Monday, November 14

Any given Sunday

On following a football team over the weekend:

Part 1:

Writing about sport, about teams you follow or the ensuing action, can easily descend into nauseatingly superlative phrases and tired clichés. As a writer, is it possible to put yourself out there and let your head calculate objectivity whilst your heart hammers along with the drama? Reading Rohit Brijnath on the subject of sports-writing is an education, but I have to learn the practical lessons myself. So, I don't have an answer yet, just this post.

As with most opportunities, this one came in the garb of an innocuous question - Tu kya kar raha hai? (What's your plan? / What are you up to?). It was Saturday evening; of course I had nothing to do. KS told me about a 5-a-side football tournament he was participating in and asked whether I was interested in watching his team play. He is one of my oldest friends and an avid footballer, having played for Shivajians Football Club in Pune for over a decade. In all that time, I've never bothered to go see any of their games, so my instinctive answer was to profess a lack of interest and decline. A vision of me hunched over a laptop in an empty house, playing online scrabble, was the alternative and very unappealing prospect. I went to see the game.

The Ajinkya Memorial 5-a-side football game was being held under floodlights in Gaikwad Nagar, Aundh. 106 teams divided into various pools would play a rapid 20 minute game over 2 halves. Although there was a goalkeeper, the format called for fluency and dynamism. As CF, captain and linchpin of KS's team said - "Every player has to be able to play anywhere." The name of the team reflected its higgledy piggledy nature, cobbled together from a pool of people who had played for Shivajians in the past and other stray individuals. KS puts it in a rather blasé fashion: "I called, asking if there was a tournament and a team... KC called back after a while, saying there were a couple of spots. So CF and I went." The 'Sunday Boys', mostly men with increasing commitments and logistical complications off the field, met on any weekend possible and played the game they all loved with awe-inspiring ferocity. Awe, because this is India, and cricket rules the hearts and finances in the country. Football and hockey are poor second cousins at best. So, it takes serious passion to make your way to practice and play matches despite the poor facilities, crowd turnouts and other issues.   

Although you couldn't tell from their general demeanour, CF and KC are minor celebrities in Pune's footballing community. CF played football at Shivajians from 1986-87 till 2010-11, was known by all and sundry across generations, and is the quintessential sportsman - liked and feared in equal measure. KS is equally well-known for his doggedness and enthusiasm for the game. However, their claim to fame is spectacular, both having featured in the Indian football team that played in the 2009 6v6 Budweiser Cup at Old Trafford, Manchester. Yes, the Manchester United one.

The game I attended on Saturday night was the pre-quarter. KS and I reached the venue at the scheduled time, to find out that the matches were following Pune Standard Time and were extensively delayed. KS wandered off to meet his team while I had an hour to watch two games before theirs. I was to learn a lot. The first was already in progress, so I got my first view of this version of football. Both teams seemed to struggle to come to terms with the limitations of the field and the change in tactics needed to succeed, and proceeded to kick the ball forward whenever possible. It was akin to watching a hilariously volleyballesque version of football. The next game proved to be no different and it was no surprise that both matches were stalemates and had to be settled through penalties.

Meanwhile, KS came back to where I was standing with some less than ideal news. The Sunday Boys' forward was stuck in a bus coming from Bombay to Pune and would be delayed. A skilled forward is important in regular football, but his worth is accentuated further in the shorter version, where he would draw defenders to himself and create open spaces and panic amongst the opposition. Another player had assured CF about his participation, failed to show up and had switched off his phone. In a format that allowed 2 substitutes, the team had none. A seemingly emaciated group was now effectively a skeleton crew and the atmosphere was slightly gloomy.

Chance brought some cheer in the form of V, who had come to watch the team play and wandered over to greet the players. CF brusquely told him to find the appropriate equipment and kit up as soon as possible. V would be getting a much closer view of the game than he'd bargained for. With this, the team would have the option of at least 1 substitute, instead of 2 and hope for the best. V's participation was tinged with anxiety since he was nursing a hand recovering from a break and was markedly unenthusiastic about risking further injury to it. The wild insouciance that lives in every sportsman washed over his concerns. V would play.

Off the field, the team has an unassuming aura, with KS being the epitome of the all-round nice guy. Having known each other for years, the jokes and caustic comments (also known as locker room humour) came thick and fast, providing a relaxed, festive mood. They then took the field for the final warm-ups and the change was instantaneous. Each player went about his ritual with a calm, almost professional competence. Even as they kicked the ball around, one felt the presence of a palpable confidence. These guys knew what they were doing.

Once the game commenced, this was reinforced. Previous teams struggled to get out of the 11 man, big field mentality and ballooned their passes into the trees with alarming regularity. In the entire match, the Sunday Boys kicked the ball into the air 3 times.

While the other games were on, I was content to sit alongside the Sunday Boys team, listening to their reading of the games and players. Once their match came up, I found myself unable to do so. I stood, paced along the touch lines and tried to convince myself that it was the dust in the air that caused my lungs to work harder and heart to pound a little quicker. So much for objectivity.

The Sunday Boys played with a fluid style, making short, ground passes, holding possession, creating opportunities and running the other team ragged. The contrast to previous teams could not have been more obvious. The first half ended goalless, but there was no question of which was the better team. It was a question of when the goal would come, not which team would score.

The second half confirmed this. CF took a shot that struck one of the opposition players on the arm. He clinically converted the resulting penalty and the Sunday Boys continued to play their game. As the clock wound down, I stood on the sidelines wondering if a goal from open play was realistically possible. As far as I could tell, the opposing goalkeepers' only contributions involved holding on to the posts (much smaller in this format), blocking everything that came their way and praying that the family jewels survived the 20 minutes unscathed (handling the ball was not allowed).

When the goal arrived, it came with the nonchalance of sunrise and the speed of quicksilver. As the opposition toddled around aimlessly, a short pass from the sideline launched the ball at CF's feet. He took a rapid look at the field and charged. Two of his team mates raced ahead, one down the left flank and the other down the centre, both shouting for the ball. CF beat one opposition player with a quick feint, pirouetted around another and burst into the area 3 feet from goal. He looked up again, saw he had only the keeper to beat and...

As CF said later "Arre, I saw you there, next to the keeper. But by then I'd already made the move and couldn't decide whether to pass it to you. I went for it."

Sport provides many moments when the athlete goes for it. These instances stay frozen in the audiences' memories, breaking free of gravity and soaring on the wings of audacity and imagination. 

The ball slithered through the keeper's legs and into the net. The crowd broke out into applause at the skill of the move as the team hi-fived and hugged. Within minutes, the referee blew the final whistle and the game was over.

2-0 to the Sunday Boys. They were in the quarter finals. 

To be continued...

Song for the moment: Call me lightning - The Who                  

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