Friday, November 23, 2007

The Comeback

30,000 home supporters let out a collective sigh when his name flashed on the giant screen. A swearword escaped his manager’s lips. The coach threw a desperate look about him. The score line read 8-8. It was sudden death, one more goal and they could be in the finals, after twenty-four long years…so near … yet again. No one in the stadium that night really trusted him to win them the game. But there was no choice; the rules were simple - every player on the field had to take the spot. They all cursed the moment when he had to be brought in as a substitute in extra time.

He glanced back at his manager. The night before, they had seen the worst of each other in the dressing room. It was just a matter of time before the showdown had happened. He had been warming the bench for most parts of their last eight games and he feared very much that this was going to be the last season of his career. It was clear that the manager now had no respect left for him, and that he could sack him at the earliest opportunity. With nothing happening on the field to prove his worth, there was little anyone, even the head coach could do to save his career.

What a way to end…he thought, after all those years of promise. For a young man who had burst into the scene by equaling the legendary record for most goals a year, the decline was as swift as the ascent. He didn’t really remember how it all started going downhill. The first few missed chances were explained away as minor aberrations to an otherwise brilliant record. But then came that unpardonable lapse two years ago, one goal that would have taken them into the finals, and inexplicably, his feeble shot had just rolled gently toward the goalkeeper. Two years followed without a single strike. He saw everything that he had taken for granted till then, dwindling away in front of him… fame, confidence, money, life…he was starting to lose his will to perform and, distressingly, his respect for himself.

He thought back about each of the failed strikes and the umpteen missed penalties. Nothing he had done seemed to work, on the field or off it. His coach said he was trying too hard, his teammates complained he was trying to be too clever, the newspapers screamed that his days were over, that he couldn’t take the pressure of professional football any more – in the very same voice they had all proclaimed him as the next super star five years ago; his friends poured in with unsolicited advice, and his broken marriage became a celebration for the tabloids.

***

A drizzle had by now picked up, the rain drops flew down like cinders across the floodlights. His old friend, the football lay glistening on the wet grass. He looked at the 8 yard long line that seemed to always elude him. He could very well have won the game for his team in extra time, he had gone past one defender and then another in a flash of brilliance; with the crowd egging him on, he had only the goalkeeper to beat... His feet shivered again now as he neared the spot.

A penalty kick is all about nerves. It’s not so much about skill, it’s not so much about talent, it’s about who holds his nerves better, who believes he can beat the other…or so everyone told. Now he was up against a goalkeeper who seemed to be unbeatable that day. He was simply flying and getting at anything in his way; the scores were still level because of their luck more than anything else.

“Good luck buddy” The goalie told him with a mocking grin, as he picked up the football and tossed it to him as he approached the spot. The arrogance from two brilliant saves that day was all too evident. He glared back at his adversary with nervous rage.

He looked up at his home crowd behind the goal post, all of them in blue and white. They were not cheering. The hopelessness was palpable. He scanned across for any signs of reassurance, there were none. They had given up, he could sense it. He didn’t even want to look anymore. He was shivering all over now. “Are you ready” the referee shouted at him. “Yes” he replied nervously.

He looked one last time at the crowd, took a few steps back, and got ready to take the shot. He had no idea which way to go; to the left or to the right, or to the roof, or whether to go for his curl to the top corner, which used to be his trademark once upon a time. What if he misses altogether? He imagined all the uncomplimentary headlines on the newspaper the next morning. He planted his right foot behind his left and got ready to run in. The crowd waited in silence.

He took a deep breath and took one long stride, then another; three more steps and he realized he would not have his footing right for the shot. “Not again...not again…” he thought to himself in desperation. The white rectangle in front of him seemed narrower than ever as he approached the football with unsure steps. Unexpectedly, the whistle blew. First he thought it must be from the crowd. The whistle blew again, it was the referee, he seemed to be disturbed by something happening at the corner; and was motioning him to stop.

Field intruders and streakers were a common occurrence. This year had been particularly bad with the fashion catching up among youngsters. This time, it was an intruder alright, but quite an amateur one at that. The crowd burst into laughter as three security guards chased around after quite an athletic ten-year old. He dodged past one, wrong footed the other but ran right into the third one. He did show some promise as a forward. The third guard captured the little trespasser with his right arm, took off his cap and saluted to the crowd theatrically like a victorious bullfighter. The boy raised both his arms and waved to somebody in the crowd; perhaps his mother. He was wearing an over-sized blue and white home jersey. The number on it looked very familiar. The cameras zoomed in on the boy, as he was carried away to the stands. The infectious joy on his face seemed to spread out to everyone in the stadium. And yes, the jersey number was known to him…it was his own. He laughed to himself and shook his head.

***

The referee blew his whistle again, to signal the end of all the fun, after struggling hard to suppress the last traces of his own laughter. “Back to business” he shouted at the two grown ups who had for some time forgotten about their duel. The goalie went back to the line and took his stance again.

He picked up the football again. The crowd couldn’t help noticing the difference they saw on the screen. He was smiling, almost grinning, as he picked it up. He tossed it up flamboyantly and kissed it. A gasp went out form the crowd; they hadn’t seen him do that in a long time. He looked toward the goalkeeper with a cunning expression, as if he were sizing him up. The goalie looked back, puzzled. He looked different, he looked more like a boy who didn’t care whether he won or lost, whether he hit or he missed; a carefree ten year old, who was not concerned about his next paycheck, his career, his endorsements or his love life.

He stepped back a few yards, tapped his right boot on the ground, did a little hop, and ran in like he used to long back. He moved with the assurance of a supreme athlete, the feet landed in perfect rhythm, cameras flashed all around as his right leg swung in to take the shot. The instep slapped across the football and sent it whirling on a long forgotten trajectory. It flew to the right, spinning wildly, cutting through the rain drops in the air. The crowd held on to its breath, it seemed to be going out again, they had seen this too many times. The goal keeper stood rooted to his ground, there was no time to dive, the angle was too wide…in fact, there was no use diving. He knew it from the moment it left the ground. As the ball bent in goal-ward with a deadly swerve, all he could do was stay and watch, helplessly . When it brushed past the right corner and slid into the net, a thunderous roar erupted from all around.

He turned around and ran, with both arms in the air, grinning wide, his eyes in the sky, like a school boy had done fifteen years ago, after he had scored his first goal.

***
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