“Perhaps we are in this world to search for love, find it and lose it, again and again. With each love, we are born anew, and with each love that ends we collect a new wound.”
These immortal words by Isabel Allende perfectly describes my relationship with football.
The FIFA World Cup has ended after witnessing several twists and turns. Much to the shock and amusement of fans the world over unlikely contenders moved ahead in the tournament and France reclaimed the Cup finally.
Despite controversies and allegations of betting, and the lack of zeal so evident in club matches, millions of people continued to watch the World Cup. They rejoiced. They cried. They celebrate with all their hearts.
Watching a football match is a visual treat. From the blood-soaked gladiator games of the ancient Roman civilization to the VAR-enabled football matches of today, people love massive, direct visual experiences. Governments love them too. It's completely different when you play the game yourself. It's similar to the pains and pleasures that are a part and parcel of any human relationship.
My relationship with football is one such story.
Love at first sight
My first memories of football start in the Madurai Race Course grounds. I must have been about 7 years old then. My father took me there for a football match, and the clamour and evident joy for the game left me awestruck.
After several years, I began playing football. Small cricket ball-like rubber balls were all that we had. Slowly, I became good at scoring goals in rubber-ball football. The joy and the pride that I felt then convinced me I was on the right path.
Later, our physical trainer (PT) brought a proper football ball to school. The goals we scored and the shots we struck when our school girls passed through the ground goaded us into believing that we were the future of Indian football. The thought of making football one's occupation thrilled me. In my journey of realizing that dream, I forayed into a new world. A different world. A world unknown to many.
The world of colorful trunk boxes
The Sports Development Authority of Tamil Nadu, vested with the responsibility of 'developing' young talent in football, basketball and other games, runs sports hostels across the state. I got placed in the Madurai sports hostel.
Carrying a trunk box, I entered the hostel to join Class 8.
Trunk boxes like mine that came from Madurai, Melur, Salem, Dindigul, Erode, Coimbatore, Nagercoil, and Kanyakumari would be placed by the walls next to the occupied cots. I couldn't grasp for a long time that the sizes of these boxes, their type, colors, quality and the quality of the contents inside belied the person's caste and class.
Each trunk box had a story. Opening and listening to them may help you open your own trunk box.
It wasn't a mere sport for almost 90% of the under-18 children who were at the hostel with me. It was their lone trump card to escape the grinding poverty haunting their homes and their only way to a better future.
Free stay, free food, free sportswear, free education - all of this along with the opportunity to learn football and clinch a government job somehow. This was the only window to somehow set foot in the world of middle-class confort.
So, hours and hours of training and running happened both in the mornings and the evenings. At our actual classes, we'd all be fast asleep. Most of us had by then understood the futility of school education. The opportunity to play at least in the sub-junior category was the only ambition we harboured.
Most of the trainers did a mechanical job. Breaking from the norm, came a new trainer, out of the blue (I forget his name today) and created in us a true love for football. He was a brilliant man, who played us like puppets, completely overhauling our training methods and created a team spirit amongst us.
We were quite angry with him in the beginning. However, we slowly realized that he had improved our game exponentially. We went to many places and started winning matches.
Suddenly, one day, he was transferred. And we had no choice but to go back to square one. It was only much later when I realized that this is how all systems work and how those who work sincerely earn the wrath of the system.
We used to play for two hours every morning and evening, and the one thing that haunted us throughout was hunger. However, the quality of food wasn’t excellent. Since we weren't communists to find fault with free food, we found a way to fight amongst us to increase the quantity of the food.
It was quite simple.
We gambled with the eggs we got every day and the once-in-a-week beef serving. That way, we established a form of socialist food distribution system that we understood; from each according to his ability, to each according to his gambling victories.
In all other respects, the hostel flourished like any government hostel on 'developmental' aspects such as a lack of sanitary facilities, filthy bathrooms, thuggish seniors acting like typical jail wardens, violent attacks and sexual confusion.
The article is too short to explain the authority that the coaches, hostel warden and District Sports Officer had on us, and their individual corruptions. But one can see all that only in hindsight. In those days, we waited eagerly for that one mutton biriyani that we would get once in a blue moon. And since it used to be cooked and served by the warden himself, we would look at him like he were an angel on earth.
Since we were too naive to understand the 'boundless love' that was the driving force behind that free biriyani, or the free television or free laptops offered by elected governments, we consumed the biriyani rather selfishly.
Many years later, I happened to visit the Government Tribal Residential Schools run for the development of Scheduled Tribe children. Seeing the conditions in which those little children lived, I realized that our 'mercy homes' were far better than theirs.
And to think the social system is constructed such that tomorrow these children will grow up and compete with children who studied in private schools, with the best facilities on offer, in competitive exams, such as NEET
Childhood that dances in my memories
I wonder where my hostel pals are now - Gandhi from Erode, Sivakumar from Coimbatore, Lordwin and Rufus from Nagercoil, and Jayaprakash from Dharmapuri. I don't know whether they continued their sports journey. I used to believe that Jayaprakash, in particular, would become a great footballer one day. He loved playing defense in the center-back position. If he's on the field, the rest of us, along with the goalkeeper, can go forward with absolute confidence. No ball could ever get past him into our goal post.
During my stay of two years in the hostel, I came to a realistic conclusion about my abilities in football. Moreover, the hostel wasn't the right environment to further my interests in studies. So, I took the call and quit the hostel.
Later, I was well appreciated whenever I played football in my high school and college. However, I knew in my heart that I was only a novice when compared to my sports hostel-mates. I used to think about those fearless Thoothoor boys who hailed from the fishing community or Sivagangai Logu Annan, who ran like France's uncatchable Mbappe, or Thoothukudi Amirtharaj, who would dribble the ball single-handedly to the goalpost with his left foot like Messi.
These days, it's has become difficult for me to even run with thanks to my ever-increasing weight. However, I often play football with my kid.
Even now, when I touch the ball, it plays with my feet like a fond puppy. How can I explain the joy I feel while passing the ball with complete abandon, without the pressure to prove anything to anyone, except for my love for the game perhaps?
Football: Not merely a game
"You will be nearer to heaven playing football than studying the Bhagavad Gita”: This quote is attributed to Vivekananda, and I could not concur more.
When you play football, you experience something like heaven. Football is a struggle that you wage against yourself. But you can't do it all by yourself. You need to join your team and accommodate the pros and cons they bring with them and, at the same time, confront and conquer your own inability, pain and fear in this struggle.
Even if the opposing team disregards all the rules of the game, plays brutally and injures your teammates, even when the well-learned referees declare offsides, siding with the opposing team, playing relentlessly until the last whistle is the essence of the struggle.
And this is the essence of nature itself: Only the fittest survive. And, until the last second, the idea of the fittest is relative.
(Translated from the Tamil article originally appeared in The Hindu-Tamil. Includes minor changes in content.)
Translated by H.S.
The author, an IT professional, lives in Chennai. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.