When it comes to sports, cricket has been always been, my first love. I grew up playing cricket on the streets in Bangalore. Being an English sport, there is a rich lore associated with the game and I would happily curl up on my cousin’s couch on visits to Bombay, reading articles by Neville Cardus or John Arlott. It was only around 8th grade that I got interested in soccer.
We had 2 PT (physical training) classes a week when we could play any sport and we invariably played soccer. Besides the PT class, there were informal leagues that played during the lunch break. A group of about 12 of us pitched in about Rs 5 each to buy a soccer ball. One of our classmates who lived close by, would bring the ball to school every day. We would play for about 45 minutes during lunch. Those lunch games were something else. There were 5 to 6 teams playing simultaneously on the field. We had to focus on our game and our ball. There would be a melee around the goal posts and sometimes goalkeepers instinctively blocked balls belonging to other groups and a commotion would break out debating whether a goal ought to be awarded or not. If there were just 3 or 4 of us, we played “attackers and defenders”, two players manning the goal and the other two trying to score goals. It was fun!
My interest was also fueled by the 1982 World Cup that was held in Spain. It was the first world cup that I watched on TV, Italy beat W Germany 3-1 in the finals. Italy’s march to the finals was led by Paolo Rossi who was returning from a ban resulting from a betting scandal. I still remember some of the players from that Italian team – Dino Zoff – the goalkeeper, Marco Tardelli, Altobelli and Gentile. We did not have a TV at our house and I watched the finals at a relative’s house.
Coming back to our soccer games, we played in our school uniform – trousers, shirt, tie et al with black formal shoes. I was a “toer” when I started out. I would kick the ball with the tip of my shoe much to my teammates’ chagrin. Toeing the ball would wear out the material on the ball. I gradually learned to control and place the ball using different parts of my foot. There were a couple of football kicks though that were the stuff of legend. One was the bicycle kick and the other, the banana kick. One of my juniors had broken his forearm trying a bicycle kick during a school game. The banana kick has now been popularized by the movie “Bend it like Beckham”. I never scored a single goal during those afternoon games. I was neither quick nor nor did I have the dribbling skills, so I ended becoming a defender.
We had some brilliant players in our school. I remember playing goalkeeper during one our PT games and my school captain took a penalty kick that I tried to block. I thought I had broken my wrist, such was the power in that kick! We also had guys with mad dribbling skills, it was almost as if the ball was tied to their shoes with their shoelaces. And then there were the defenders whom I could never get past. When asked if I played for my school, I would cheekily answer that my position was “left out”. I don’t think I would have found a place in my school’s D team. However, the advantage of playing with players who were far superior to me was that I could always learn and improve.
We started playing soccer near my house after the 1982 world cup. Most of my friends were fairly new to the game, and in comparison to them, I was pretty good. My friend Hari was by far the best player in the team and we would invariably be pitted against each other in our games. Over time, the rest of our teammates showed marked improvement and we built up a good team. Our facilities were pretty basic. We played on a patch of vacant land. A pair of stones served as goal posts. The size of the field increased and decreased depending on how many kids showed up to play. Most players played with bare feet.
Around 1984, a student in our neighborhood unfortunately drowned while on a picnic and a tournament was organized in his memory. There were various sports – cricket, soccer and athletics as well as a quiz competition. My team handily won the quiz competition. When it came to soccer, my friends and I were in the junior age group but we decided to play in the senior age group too. A few of us enlisted our older siblings who had barely played the game and we showed up for the first match. Hari was the center-forward and I played midfield where I could fall back to defend or assist while attacking. We were unfortunately no match for the opposition. They were led by a veterinary doctor who marshaled his team well, they passed the ball around and had a couple of decent players. We relied on Hari’s brilliance, he had all the attributes of a gifted footballer – strength, stamina, speed and skill. We still went down 5-1 or so. The opposition also had a well-built policeman from the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) who did not really discriminate between ball and player when he tried to kick the ball. I don’t think it was out of malice, his reflexes were not quick enough. I was in 10th grade and weighed a little over 100 lbs. After being at the receiving end a couple of times, I figured that discretion was the better part of valor and stayed away from him trying to pass the ball long before I got to him.
We found the junior rounds easy pickings though. I played in the defensive position and we won our games with ease and advanced to the finals. Rumor had it that some talent scouts from one of the larger soccer clubs had watched the earlier games and Hari was on their radar. We were feeling good leading up to the finals. However, Hari tore his ligament while playing at school and was advised not to play. He could not stay off the field though and he joined us for the finals but his mobility was severely restricted. Just having him play in the team was a morale booster.
The opposition was tougher than we expected and the teams were tied without scoring a goal as the minutes ticked by. We had resigned ourselves to a penalty shoot-out when we got a corner. Normally Hari would have taken the corner, but since he was injured, I took the kick. The plan was to place the ball somewhere close to the center of the goal and hope that he or one of our other players would head the ball in. I took the kick and by some fluke of nature, the ball curled in lazily towards the goalkeeper. In a fit of misguided enthusiasm, he tried to punch the ball out, instead of collecting it. He ended up deflecting it into his own goal. I had scored and we comfortably played out the remaining minutes and we won!
After the game, a couple of the younger players in my team asked me if the goal had been won through a banana kick. I had never seen seen a banana kick before and I could not manage one if my life depended on it. These were days before YouTube and we had only heard it described in magazines and newspaper articles. Before I could answer, another teammate chimed in saying it was most assuredly so. I basked in a warm glow for a few days after that. I’m not quite sure what went on with the organization of the games but the whole tournament including all the games took something like 6 months to complete. They were organized on weekends but were rescheduled on and off.
When it was all said and done, we received individual medals and a shield for our efforts. We had a couple of younger players in our team who showed up for practice everyday and were very enthusiastic. We had room for only one of them and we let them each play a half in the initial games. For the final however, we picked an older player who though not regular for practice provided us the best chance of winning the final. When the medals were handed out, they were handed out only for the players that played in the finals. We requested the organizers to award medals for the substitutes too but they had not planned for it. The younger players were understandably disappointed and it shames me that a couple of us should have had the presence of mind to give our medals to them but we didn’t.
I resumed playing soccer in the mid-nineties when I was in South Florida. We played pickup games on Wednesday and Friday afternoons at work. I showed up one day with sneakers and found that everybody was well kitted out. So I headed to Sports Authority that evening to purchase a pair of cleats and shin guards. I was thrilled to play on real turf. The grounds I played back home had gravel and it was easy to hurt oneself. During my younger days, I had actually gotten pretty good at slide tackles, where I would slide and dispossess the ball from the opposing player. I could slide here without fear of hurting myself. But times had changed. The spirit was willing but the flesh was weak. I would see the ball heading towards me and would reach out to block, only to find the ball pass me by. The odd slide tackle would still work but I had neither the speed nor the skill or the stamina.
I haven’t played in the longest time now but was motivated by the 2014 world cup to buy a soccer ball. I thought I could kick the ball around in my backyard with my daughter. She said she would be happy to do so, so long as I could get rid of all the bugs in the backyard! Needless to say, the ball never saw the light of day and it now languishes in a corner of my garage with the basketball to keep it company. When I drive around my town I see young kids playing soccer in the evenings with the floodlights on. They are all dressed in team colors and the games are well organized. I do wish I had access to such facilities when I was young, however, I console myself that we had plenty of open space to play on, the playground of our youth is now occupied by a school and various other buildings. The kids in Bangalore today, live in a veritable concrete jungle.
I satisfy my soccer cravings now by watching the odd football video. There are several videos of banana kicks on YouTube, but I will leave you with one of the classics. It is a rather grainy video of Roberto Carlos scoring a goal with a banana kick against France.