Thursday, July 10, 2008

Memories—of a football match

It is a hot Sunday afternoon of June 2. I am in Lal Chowk, sifting sports pages of Sunday newspapers for the IPL news. Latter today is the final match—between Rajasthan royals and Chennai super kings. A friend comes along, says there is an exciting football match going on in the polo ground. Let’s go see it, he says. Not that interested in football, I bring myself, reluctantly—to watch this pre-quarterfinal football match in progress between Delhi and J&K, in polo ground. For the first time, I will watch a live match, and be part of the home crowd. We are slowly walking towards the ground. And as we near it, a wave of noise, coming out from the ground, hits us. Thousands of people are inside the ground; thousands wanting to get in. Young and old, finding the entrance blocked, jump into the ground from all sides. Unable to control the crowd flow, the police give up, and look on as the crowd pours into the ground from all sides.
The game has already begun some twenty minutes before. Although J&K is leading 2-0, no one has left the ground. I have never seen such a huge crowd, never before been part of one, that too for a football match, that too in Kashmir. It seemed as if the entire city had come to watch this particular match. The stands are all packed, every inch occupied. People are sitting, standing—some on ground, some trying to sit, some barely able to stand, but all watching the action, and all eyes focused on the players. It is a hot afternoon, people are sweating but nobody is complaining. All eyes are set on the drama unfolding in the field.
Making our way through hundreds of people, I along with my friend spot an unlikely empty space. Surprised, we grab it before someone else does. It can accommodate one person but two of us somehow fit in. After a bit of shoving and pushing, we adjust ourselves, and get a view of the game in progress. We only manage to stand though, feeling the pressure of people behind us. People behind us sitting on the stands ask us to sit down or bend as we are blocking their view. But there is no space to sit. So we bend and come on our knees. It feels uncomfortable, but soon, as the match gathers momentum, we forget our discomfort. Delhi team is in red jersey; J&K in white, the younger next to me, without looking at me, informs me in a hurried tone.

Scanning the players of J&K team, I spot a player running in the field who looks familiar to me: handsome, well built, muscular with long, free flowing hair. When he runs close to our side of the stand, I immediately recognize him. Yes, he is that handsome sporty boy of my childhood days, I tell myself. He was not good at studies, I remember, but very good at sports. He was famous in our locality for his sporting skills. But the entire neighborhood thought he is wasting his time in sports. But he had other ideas in mind, and continued playing. I remember the advice of the elderly of my neighborhood: “Don’t be like him”, they would tell me. “He only plays whole day.” You study, they would often advise me. But today that boy has become a professional footballer. Today that boy is part of J&K football team playing in front of me. Today I am proud of him. Today he represents me in the field. Today I want to clap for him. Today—I want to be like him.

Out of the many noises and many names I could make out of the crowd, one stands out—Ishfaq! Ishfaq! A child sitting next to his father knows this player plays well, and claps for him. “Ishfaq! shabash Isfaq!”, he is urging him to score another goal. This kid has found his own sporting hero today. He is not Sachin. He is not Afridi. He is not on TV. He is in front of him. He is Ishfaq, the local boy. He has already scored one goal, in the third minute of the first half. I look out for him, and from the many players in white, I spot him busy, running, engrossed in his game. For me, from the stands—he is that number at the back of his white jersey.
The crowd is restless. The crowd noise grows from applause, to hoots and boos—and to occasional local banter, especially reserved for the Delhi players. A group of people from the stands have different nicknames for the Delhi players. They sound funny in Kashmiri. Some of us laugh on this. Someone from the stands comes up with a funny name for one of the tall Delhi player who is playing well, much to his displeasure—chota khali! Hey, chota khali!, come he shouts from the stand, repeatedly, for that player to hear. Everyone laughs on this except the players. And whenever any Delhi player comes close to the edge of the field, close to the crowd—first, boos come from the crowd, then those nicknames in Kashmiri, and then—the crowd breaks into laughter. The Delhi players seem to ignore all the noises meant for them from the crowd. Instead, they put on a serious look, and try concentrating on the game. The crowd cracks jokes in Kashmiri for the Delhi players. The crowd knows that they won’t understand any of them. The Delhi players don’t understand that the joke is on them. And this evokes more laughter from the crowd.
In contrast, every move of J&K players triggers waves of applause from the crowd. Every successful pass is clapped, every player cheered on. Whenever Delhi players bring the ball near the J&K goalpost, a sudden hush descends on the stands. But as soon as the J&K goalkeeper saves the goal, the silence is broken, the home crowd stands up, and claps, in unison. The whole atmosphere comes alive. Also, every fault from any of the home player only evokes angry shouts, at times even abuse from the home crowd, for the home players. If a J&K player falls down during the play, someone shouts in Kashmiri, “aeam ha loganay daamb…” And as soon as he gets up quickly, the crowd cheers him again. “Aaj delhi ko harana hai,” one man shouts from the stands behind me. The crowd is very particular about winning against Delhi. It is a question of prestige for the home crowd. It’s palpable. I can feel it: we must win; they must lose, at any cost. George Orwell wrote in his 1945 essay, The Sporting Spirit, wrote, “It is possible to play simply for the fun and exercise: but as soon as the question of prestige arises, as soon as you feel that you and some larger unit will be disgraced if you lose, the most savage combative instincts are aroused. Anyone who has played even in a school football match knows this.”
In the middle of second half, Ishfaq, by now very popular in the crowd, is forwarded a brilliant pass by his teammate. He catches Delhi defense by surprise, and gracefully kicks the ball straight into the goalpost. Its goal! The crowd erupts. Arms up, Ishfaq runs to hug his teammates. People shout, clap and make all sorts of noises from the stands. The lead is now 3-0. I look behind and see a jubilant crowd drowned in celebration. But he crowd wants more goals. They want an emphatic victory for their home team; and an emphatic defeat for the rival team. So they make more noise. More applause for home players; more boos for the rival team. And after some time, the home crowd is obliged. Another goal is scored by the home team. This time the crowd goes mad, and happy loud noise crescendos as the game nears the end. J&K leads by 4-0. Delhi defeat is just moments away. After some minutes, the referee blows his final whistle. Home team wins, in front of jubilant home crowd. J&K creates history, qualifies for the quarterfinal of the Santosh Trophy after 22 years. The team does a victory lap, acknowledging the tremendous support of the home crowd. In return, the crowd gives a standing ovation. And for me Ishfaq, from now on, is more than just that number on his back. He is my hero, too.

Firecrackers burst at the far end of the ground. The resulting smoke hangs in the air. The ground presents some sort of a battle scene. Outside the ground some security personnel and a few Delhi supporters are engaged in conversation. We know what it is about. Disappointed, they are talking about what went wrong, why they lost. We observe this for a while but move on, feeling victorious. We have won, they have lost. The feeling sinks in. Walking out from the ground, thinking about the crowd, I felt it was more than just a game between two teams. And suddenly my friend, overwhelmed by the sight of this huge crowd, instinctively remarks, “We are a sports loving nation”. Nation—I repeat this word to myself, and keep walking. Today, Kashmir won against Delhi. That does not happen everyday. But that happened today, in polo ground.

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