in that evening, his confidence was reinvigorated as he needed it so much. Later in the evening, Kakeru went to sleep with the purpose of meeting Nana early in the next morning and discussing everything in depth with her with a clearer mind before the final decision would be made. After all, things seem to be always clearer in the morning.