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The Football Chronicles: Those days when we played!

The year 1998 holds special memories. It was the year I fell in love; a love which has changed my life since then. It was the season of rains and romance. The greens of the school ground called me for some purpose. My friends including my cousins had set up a match with the nearby Don Bosco youth centre hostel boys. Our group did not have enough players, so I was also called in. The first time I kicked the football, I was barely 8 years old. The ball rolled slowly inside the unmanned goal.

We played the match in the muddy ground. The mud smeared all over our faces up to an extent that we were unrecognizable, looking more like commandos. I don’t even remember the result, but I really enjoyed the game, and I knew I had fallen in love with football at that instance. I watched my first football World Cup final, the Brazil versus France game, which France won. It was good to see France beat the Samba boys, as they are always the favourites to win the World Cup.

Even though I vouched for France in the 1998 final, I never followed them afterwards. My dad always used to talk about the great Diego Maradona’s wonder goal in 1986, the Paolo Rossi magic in 1982, and the Roberto Baggio miss in the 1994 edition. In fact, because of dad, I became a fervent supporter of the Azzurri. Dad narrated to me that when Italy won the World Cup in 1982, such was the joy that the then parish priest, who was an Italian, had distributed sweets in the novitiate. Naturally, dad and I went into frenzy after Italy beat France in the 2006 World Cup final.

My affair with football had begun and it was here to stay. Being born in India, I have had my tryst with cricket; but chasing the ball with 22 players captured my fascination more than any other sport. A simple sport, which you could play anywhere; on the concrete pavement of the school with a plastic ball, marking two pillars of the low wall as the goal-post, or playing on a small space in the crowded ground, keeping your footwear for goal-posts. There was always that guy who would walk across the pseudo-posts and check if the width is equal for both posts by counting the number of steps.

The high goals would always cause countless arguments and anybody from the opposing team, usually a shorter player, would fold up their pants and point to their knee-level, arbitrarily marking it as the height of the goal-post. Playing in the rains simply gave wings to our childish impulses; the ecstasy and the abandonment we experienced was almost ethereal. It was pure joy, even though the playing conditions would be miserable. There would be collisions, slipping streaks, goal-keeping blues and the inevitable- the ball halting right on the goal line.

It’s not that the drier days would witness brilliant football, but yes, the passing would be better, the tricks would be easier to execute with the slipperiness gone, and the goalies could not blame the wet ball for any of their howlers. But nothing helped our class team to win the famous Rector’s Cup (the inter-class tournament of our school). We had lost on a rainy day and a sunny day. We had lost from beautiful back passes and the invisible gaping holes in the palms of the goal-keeper. The finals witnessed our class once, when I was in the 10th standard. But two dubious off-side goals (yes! Referees can change games at any level) just after I failed to beat the goalie from a one-on-one; another miss from me in the second-period, and another goal from our opponents on a  break-away ended the contest.

We wanted revenge and we got it the next year. Our great rivals, our immediate seniors, needed a victory against us to qualify for the finals. We were already out, but could play as the spoilers. The final score ended 1-0 in our favour  The post-match scenes on the field that day were unadulterated delirium. The juniors, the 9th and the 10th standard students, invaded the ground and surrounded us in madness. We were dancing without music, singing to our own tunes and trying to celebrate in the Senegal style of 2002 World Cup. The lucidity of our ecstatic emotions was unrivalled. Our players felt as if they have achieved something great, but in reality we had just knocked our great rivals and avenged our final defeat of the previous year. The juniors would contest the finals for the first time in our school history.

Another match which is very dear to me is a game during my college days, but this time the format had changed from 11-per side to a 5-per side match. We were trailing till the last five minutes of a very hard-fought match. Only a stroke of luck and the brilliance of our captain lead us to a Unitedesque comeback victory which we deserved based on the grit we displayed that day. That tenacity led us to the finals, where we won handsomely. In that very tournament, I realized that being a referee is the hardest thing in the game of football.

One occasion when I was officiating the 5-per side match in the earlier rounds of the tournament organized by us in the hostel, I understood the pain of being a referee. The defending team stopped seeing the linesman raising the flag. I being the main referee, waved play on as it was not offside, and the attacking team scored. I found it extremely difficult to appease the team which conceded. I did not end up receiving blows only because the players were my friends. They eventually talked to me after a silence of two days.

Now when I look back at those days, I find myself craving for more playing time. Trapped in a 9 hour job, I struggle for play time. Fitness is a hard thing to maintain, and playing without it is almost impossible. I know those playing days and that nonchalant atmosphere will remain a flashback. But those memories of madness, images of gleeful camaraderie, tackles full of mischief, resentful cries in defeat, and wild celebrations in victory will surely last a lifetime.

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