Tuesday, May 16, 2006

The Ghosts of Football Past

It’s like a scene straight out of a movie. I see the goal posts in the distance. I place the football on the line 30 yards away. The rules of rink-football need me to slot the ball in from that distance. There will be no goalkeeper to hinder my cause. As I step up to take the last penalty kick, I know that only I will be the difference between a heroic victory for my team and sudden-death penalty kicks. To add to the spice, it’s the finals of the inter-colony football tournament. The penalty shootout is tied at one apiece and my unexpected success will get us a hard-fought victory from the unlikeliest of sources – me. I step back a few steps and then rush in to connect with the ball. As the ball loops in the direction of the goal, I feel time slow down. I watch the ball swerve leftward toward the left pole and my heart begins to sink in anticipation of a miss. As the ball nears, I suddenly sense that the ball might just hold its line to meet the net between the posts. Suddenly, its not just me but everyone in the ground that senses the same. As if to let the moment of extreme suspense linger, the ball connects with the left upright on its inside and loops toward the right upright. A collective gasp fills the air and the no. of people expecting a goal almost matches the skeptics. Quite tragically, and to serve as a reminder that at most times true life is larger than a fairy tale, the ball bounces away past the right goalpost and the dream is over. Bang! Reality hits me. So do the consolation pats on my back from the teammates. From underdog to stray dog… in a matter of barely 5 seconds. The moment passes and it’s time for sudden death. And just to drive home the distinction between fiction and reality, my team loses the shootout and with it, the match, in sudden death. My missed penalty kick must have lasted for not more than 5 seconds. But the ordeal archived a video of itself in my memory that I’ve replayed in the past year a zillion times.

Almost a year later, on May 14, 2006, the same set of people is back at the same ground to seek retribution. We are faced with penalty shootout again, albeit this time it’s in the semis. Just one goal from us to none of theirs sees us through to the finals and that’s when we know that things cannot go horribly wrong like last year. Thankfully, reality scores over larger-than-life-fairy-tale again and the final does not go to penalties. After taking the lead early into the game, we leave the defense loose to concede one right on the whistle for half-time. The game picks up pace in the second half but a sudden parity-breaker from an unlikely source gives us a lead towards the fag end of the game. The final whistle from the ref a few minutes later signals a euphoric wave through the small ground. The nine players embrace each other in turns even as all the other colony junta joins the elation. Our wait is over. Our moment is here. I might not have played a pivotal role in the victory but I know my ghosts have been laid to rest in the brown soil where I’ve played the most enjoyable football of my life. And as I walk out of the ground with my head held high for once, I am overwhelmed with the thought that this might have been my last game on that ground. But I keep walking with a broad grin on my face and my hands around the shoulders of another equally overjoyed teammate. The moment is surreal and I think of turning back to take what might be my last look at this moment of glory, at this sanctum sanctorum of my football. The moment passes but the video in my memory of the previous year’s agony have now been replaced by the videos of this year’s joy and memories. So, the very next moment, I decide to keep looking ahead instead of looking backward. I won’t look behind me. I’ll just watch the videos in my head instead.

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