The Beautiful Game – A monthly exclusive where fans talk about their fondest/most unforgettable memories with a ball on their feet. Today Resident EADF writer Ayush recollects a story that might not be his fondest, but one he will never forget.
Its Friday evening and I can almost smell the weekend. The office feels chirpier than usual. Most of the cattle have already drawn up their two-day schedules. These include early morning marathons, late morning brunches, evenings at the theatre, nights at the cinema – all interspersed with a Netflix binge and copious amounts of alcohol. It is the typical program of upwardly mobile urban Indians stepping into early adulthood. It speaks of ambition, of purpose and of their insatiable appetite to accumulate rich experiences and chance encounters within the woefully short span of forty-eight hours. It is the natural counter-culture to an otherwise dour life that involves, (for most), sitting behind two screens and servicing the needs of folks all over the world from “Maine to Mexico” (or New York to Tokyo – feel at liberty to insert your favourite East-West reference). The Marxists may call them the new proletariat. I prefer cattle.
My itinerary is a lot simpler. I am a twenty-six-year-old male, unabashedly single, earning a salary that is preposterously high for the pitiful list of skills I declare on my resume, and my sole participation in communal, rather societal, activities is restricted to two hours of football every Saturday. The folks at the game are probably more ambitious than the cattle earlier. Apart from doing all the things that were listed, they can make room for two hours of sport as well! I feel like I have lost even before the game has started. I search deep inside the laundry bag that is my heart for a reason to make it to the turf at 8 am the next morning. But the bag is empty. It appears that I will sit this one out. Immediately, I am reminded by the ticking bomb that is my mind, of the mercilessly plundered bottle of Chivas in my cupboard, waiting to be put out of its misery. There is enough ammunition left for four rounds and my mood brightens upon the realization that the blame for not going tomorrow could be conveniently appropriated to the kind of deep sleep that only Whiskey can induce. I set the alarm for seven anyway because you are never too old for a miracle. On the upside that the miracle does materialize, you could always write about it in a faraway corner of the Internet, the journey to which will be made only by your doting parents, and upon reaching it they may sit down over a cup of tea and discuss if they might have raised you differently.
I am woken from my ‘deep sleep’ at half-past five. It is safe to assume that the alcohol had been defeated by my hyper conscience desire to make it to the game after all. There was will, I must have been looking at all the wrong places. I should confess that this hyper conscience self, let us call him Frank, performs the same act of selfless vigilantism every Saturday. Frank knows there is only one thing I have properly loved in my life. And Frank, in all likelihood, understands that with love comes generous servings of suffering and plenty of sacrifice. They are all parts of the same meal – the chicken, the rice and the greens. The only element I get to control is which I way I choose to eat it. Today, I start with the greens – ‘the suffering’.
It takes me the better part of an hour to drag myself out of the bed. An hour of twisting, turning, drooling and cursing Frank. The hangover is real and I conclude that he had won by a narrow margin. The whiskey had left substantial parting gifts for the both of us and I had less than an hour to fix it. I wonder if the size of a hangover is directly proportionate to the number of sins one commits the previous night. Or maybe frank was just having a bad day. Either way, I quickly perform the tireless ritual of promising myself never to drink again.
The sun was beginning to make its way out of the darkness. I find that the milk in the fridge is hanging precariously at the edge of its use by date and could turn stale any minute. It quickly moves from carton to bowl to microwave. Someone left the tin with the cereal half open and the cereal must have taken considerable offence to this most human of errors, for it had turned soggy. Soggy cereal and a nearly stale bowl of milk. I take a deep breath and prepare for the game ahead but before I can finish reflecting, the microwave beeps and I start stuffing lumps of the half breakfast, half joke into my mouth. The body feels better, if only slightly, and I start to believe I can survive this. The shower was long, so long that I nearly forgot if it was a weekday or the weekend. There were a few moments of nervous tension before I felt the remains of the soggy cereal in my teeth. If I stayed any longer I would be late, so I got out, put on my trainers, packed my kit, called the cab and was on my way.
It is a beautiful day. A touch hot perhaps for late October. But beautiful nevertheless. I try to pump myself up for the exercise ahead and start with some Drake on the earphone but it fails to impress either Frank or me. We both agree Drake is depressed more in the conventional sense of the word. Drugs, money, women and the lot. I don’t do drugs, so I don’t need the money for it and apart from my mother, the only women I know are the ones that have left me, and worse, left Frank. Our concerns with life are more technical in nature and over time they have increasingly become existential. Concerns like a poor first touch, sloppy ball control, inaccurate passing, a weak shot, not enough time on the ball and rapidly decreasing levels of fitness. We have been trying to overcome these hurdles for more than a decade now but are no closer to doing so than when we started, all those years back.
Drake is followed by some fervent electronic music. It rallies us for a while before the beats start to feel like tiny hammers piercing at my skull. I can feel the remnants of the early morning headache reenergizing and before it can make a full recovery, I move on to the softer overtones of Adele. There is, at last, some peace in my process and my thoughts wander off to the game ahead. I decide (for both Frank and myself) to keep our game simple today. We should play short direct passes to feet, none of the fancy stuff, no one touch flicks, no stepovers, no drama, no nonsense. Too often over the past decade, we have tried to shed our skin and play a game that doesn’t come naturally to either of us. Football is a simple game if you employ all your resources on the pitch. Resources being your teammates. I think of what Pep wrote in his book. He said, “When you receive the ball, it is ideal that you be able to pass to any of the ten other players on the pitch and then find the best option.” Somehow, I feel his force within me now. As my mind is about to jump into the pool of Pepology, I experience a rude awakening in the form of passing by the world’s most polluted water body – Bellandur Lake.
I plead with the driver to roll up his window but he doesn’t oblige. The taste of the whiskey in my mouth combined with the stale milk and the stench from the lake forms a disgusting cocktail within my senses. The urge to throw up and be done with it seems tempting, but I manage to hold it together and we arrive at the turf before long.
I see familiar faces on the pitch as I walk closer to it. Faces that had clearly endured a longer night then I had, but still made it comfortably before me and in far merrier spirits than Frank would allow me to be in. It is still five minutes to the start and I decide to do a quick warm-up before the nightmare finally begins. After a couple of tired laps of the rectangular turf, I see that a ball is rolling in my general direction. It is probably a misplaced one by one of the four men who were doing their pre-game one-touch passing exercise. I see one of them waving from the other end of the pitch, demanding that I take a momentary leave of my warm up and instead punt the ball back to him. After assessing the situation, I conclude that I am the only one from our group who is on this side of the pitch. To expect one of the four to come all the way here to take the ball back would be a typically ‘jerk’ move and I instead trudge willingly to return the ball. I decided to use my left foot and prepared to execute a curving lobbed ball, the kind that hangs in the air for a lifetime, waiting for an eager target man to rise above his knee and head it home. I managed to make a decent connection but no sooner had the ball left the ground, I felt the sharp pain in my groin which has become extremely familiar over the years. The pain that comes from having not stretched your joints sufficiently before a game. The stretching that is the founding stone of any good warm up. The warm-up that was interrupted by someone else’s laziness in atoning for their mistake. The mistake that robbed me from using half of my feet. Now all I had to offer was the right foot and a head that was still heavy from the exertions of the previous night, the previous week, the previous decade and possibly all my life.
The three teams are quickly arranged according to the color of the jerseys worn by the fifteen brave souls who had decided to show up on time on a beautiful Autumn morning only to decide who was better at putting a round ball in the back of a square net. The format is simple. Two teams start. The teams then rotate after ten minutes. Someone from the team sitting out keeps the time. Often, instead of holding a watch, this person arbitrarily screams “Last Minute!” after a generally acceptable length of time and often, everyone agrees. One is tempted to imagine if all the world’s arguments and conflicts could be settled this easily. The Palestinian’s and Israeli’s have been sparring for the better part of fifty years. But if a third party, let us say the Solomon Islands stood up and screamed – “GUYS, LAST MINUTE!”- it is over in sixty seconds. The United Nations General Assembly applauds, the Security Council votes unanimously to elect the Solomon Islands as its sixth permanent member and we are a step closer to World Peace.
The latter part of that was all Frank. He is more distracted than normal today. As we get ready to start the game, I implore Frank to stay with me for the whole time as it was his inflated ego that had brought us here. If he agreed to throw in the towel earlier in the morning, the scotch might have kept me in bed till noon.
Our team looks like it has potential, like all teams to do at the start. There’s the burly, the late thirties, greying man who can trap the ball and the entire world along with it on his broad chest. Fun to play off him for any competent second striker. The second striker is a lean, spectacled, mildly talented boy who has never been seen in anything other than a ‘Pogba’ jersey. I like to call him ‘Could-be-Pogba’ or simply, ‘Could Be’. I start out conservatively as the keeper who likes to play out from the back. My two lieutenants in front are the diminutive and pugnacious early thirty-something man with a month-long beard on the left and a talented, enthusiastic, fit as a horse female on the right. What could possibly go wrong? I feel safe. I feel happy among the company of my temporary family for the next couple of hours.
We begin well and dominate possession in the first minute. Nearly all the play is in the opposing half and my role is restricted to a few motivational words at my team and some friendly jibes at the opposing defense. ‘Could be’ takes a shot but it is off target and we are now for the first time without the ball. Within thirty seconds, the anchorman in the other team – this giant, imposing, cock-strutting, beautifully built work of flesh and muscle – starts moving like a mountain towards us and all hell breaks loose. He nutmegs the grey man and plays a quick one two with his winger on the right. A shot is on the cards and the giant obliges but the ball never reaches me as the long-bearded ‘pug’ has blocked it and managed to keep possession as well. He runs ten feet with the ball but realizes there are no options. I finally receive the ball from him and the first thing I do is look up. There is nothing on. I move the ball to left but am reminded by my groin that it is on leave.
By now, the grey man and ‘could be’ must have moved further up the pitch. I can feel the opposite attacker coming for me and next time I look up he is about to lunge and steal the ball. I immediately sell him a dummy (good thing he didn’t know I never had a left leg to begin with), look up again and play a neatly cushioned lob to the feet of ‘could be’. I feel a smile beginning to grip my mouth at its edges as I watch the ball sail deep into the other half. ‘Could be’, and bless him for keeping it simple, finds Mr Grey’s run on the left and it is the easiest of tap-ins. Putting bread on butter might be harder, especially when the butter is cold and hard. I wonder where that thought came from. Because if you leave it outside it will melt, if you keep it in the fridge, it’s a rock. Either way, it’s a proper goal. I feel the strings pressing at my heart loosen and I feel in love again, with the game, with the sun warming the back of my neck, with the noise of the ball hitting the neck and with my family on the field at that moment.
And that was the highlight of the morning. To say everything went downhill after that would be a gross understatement, like a criminal shooting his dog and pleading self-defense. The two minutes at the start were ‘not’ a precursor of our lives ahead and this we should have realised as soon as ‘could be’ lost the ball for the first time. The giant – who else but him – picked up the loose ball and took a violent shot just a few meters inside our half. Everyone in its trajectory ducked bar me. I gathered the courage from the confidence of hitting that delightful lob and put my right hand out to block the ball that was heading straight for the top corner. I feel that the ball (now a comet), might have taken great affront to this act of misdemeanour and may have sped faster in the final few moments before it hit my hand. I felt it. It hit my hand like a train hits a car on the crossing – itself maintaining perfect course post impact, but decimating the shape and soul of the car that had dared to stand in its way. My keeping duties for the morning were over and I am grateful to ‘the pug’ who offered to switch positions immediately.
We lost the first game and had to sit out the next one. When it was our turn again, I took up a more central role, in and around the half way line, with ‘Mr Grey’ behind me to my left and the fit lady to the right. I felt if we allowed ‘could be’ the space, time and freedom to express we might have a chance to turn this day around. Unfortunately. ‘could be’ played true to his name and my performance was simply “shambolic”. The ball was bouncing off my feet like it was a stone and my passing – well – a crashed pilot in the Sahara had more chances of finding water than I had of finding a team mate. I was beginning to despise the whole thing. Why do I put myself through this every week? Why do I believe there is a greater purpose for me in the game? Why don’t I admit to myself that I am a tad ‘shite’ at it? Why don’t I try something else? Like go for a marathon perhaps, do Yoga, anyone and everyone I know is doing Yoga.
The cross-field ball that led to the goal now feels centuries away and I chance a look at the touchline to see if someone wants to sub in. But no help comes my way. Frank too, is conspicuous by his absence.
The games come and go one after the other. We try everything. Three at the back with the lone striker up front. We try the reverse as well, with the keeper playing dangerously high up as the second defender. At one point, all five of us are on our half of the pitch for an entire minute. In the universe of ‘five-a-side’ football, there is no greater example of domination by one team of another. I feel solely responsible. If I had blocked that initial shot from the giant, we might have broken from that play and scored a second. They were awfully deep in our half and we could have repeated that same lob over the giant and caught them napping a second time. But being a fan of the game for so long means that the heart can take no consolation from such ideal hypotheses. I am not a sucker for alternative histories and ‘what ifs’. That Maradona went past six English players to score the goal of the century is fact. It is futile and emotionally tiring to debate what might or might not have happened had just one of those six players stuck out his leg and felled him, especially if you are English. I decide against drooling over a better, happier past and get on with what is left of the game. It appears that we have run out of time. The manager comes over from his thatched roof office to signal the same. There are a few players from the next group trickling in and I feel relieved that our team does not have to take the pitch again. But as I am about to untie the laces of my shoes, ‘Mr Grey’ stands up and screams “GUYS, LAST MINUTE”. He really meant it, there was an uncanny purpose in his voice, something he hadn’t shown throughout our games where he was reticent and raised his voice only to call for the ball or caution of an oncoming player. The scream was so definitive; I doubt if play even went on for the whole minute and before long, we had taken the pitch for the final game of the morning.
‘Mr Grey’ strode up to me and said – “You Play up Top!”. I knew what that meant. I had played as a lone striker all through college and into my MBA. What surprised me was the authority with which he was organizing our last familial exercise and I wish he took charge of the matter a lot earlier. We started ridiculously well. ‘Could be’ found me with an early pass from defence and I immediately slid it to ‘Mr Grey’ who was charging down the left – all energy and determination. After taking it down further up the field, he cut back the ball to me. It would have been a sumptuous ‘on your plate’ serving for a left-footed drive but I didn’t have it remember? That incident before the start? Those lazy men making me kick the ball back on a pitch where people come to do precisely that? Remember the harsh world and the harsher hangover? Remember Drake? And Adele? Are you still with me?
So, no left foot. Therefore, there is only one thing to do. Sell him the dummy again. I pretend to shoot, then pull my body back, shift my weight to the right side and take a soft touch with my right foot. So far so good. Even though I am a quarter of the length of the pitch from the goal, surprisingly, it’s just me and the keeper. Must have been a quick break. This is where my memory starts to break down. I take another touch and move closer. By now, most would have cocked and pulled the handle on the trigger. But the confidence has dipped so alarmingly over the course of the morning, I simply don’t fancy it. So, another touch. It’s a heavy one but fortunately for me the keeper has stayed on the line, so there is no chance of losing it. Except, there is no opportunity now to take another touch. I have finally come face to face with my destiny. I decide against a cute side foot into the net. Instead, I choose the thumping drive that announces to the world I am well and alive. I get into position to smash through my laces. And as soon as I release the swing of my foot to hit the ball, I see Frank flying out of me and in the opposite direction, celebrating wildly as if the goal had already been scored. You moron! Where were you the whole time! Come back! Come back you! But there is no stopping him. He is delirious and by now he his past the parking area and out the main gate, shirt in his hand, jumping with joy every few feet.
I feel the anger swelling up my throat and in the confusion and the absurdity of the whole situation, I find it difficult to refocus my mind at the job in hand. I realise I must go through with the kick, as faking again would bring the defender within touching distance and the chance will have gone. And so, it was. The leg went through its swing but never met the ball. Everyone present that day expected to hear a familiar sound of feet hitting ball hitting net. Instead, they were introduced to something new. Silence. There are planets in this universe that are closer than my right foot was to the ball that day. There was daylight and some more. The ball lazily rolled into the hands of the keeper who tried his best to hold back a laugh. Credit to him, because he held it. There were smirks and smiles going all around but none too close for me to be conscious of them. Either way, my conscience had left me, quite literally. I trudged back to my kit like I had trudged to take the kick earlier that finished my left foot. The cab home was quick and I wondered if Frank had made it too. After all, when he gets in such a state it takes many hours, sometimes days to find him back in my room. Today was different. As I entered my room, I saw the contours of his appearance supine on my bed. Clearly, the whiskey had packed a heavy punch and I am now wondering if he had fixed the fight with the judges beforehand.
Either way, my list of activities for the weekend is over even before most had woken up to theirs. I sat down with my cup of tea on my table and wondered if such love was truly possible. Love that had no shape or size, age or colour, no face, no name and no home. Football is essentially everything and nothing at the same time. The pain that comes when it disappoints is often commensurate with the joy it brings when it excites. It is a struggle every day to understand it, to explain one’s feelings towards it, for it has no existence and no mind of its own. Football is what we make of it and the best attribute is that it belongs to no one. Once you have threaded that through pass between three defenders and found your man, no one can stop you from feeling a little ‘Messi’. The feet hit the ball the same way, everywhere, all around the world. And the sound of that is to die for. So, next weekend, like a scouser famously once said, -“ We Go Again
To Read more by Ayush.
Futsal pitch image via Great Sports Infra