A Goalkeeper in Tiruchirrappalli

by: Wahaj Siddiqui ((Header photograph taken by Ricardo Moraes.))

We play to escape, to fight battles of mind and body and to wage warfare by proxy. But most of all, we play to retain our humanity…

Players battle for the ball during a Sunday "pelada" soccer match in the Borel favela of Rio de Janeiro, a World Cup host city, May 4, 2014. Sunday soccer is a decades-old tradition when Brazilians of all walks of life play on the beaches, in the slums, and on the streets matches that are known as "peladas" or "naked". Pelada can refer to a street match where everyone plays barefoot with ÒnakedÓ feet, or a match on a grassless ÒnakedÓ field, or a match with a ball so worn that it is Ònaked.Ó With the 2014 World Cup just one month away, people of all walks of life in the host cities are spending their Sundays practicing the sport for which their country is about to become the global stage. The tournament will take place in Brasilia, Belo Horizonte, Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo, Natal, Fortaleza, Salvador, Porto Alegre, Curitiba, Cuiaba, Manaus, and Recife. Picture taken May 4, 2014. REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes (BRAZIL)

The discreet city of Tiruchirrappalli, or Tiruchi, or the anglicized Trichy is a semi-prominent city in Tamil Nadu, one of the many tropical and littoral states in India. This polysyllable city is perhaps most famous for an upshot of a temple on a steep hill, untouched by generations of subcontinental invaders. The city is part of the southernmost bowels of India, where a distinct Dravidian cultural canon pervades. A native of the North Indian plains would find the language and food and environs alien.

In what seemed like a blindfolded dart shot at the map, the government of India resolved to develop one of its more prominent engineering schools here. The college was cut off from the nearest excuse of a city by twenty kilometres. The dart had bisected a highway connecting the cities of Trichy and Tanjore (anglicised from Thanjavur). It was not without company although, for soon another marooned college would appear, S.A.S.T.R.A. (Shanmugha Arts, Science, Technology & Research Academy).

The college was founded during the fag-end of the first post-colonial government to meet the growing industrial demands of the country. India was still a prudish agrarian economy then. Now she is making love to an IT and start-up boom. Amidst these turbulences, I grew up in the Middle East, and by an exam diluted of its difficulty and competitiveness, I found myself at the gates of this institution.

After the formalities were complete, we were free to utilise the amenities of this university which at first, seemed akin to a castaway exploring an uninhabited island. Our first instinct was to seek out a sparse patch of gloomy, uninviting red sand to play football on. The sandy fields were full of roundish red pebbles that made their sharpness known when lodged in the innards of our shoes. The coarse grounds offered no friction for those with flatter shoes and quickly corroded the plastic studs of the more esoterically designed football cleats (whose names still seem more apt as weapons of mass destruction).

As a footballer, I would fantasise about being a stoic, hardened defender, the rearguard of a team that had lost its way to that pesky dribbler who would never let go of the ball. It was a schoolboy ambition that one acquires after watching one too many soccer-themed Youtube videos. I had, to an extent, the attributes required to be a good player including light feet and a unyielding tendency to throw my body into challenges. On such an unforgiving surface as our rocky soccer pitch, it’s safe to say that my kneecaps were more than merely reddened.

Of course, once I stepped on the field I was that “guy,” someone who treated a pickup game like the finals of an international tournament. Any brazen physicality on the abrasive, stone surfaces would unsurprisingly, lead to a minor scuffle. I was poor on the ball, and energetic without it. This intensity was destined to not get any admiration or at its very worst, garner sympathy.

The ground we spent the majority of our four years playing on was a patch of land that would first announce its presence by a wide pavilion. There was a solitary water pipe emerging from a shallow colloid of mud and water. Grass rebelled against the dusty lifelessness that permeated the field. The claws underneath our boots stabbed at the ground and killed whatever grass remained. There were currents of sand and pebbles running randomly across the field. The white, powdered chalk markings we put down disappeared one month into the academic year. The texture of the pitch was an enigma in itself; the presence of pebbles themselves were minute to eye but not to the ball. They would alter the trajectory of the football ever so slightly, just enough to miss the sweet spot of the foot, a pyramidal assortment of bones that afforded the highest contact with the ball. Blanks were often fired, determined kicks reduced to the venom and potency of a thrown sunflower. The field’s center was a flat rock peppered with pebbles and the extremities of the penalty area was a loose expanse of redsand. And of course, at the centre of one half’s goal line an angry rock that looked like it belonged to the nearby reefs, jagged and blunt.

The game of football requires only one attachment, a football. Sometimes the conditions of the participants wallet could be seen in the ball. The ball was a utilitarian throwback to yesteryear: dense, flinty and potentially a cause for brain cancer or concussion. Our footballs were in stark contrast to the glossy, almost-fluorescent spheres I had become accustomed to growing up. Sometimes plastered with a stylised tick or three colorful slanting stripes, these modern footballs of my youth cost perhaps a month’s wages for a labourer in the Gulf. By contrast, their Indian cousins sacrificed aesthetics for durability and cost a tenth of the price.

It was perhaps by fate or sheer luck that I did not have to weather injuries beyond a few deep bruises and some minor cuts. A dermatologist, though, would be indignant upon seeing my ankles and knees as they were a mosaic of earthen, colored patches, some with a more pinkish hue. They were the result of a preponderance of extension dives, the act of thrusting one’s body at the ball. Those dives were, to a spectator, heroic failures or, on occasion, miraculous saves. It was a blood-rush of aggression towards my beleaguered living, and football was my escape. But the roots of my devotion to this eccentric subset of the game was to fashion my own narrative for each match with the goalkeeper always being the lone block in the face of a raging flood. Football is best played with goals and my artisan speciality was something akin to that of a party-pooper.

The cardinal sin of the goalkeeper’s position is to concede a goal. Slowly, this mindset became an extension of me. Training sessions would become an exhibition of my goalkeeping prowess. There were shots from various angles, diffuse trajectories ballooning into my hands ired across and skidded towards the bottom or the corner of the goal. These trajectories were troublesome. Often the flighted ones were an experience not different from clutching fireflies at noon. Each attempt rocketed at me exposed and drilled my limitations. Perhaps this was the time where my sporting dreams came to an end, where I acknowledged my glaring lack of ability and the consequent futility of my ambitions.

The artisan position of goalkeeper required a gross disregard for the human body and the self. The allure of being the lone ranger, or as I paraphrase from Nabokov, ‘a torero in a bullfight’ drew me towards it. The prospect of saving a match on my own terms made sure I never left the game. As I spent more time ahead of the goal-line and behind my team. I had a developed a melancholy analogy of my position: I was the lighthouse-keeper of the team. Goalkeeping places unique demands and situations on the player and person. The training is different, the muscles involved are different, and your entire approach to the game is altered irreparably.

There are twenty two players on the field during a regulation match, barring any inordinate acts of recklessness. The raison d’être of the formation is to ensure that all of them do not end up chasing the ball at the same time. Perhaps football strategy can be essentialized to deciding who chases the ball and when. Formation were limited to the 4-2-3-1s and the 4-4-3s and at times, the baser 4-4-2. Our formations, due to a distinct lack of expertise was bereft of any intricacy a more “professional” formation would enjoy. The simplicity of ours is pivotal to be less “subsystems within a system” but rather, to retain our humanity. After all, isn’t this why we play?

Another reason would be to escape, to fight battles, of mind and body, wage warfare by proxy, be victors in their own conflicts. Football is sometimes a metaphor and an outlet for those emotions that could never be articulated, it is something so intangible that it can only be felt, never described.

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