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Falling for the ball

Unless you go to a stadium and watch a football match in progress, you might never understand what the excitement is all about. And why it is what it is

I was the last person to get excited about a football match, because I simply did not like the sport. I thought it’s stupid that a bunch of silly boys run after a ball, kicking it, and never score a goal. I say this because every time I attempted to watch a football match, no goals were scored. It would annoy me no end. Every time the ball went off the field, I would be like, “What! Not again!”

Also, the boys around me who generally liked football were either unbearable, or failing at being cool. They be like boys who buy DSLRs and run around after cockroaches in their bathrooms to get a subject to focus on, with their drying underwear in the background. And it drove me nuts when some of these boys stayed up late or woke up early in the morning to catch a football match. Not to mention how annoying it was encountering their status updates on Facebook and other social media the next morning.

I also got hit in the head by a football once while in college and almost fell because of the impact; a flatmate I am not really fond of has an Arsenal mug; I have heard horrifying reports of football fans killing each other in the stands when some stupid football player pretended to be hurt. That pretending also really pissed me off. But then I thought what can you expect from a bunch of blockheads following a silly sport anyway? Stupidity, destruction, death, that’s all.

Then, one day, while I sipped my tea reading this almost-mindless newspaper, I came across this headline — ‘Sunil Chhetri to fans: Please get involved’. As I found out more about the event, it only got better: the tickets were for R250 only! And the match was happening in Andheri Sports Complex, which is practically in my backyard.

I don’t know if I would have gone if the match was happening in town somewhere, but in this situation, my heart was sold to his words.

Charismatic: Chhetri blows kisses to his fans

“To all of you who are fans of big European clubs and support European clubs with so much passion and sometimes you guys think that the level is not the same, so why do you waste your time? Agreed, the level is not the same, not even close but with our desire and determination, we will try our best to make your time worth. To all of you, who have lost hope or don’t have any hope in Indian football, we request you to come and watch us in the stadium. I mean it’s not fun to criticise and abuse on internet. Come to the stadium, do it on our face, scream at us, shout at us, abuse us, who knows one day we might change you guys, you might start cheering for us. You guys have no idea how important you guys are and how important your support is.”
“I request you all to please come …talk about the game, go back home, have discussions, make banners. Please get involved, this is an important time and juncture in Indian football and football in India needs you guys.”

Uff, such genuine words. And this particular match with Kenya was Chhetri’s 100th international match.

I had never been to a stadium to see any sporting event before, and the excitement in my stomach only grew as we neared Gate no. 1. Once inside, it was very crowded — so many sweaty boys. So I clung to my sweaty boy and threw myself into the crowd. There was a general sense of unpreparedness at the venue —there were no dustbins, there was no separate line for women; the power of Chhetri’s plea had caught the humble sports complex off guard. Slowly, the women security guards realised there were few women and that they were probably better off outside of the clump of sweaty boys. So I got in much earlier than the boy and had to wait by the metal detectors.

The moment play began, it started pouring. It was perfect — I was so happy that it was raining and that I was inside a stadium which was bursting with energy, and that it was no longer hot.

As I followed the game, I saw that number 20 on the Kenyan side was quite deadly, and that number 5 on the Indian side was equally dangerous. And then we spotted the man because of whom I was watching a football match in a stadium — jersey number 11, with the captain’s arm band, Sunil Chhetri! I watched him for a little while, just how he moved and how he kicked the ball, and my fondness for him intensified every time passed the ball to another player and quickly ran to be in position to strike it.

I was so happy to be living this moment! The lightning tearing through the sky between two Andheri buildings made the atmosphere in the stadium even more dramatic and electric. It was actually happening. Everybody was chanting Chhetri’s name, everybody was cheering for India’s football team. When I went back to check which goal was scored when and who scored it, I did not realise that the whole of the first half had gone by without a single goal being scored. And it had not bothered me at all.

The rain had now stopped, the second half had begun. And just then, out of nowhere, GOAL! It was Chhetri. And I was jumping up and down, screaming. But before the crowd could recover from the first goal, bam, there was another, this time from Jeje Lalpekhlua. By now, the Kenyan side was looking a little glum, as if the fight had gone out of them. They were also getting booed all through the match and I felt bad for them, hoped they would score at least one goal to save face.

Seeing their misery, my thoughts drifted again. As I watched, I realised football is pretty much like life — there are challenges, there is drama, there are injuries, sometimes you have to defend, sometimes you have to strike. And in the end, it is great to see a goal being scored, but that’s not the only point of the game.

When I think back, I don’t even remember how it all ended. I was suddenly out of the stadium, and just as everything had become exciting in a split second, it had gone back to being like any other ordinary night. The rain had now stopped and the world pretty much looked the same. But there was one change — in me.

I’d had a complete change of heart and it felt a lot like falling in love.