Friday, November 28, 2014

The Weekenders

“When the snows fall and the white winds blow, the lone wolf dies but the pack survives.”

As my phone display flickers for a moment, the banner notifies the first of many messages that find their way into my Whatsapp. Neither the likes of forwarded messages nor brain-wrecking “IAS” questions. Surprisingly, it’s the roll-call of group members preparing for a weekly rendezvous at a sparsely populated ground. 6 am is never too early for the Weekenders.

In the summer of 2013, I felt unfit for the first time in my entire life. I had enrolled for a 5k run and left it mid-way, huffing and puffing. Since my wedding in late 2011, I had been cruising on the path of gluttony with no barriers holding me back. My waistline seemed to enjoy this unprecedented stroke of prosperity and a youthful exuberance seemed to give way to middle-aged maturity. On one of my weekend travails supporting Arsenal, I ran into this group of passionate youngsters (well, a large majority of them) who called themselves Bangalore Gunners. Together, we cheered and jeered Arsenal and their opponents over the course of 90 minutes.

“Soccer isn't very social. Plus, if you don't like someone on the other team, you can do something about it.” ~ Mia Hamm

A week later, my beleaguered efforts to exercise found a cue; the Bangalore Gunners met every Saturday & Sunday to play football at a nearby school ground. I dusted the old soccer studs, wore my favourite jersey at dawn-break and made my way to the location. Sport doesn’t need introduction and the group of football players graciously invited me to join the game. A large chunk of them were college students in their early twenties and the rest of us made the numbers.

Over the last 18 months (in football-ing terms, three transfer seasons), this fraternity has been part of my everyday life. The Whatsapp group remains active through day & night (especially Champions League nights) and we discuss, debate, mock and jest various happenings in the world of football. Although majority of us support Arsenal, we do have representatives of ManWho, ManShitty & Chelshit in our ranks. Pre-game and post-game discussions are held at length and every player/manager across European leagues is put to sword.

As Friday evenings come to a close, the million dollar question arises.

Who’s in for tomorrow and (most importantly) who has the ball?

The responses come through the night and based on numbers we decide to go ahead or forfeit the game. As the sun seeps through the trees, we complete our stretches and kick the ball around. The better weeks have at least 25-30 players while the scarce weeks might result in 8-10. Like Robin Hood and his Merry men, our uncompromising motto remained, “the more, the merrier.” The games last for at least a couple of hours and are highly competitive. At the end of the game, we meet at the nearby juice shop to fill our thirst and lighten our spirits. The single takeaway from playing with this lot has been about enjoying the game. It’s never been about victory or defeat. Just beautiful football.

Our friendship has been held taut by a single bond, the love of the game. A few of the players have been the best that I’ve ever seen in my entire life and it’s been a great experience to learn from them. It’s quite a pity that the talent pool available in India goes untapped since there is no concrete future for skilled youngsters who play the game.

3 weeks back, with my travel imminent, I went out to play expecting it to be my last outing for a while. I could have never been more right in my life. With a lobbed ball dipping towards me, I lifted my knee to receive it. As my foot touched the ground, I felt my knee give way to a horrifying pop. I knew it was something bad, but the extent of damage wasn’t clear then. A couple of days later, the doctor’s prognosis unearthed my deepest fears. A Grade III ACL (The anterior cruciate ligament is an important, internal, stabilizer of the knee joint, restraining hyperextension. It is injured when its biomechanical limits are exceeded (over stretched), often with a hyperextension mechanism). In short, my chances of ever playing football are remote, bordering on unlikely. It would be wise to divert my attention to equally challenging sports such as chess and carom.

I replayed the fateful moment a thousand times over in my head while everyone chastised me for being ignorant to the perils of physical sport. But I never regret the fact that it was football, over the last year, that brought a youthful spring in my step, turning back time. I had felt myself grow lighter and younger in the company of the weekenders. The cast of colourful characters Zaba, Suharez, LCB, Periods & Bondage (the last two remain unverified on wikipedia) and a lot others will remain engulfed in my memory every time I see a group of kids playing football.

It's a Friday and as this post comes to life, the group comes alive.

Another weekend, another dawn. 
“but the world is one great web, and a man dare not touch a single strand lest of all the others"


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