Our story begins in January 2009. A few of us from National Public School, Rajajinagar, Bangalore had become obsessed  with football after Euro 2008. One day, our PT “teacher” walked into the class and asked us if we wanted to be a part of the school football team. We agreed without hesitation. Most of us had never touched a football in our lives. The few of us that had, couldn’t dribble past a couple of cones. We were told after school that the tournament was in 3 days time. We trained for thirty minutes in the three days of time that we had. The fixtures arrived and we were told that we would play Jain Public School, Delhi Public School (DPS) East and the hosts – The International School, Bangalore (TISB).

An overconfident lot, we had already planned our goal and victory celebrations before we even stepped into the bus for the long two hour journey to Sarjapur On reaching our destination, we were overwhelmed by the sheer size and beauty of the place. We had never seen anything like it. It was more of a luxury resort than a school.

Anyway, we suited up in our brand new studs, shin pads and jerseys ready to take on the world. They didn’t look like much, or so we thought. 40 minutes of insanity later, the final score read Jain Public School 5-0 NPS RNR. Our “coach” had given up on us by the 5th minute and was selecting the music to be played during the half time interval.

The only time we touched the ball in the entire match was to take the kick-off after conceding. Our next match wasn’t until the next day so we spent the rest of the as tourists. The next day we reached TISB full of energy and confidence, positive that we would beat DPS East. Another 40 minutes later, the final score read DPS East 5-0 NPS RNR. By this time, we really didn’t give a shit anymore.

The next day was D-day. We were to face the hosts themselves. Even for a bunch of twelve year olds, they looked a well-built and experienced lot. Little did we know that this day would be the day that would inspire us to push ourselves to the limit and beyond a few years later.

The match began surprisingly well for us. We conceded only once in the first half and even crossed the half-line! Our confidence rose, maybe a little too much. In the next twenty minutes, we took eight kick-offs. That’s right, EIGHT.  The final score read TISB 9-0 NPS RNR. We were devastated. The shock didn’t last long as we decided never to come back to this little slice of heaven.

But, the Beautiful Game wouldn’t let us go that easily. She roped us in and exposed us to her true beauty. Over the next year, we started training. The more we trained, the more we realised that there was much to learn. The more we watched professional matches, the more we realised that we could learn. Football become our life.

Our school, though, felt differently. NPS RNR was to celebrate 50 years of “excellence” in December 2009. To us, that meant no football and no TISB tournament. We were disappointed but not discouraged. In fact, it encouraged us to work harder.

A few of us joined Crescent Football Club in 2010. That was where we learnt how to put the ball in the back of the net. That was where we built the confidence to do so. And that was where we learnt how to play the Beautiful Game.

We trained almost on a daily basis throughout 2010. But, the year ended on a fucked up note for me. A rash decision to argue with our new “coach” saw me thrown out of the team. I was angry and I deserted football for a couple of months while my teammates went to the TISB tournament of 2011.

Another three matches, another three losses. But this time, they had managed to find the back of the net once. Little salvation though it was, it was salvation all the same. My passion returned.

2011 was the year where we worked extremely hard both in Crescent and at home. I managed to make it back into the football team in the first selections of the year. We were determined this time to taste victory. Cue the spoke in the wheel?

Aye, a junior had apparently dislocated her jaw when she was hit by a football. This incident, added to the high-tension wires above the ground and the sewer system below, “forced” our school to ban football.

A new system began. We started training in Malleshwaram Grounds every weekend. That meant that the weekdays were Crescent and the weekends were Malleshwaram. Football every day of the week. This continued throughout 2011. I made the transition from a right winger to a right-back due to the sheer lack of defenders in our team.

2012 dawned with new hope. We were better than ever before and all set to go all the way. The TISB tournament was to be held on the 17th, 18th and 19th of January. We barely had any practice as a team but we were realistic about our chances. The fixtures arrived. We would be playing Greenwood, Delhi Public School (DPS) South, Canadian International School (CIS) and Sarala Birla Academy (SBA).

Just before boarding the bus on the 17th, we were threatened by our “coach”. Literally. He warned us that if we didn’t win, he would never take us for any tournaments ever again. Slightly disheartened, we reached our destination and suited up for the match.

I would’ve loved to say that it was a closely contested encounter, but it was not. We were simply outclassed by the superior Greenwood team. The final score read a modest Greenwood 2-0 NPS RNR. We avoided eye contact with each other and our “coach” as we walked off the field.

It was surprise that our “coach” even  showed up the next day. We played DPS South in the early morning fixture. We began brightly with a couple of very good chances which were not taken, but our flame diminished and we lost the edge. We conceded just before half time. Our “coach” had taken to ignoring us throughout the time we had spent on the field and peppering us with insults at half time. We went on to the field for the second half discouraged. An outrageous long shot and a quiet 20 minutes later, the final score read a disappointing DPS 2-0 NPS RNR.

We were to play our third match against CIS a couple of hours later. Team morale had struck a new low and it didn’t look as if we would survive the encounter. Then something strange happened. Suddenly, everyone was smiling and we started to enjoy the football we were playing on the training ground. A new mantra came into action. It was called ‘Let’s do this shit!’.

Well, it worked. We battled hard and went into half time without conceding for the first time ever. Our opponents had a strong attacking unit; our “coach” ignored us at half time. Taking the silence as encouragement, we went into the second half brimming with confidence.

We ‘parked the bus’. We are not proud of it, but we did it. We got every player behind the ball and soaked up wave after wave of pressure. The match entered the last 5 minutes. We were desperate to hear the final whistle. Time slowed to a standstill as another cross came in – probably the hundredth of the match. It looped over the back four. The CIS striker tapped into the back of net past our helpless goalkeeper. We were devastated.

Then something crazy happened. I turned towards the referee and I saw him looking at his assistant on the far side who was holding up his flag. Offside. The goal had been disallowed. We had survived.

Our opponents didn’t give up. They retaliated stronger than ever and we were caught on our heels. I had given my ‘man’ a little too much space. He was in a great position to cross just at the edge of the box. His target would surely score.  As the ball left his boot, I extended my left arm and blocked the ball. I’m not proud of it, but I did it. I heard the referee’s whistle and my heart sunk. Surely, I would get sent off. Surely, he would give the penalty.

Neither happened. CIS was awarded an edge-of-the-box free-kick much to their frustration. I watched as the resulting shot looped over me, and with a dull thud, hit the crossbar. One of us managed to hook the ball clear and the final whistle finally sounded. Relief.

We had not lost. For the first time ever, we hadn’t lost. We celebrated like little girls at the idea of not having lost a match. It meant that much to us. The bus ride back was mayhem. We were celebrating as though we had just won the World Cup. The draw meant that much to us.

The final day, January 19th, was probably the turning point of our young football careers. We reached our destination smiling. We had an afternoon match against the group leaders SBA. They were unbeaten so far and were favorites to qualify for the finals. We were hoping to ruin that for them.

A few minutes before the match, the mantra started sounding again. ‘It’s probably our last chance so, let’s do this shit!’. The match began decently enough for us as most of the first half was played in midfield and we went into the half time interval with the score-line untouched.

We went into the second half as the ultimate underdogs with nothing to lose. It seemed to give us a massive advantage. Our opponents were a brilliant team, but they were frustrated. We took advantage and kept majority of the possession.

In the last 7 minutes, something changed. We started piling forward in numbers. The ball was played into the box and in the resulting chaos, it found the back of the net. We were in front for the first time in our lives!

That wasn’t the end of it. A couple of minutes later after a wave of good pressure, we won a corner. The resulting ball in wasn’t effectively cleared by our opposition and landed up bouncing in their six yard box. Our right winger pounced and found the back of the net.

We played out the remainder of the match in disbelief. The final whistle blew, but it didn’t sink in that we had just upset the group leaders. It wasn’t even a closely fought
contest. The score-card read 2-0 in our favour!

On the ride back home we were all over the moon in delight and swore to go one step further and win something the next time around. Our team photo appeared in the school magazine listed as ‘semifinalists’. We were proud, but not satisfied. Hungry for more we trained harder than ever over the rest of the year.

In the summer of 2012, a few of us joined Roots Sports Football School. It was competitive, to say the least. Our football improved drastically there as we played with some of the best in the state on a weekly basis. The occasional Malleshwaram Ground training session too continued.

As 2012 drew to a close, our anticipation grew. We were ready to take on the world. The tournament was to be held on the 9th to 12th of February, 2013. The fixtures arrived and to our disbelief, we were to play TISB again along with NPS HSR
and an unknown team.

The afternoon before the tournament, a few of us were cornered by our football and basketball “coaches”. We were told that the hopes of the entire school rested on us and how much money they had spent over the years on such tournaments. We were not really sure whether we were being threatened or encouraged. We decided to take it in a positive way and that was when we realised, ‘they give a shit about us!’ All these years no one had taken us seriously, our parents included. For the first time in our young careers, somebody actually cared whether we won or lost. They told us that they wouldn’t care if we lost, if we showed the desire to win.

This time, we were ready. Plans to ‘park the bus’ were made and already in place by the time we boarded the bus. The two hour journey was spent in silence, mentally preparing for what lay ahead.

We were to play the hosts – TISB, our mortal enemies, in the first match of the day. We arrived, warmed up and suited up with grim determination. Just before we walked on to the pitch, we decided to go for it. The plans to park the bus were thrown out the window as we went for it.

The match began well for us. A few minutes in, we were dominating possession. As we piled forward, I rushed into a pocket of space on the right flank, just over thirty yards away from the goal. I received the ball and looked up. Everyone was marked. Everyone except me. I heard a couple of voices yell, ‘SHOOT!’. I saw the keeper slightly off his line. I went for it.

I made perfect contact and watched as the ball sailed over my teammates, over the defenders, over the goalkeeper, under the bar and into the back of the net. We were in front. I was stunned. The goal celebration was more out of disbelief than joy.

Suddenly, I was everywhere. Taking free-kicks, corners, throw-ins. We were on top and we were enjoying ourselves. Our joy didn’t last long, though. Some careless defending and our opponents were back in it.

We got on with the game and continued to attack. A couple of minutes later, some shocking defending on the left flank let our opponents take the lead. Suddenly, we were trailing and went into half time with a one goal deficit.

We were disappointed. Our “coach” was furious and, for once, had a right to be. He blasted us and told us to go out there and bring home the three points. We walked back on to the field.

We were down, but not out. The second half began in similar fashion to the first with the game being played in midfield. Then again, as in the first half, we began to dominate. Chance after chance was created, but the ball just didn’t find the back of the net. Frustration got the better of me,  and I was told to mind my language a couple of times, which annoyed me even more. I switched roles from right back to right forward. Chances came thick and fast, none were taken.

Decisions started to go against us and the match ended with all of us in the opposition penalty area. That showed the level of our dominance. But, the final score read TISB 2-1 NPS RNR. They had beaten us again. We were devastated. How had we not won?

We were told that the unknown team hadn’t shown up and that we had been given a walkover along with 3 points and a positive goal difference. We spent the rest of the day practicing set-plays and long shots on the new turf ground where we would play our next match scheduled to be on the 12th of February.

We watched the TISB vs NPS HSR match with baited breath as it would decide our fate. Luckily for us, HSR beat TISB 2-1 which meant that if we beat HSR by 2 goals, we would qualify for the finals! It wouldn’t be easy as they had beat the very team that we had lost too.

Sunday and Monday passed excruciatingly slowly; we really couldn’t give a fuck about what HCl did to Zinc. It did give us a lot of time to rest and prepare, though. Disaster struck on Monday evening. Our Captain and centre-back was down with a viral fever. He wasn’t sure if he would be able to play. I spent a sleepless night imagining various scenarios in which we managed to pull off victory over HSR.

Luckily for us, the Captain showed up early Tuesday morning feeling much better. This was it. Our time to shine was finally here. We reached our destination feeling
confident.

Then, a different kind of a disaster struck. Our football burst and the heat of the day took its toll on us. Suddenly, we were sitting in the shade in two’s and three’s. Team morale was down and almost out the window.

We suited up in complete silence in stark contrast to HSR’s disciplined approach. We walked onto the field feeling pathetic. The referees informed us that there was another match they had to officiate in and our match would start for another 45 minutes.

Little did we know that those 45 minutes would become the most important 45 minutes of our lives. We borrowed a football and started to pass it around on the turf. It felt good. Suddenly, shots were sailing into the top corner of the net as we started to enjoy ourselves, laughing as we played.

By the end of the 45 minutes, team morale had hit a new high and we were once again ready to take on the world. The officials returned and the match began. We played well throughout the first ten minutes, defending as well as going forward.

We were getting impatient. We needed two goals and we needed them fast. If we failed to score, HSR would go through. If we scored one, TISB would go through on goal difference. If we scored two, however, we would qualify on goal difference.

Then something magical happened. Our left winger got the ball on the edge of the area around twenty yards out, on the back of an unprecedented 50-yard throw from our goalkeeper.

He got past one defender. ‘SHOOT!’, I yelled. He got past another. ‘SHOOT!’ He got past a third and shot. I turned away in disgust as the ball floated high and wide. I heard the referees whistle, presuming it to be for a goal-kick. Then, I heard celebrations. I was later told that the ball had dipped drastically into the top right corner off the net, hit the inside crossbar and rolled out through the gap between the net and the ground causing some confusion. The goal had been declared and we led 1-0.

They kicked off and immediately lost the ball. Our right winger pounced, played a ‘1-2’ with our right forward and found himself in front of goal on his left foot. He wasn’t going to miss from there. He found the back of the net and suddenly, we were in a position to qualify!

We went into the half time interval relieved. Our coach was happy, but not yet satisfied. He demanded more goals and we understood why. We headed onto the field determined. (Notice how the word ‘coach’ wasn’t mentioned within double quotes; this was the first time he acted like a fucking coach!)

In the second half, we barely touched the ball. Gradually, without meaning to, we parked the bus. The last 15 minutes of that match, were the longest 15 minutes of my life. I remember taking goal-kick after goal-kick as we soaked up wave after wave of pressure. With around 10 minutes to go, we even resorted to a couple of goal-line clearances.

With 7 minutes to go, they won a corner which was somehow scrambled clear and fell to our centre-forward. The assistant raised his flag. Offside. I lost it. Without meaning to, without thinking about the consequences I shouted at the top of my voice, ‘FUCK YOU, REF!’.

There was a stunned silence around the ground, but somehow, the referee hadn’t heard me. That wasn’t the end of it, though. The HSR centre-forward told me to mind my language. That pushed me over the edge.

I walked towards him with intentions of punching his fucking head off. He backed away as sanity returned to me. I stopped my advance, muttered, ‘Go fuck yourself’, and got on with the game.

The last three minutes were chaotic, to say the least. Our goalkeeper pulled off a couple of stunning saves as anywhere would do for us. Anywhere but the back off the net. The last minute was excruciatingly long as they won a corner. There
was a scuffle in the box and somehow the ball was put behind for a goal-kick. I was determined not to get this goal-kick wrong.

I took my time placing the ball. Took four strides back and a deep breath in. I ran up and kicked the ball further than I had ever before. The referee blew the final whistle
before the ball touched the ground. It was over. We were through.

Our opponents were furious, but we couldn’t care less. Our celebrations drowned out their protests. We had effectively eliminated TISB and we were through!

We were informed that the finals would take place in an hour on that very field against Greenwood – another old rival. We were tired, but we were going to go for it. It was now or never.

The Greenwood bunch had two days of rest more than we did. They had won all their group matches without conceding a single time. They were a formidable enemy.

The hour passed a little too quickly for our liking as we found ourselves walking on to the pitch slightly unnerved, but determined.

The match began and within the first two minutes we realised why they hadn’t conceded a single goal. They just kept on attacking. Their passing was immaculate and we barely touched the ball. We held out for five minutes, but they were just
too much for us. They broke through our defence with a beautifully crafted through ball which the centre forward picked up and buried into the back of the net.

I was frustrated. A clearance floated through the air towards our centre forward who was in a great position. The assistant raised his flag. Offside. Not for the first time, I lost it. This time, I managed to control my previously extravagant use of the ‘F-word’, but the outburst earned me a warning from the referee. He had had enough off me.

Still, we went for it, refusing to give up. They lost possession in a bad position as a back-pass went wrong. Our centre forward pounced, got past one, and scored past the keeper. We were back level!

We managed to hold on till half time and kept the score at 1-1. Fatigue and dehydration took over during the half time interval. Our coach told us what he expected us to do and we nodded weakly.

The first 15 minutes of the second half passed by pretty quickly as we defended well. Opportunities to attack had all but dried up. With around three minutes to go, they earned a throw in deep on the right flank. I was marking the ‘man’ on the line. Their central midfielder rushed forward to receive the throw. We were caught on our heels. We rushed out of our back line, but it was too little, too late. The ball left his boot with a crisp ‘THUD’ and rushed like a bullet into the top corner of the net.

We were shell-shocked. We recovered quickly and tried to hit them on the counter, but they held on. The referee blew his whistle signalling the end of our campaign. We were so close, yet so far.

The Greenwood coach came up and personally shook hands with all of us, thanking us for finally giving them some competition.

It wouldn’t sink in till much later that we had broken down the defense that had not been broken down throughout the competition. It wouldn’t sink in till much later that we had made it to the finals. It didn’t sink in till we held the trophy and our medals aloft for the world to see.

As we walked away from our Under-14 careers, I realised I felt just how Sir Alex Ferguson had felt after winning the ’99 Champions League, ‘I can’t believe it. I can’t believe it. Football. Bloody hell.’ On the afternoon of 12th February, we exchanged our passion for glory.

As we rode off into the sunset, clutching our trophy and medals, I was reminded of former Liverpool manager, Bill Shankly who was so famously quoted as saying, Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.’

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How can you not be romantic about football?

Adit Ganguly

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