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|by Ramendra Kumar|
Salim passed the ball to Ravi who raced ahead. He saw Ganesh come running and deftly dribbled past him. Now between him and the goal post there was only Joe, the goal keeper, who charged. Ravi quickly dodged him and slammed the ball in.
“Goal!” Salim yelled. He came running followed by three others who jumped onto Ravi bringing him down in a tangle of arms and legs.
As Ravi and Salim were returning to ‘Jagruti’ they heard a shout. They saw a young man sitting on one of the benches in one corner of the park waving to them. They turned back and walked towards him. Ravi had often seen him sitting on this very bench in the evenings, watching them play. He was a tall, lanky young man with shoulder length hair, a hooked nose and a weak chin.
“I am Uttam Chatterjee, but you can call me Guru,” he said offering his hand. His voice was rough and his grasp firm.
“My name is Ravi and he is Salim,” Ravi said, shaking hands with Guru.
“I know. I have been watching you play over the last few months. You kids are very talented.”
“There is a special reason why I called both of you,” Guru said.
The two friends looked at each other not sure what was coming.
“Viva Foods, the well known health drink company, is organising City Challenge, an Open Football Tournament for kids under 13 years of age. I want you guys to take part in the championship.”
“B...but Guru you can’t call us guys a team!” Ravi said.
“How can you even imagine that we’ll have any chance?” Salim added.
“We don’t have shoes to play, a proper ground to practise and most of all a coach to train us.”
“We’ll be thrashed in the first match itself.”
“Everyone will laugh at us.” Ravi and Salim let loose a flurry of objections.
“Easy guys, easy. If you score goals at the rate at which you are hurling doubts, you will definitely win the championship,” Guru laughed and looking at them continued.
“Now I’ll clear all your doubts. But first let me tell you a bit about myself. I used to play for one of the top clubs of West Bengal. Football continues to be my passion and I know quite a bit about the game. I have seen you play and I am convinced you have got raw talent which needs to be honed. I am confident I can do it. As regards shoes, I have a friend who works for a shoe company and he’ll get us the stuff rather cheap. For practise, we’ll use the Tulip School grounds. I know the principal rather well and she’ll allow us to use it every evening after school hours.”
“Any more doubts?” Guru looked at them.
“I... am still not sure....” Salim wondered.
“I think we should give it a shot. At least we’ll get to learn how to play proper football with proper facilities,” Ravi said.
“That’s the spirit. So let’s start from tomorrow. You get all your friends to Tulip grounds at 4.30 sharp.”
Ravi and Salim gave the news to Govind Babu and their friends.
“I think it is a great opportunity, boys. You should grab it with both hands or rather both legs.” Govind Babu said, smiling.
The youngsters were excited and even Salim was now convinced that what they were getting was a rare chance to have fun as well as prove themselves.
The next day they gathered at Tulip and Ravi made the introductions.
“Friends, I have seen you guys in action and I know you are good. Now my job is to make you the best and your task is to work as hard as you can. The tournament is from March 13, exactly two months and nine days from now. We are going to have a two month camp beginning from today. After which I shall pick the final 14 from amongst you.”
Guru divided them into two teams and the practise session started with the brand new football he had brought for the boys. Guru quietly observed the players and removing a small diary from his pocket started making notes in it.
For the next few days the same scenario continued. On the fourth day Guru gave each of them a brand new pair of shoes and addressed them, “I have been observing each of you play rather keenly. I have even made notes. I find that most of you are playing with your feet, not with your heads. Football is not only about dribbling, kicking, power and muscle. It is also about thinking and planning. Not one of you knows which position he is good in. Today I am going to give each of you a position and you have to stick to it, unless I call for a change. Is that clear?”
Every one nodded though Ravi was sure quite a few of them had very little idea what Guru was talking about.
Guru quickly assigned them positions and explained to them the role each had to play.
The game started and there was complete chaos the entire evening.
Later after the exhausted players collapsed in a heap, Guru said, “I know there is a lot of confusion. But don’t worry things will sort out. In a week or so you’ll adjust and that is when the real preparation will start.”
Ravi kicked the ball from just outside the ‘D’ and it sailed into the air straight towards the goal post. Babu who was in perfect position to head it into the goal jumped high. Anil, the full back who was guarding the post also jumped but instead of trying to head the ball he slammed into Babu who went crashing into the goal post. The ball harmless sailed into the waiting hands of Joe, the goal keeper.
“Get out and stay out!” he shouted.
After the match he called the boys for what he called a ‘daily briefing’.
“You must be wondering why I shouted at Anil,” he said looking at the boys, his face still grim.
“I will not tolerate rough play of any kind. Use your talent and skill and play fair. Remember you are sportsmen, not hooligans. I know many times it is difficult to control yourself. Winning becomes all important. But let me tell you in the long run only those who play fair are the real winners.”
Guru looked at Anil whose expression was still sullen.
“Okay, let me give you my own example. As some of you know I was playing for one of the top clubs of Kolkata. I was considered one of the best forwards and most football pundits felt I had a good chance of getting into the Indian team.”
“It was the final match of the Kolkata football league and we were pitted against our arch rivals. The game had entered the closing stages of the match and we were leading 1-0. I got a fantastic pass from my team mate Aurobindo and raced ahead. As I neared the goal, Mallik the rival centre half came rushing for a tackle. He was a huge guy. As I tried to dribble past him he swung his right leg. He was not interested in seizing the ball. All he wanted was to stop me. He caught me on the shin and I doubled up in pain. We appealed for a penalty, but the referee turned it down and we had to settle for a free kick. I was furious. More than winning I wanted to settle scores with Mallik, right there on the football field.
My chance came a few minutes later. Mallik had the ball in his possession and was racing with it. Despite his physique he was rather quick and had slipped past three of our guys. I rushed towards him and as he tried to get past me slammed my shoulders against him. Since I was moving very fast the impact caught Mallik by surprise and he was hurled to the ground. Even as the referee blew his whistle Mallik got up and came at me. The ball, the match, the tournament everything was forgotten as we flew at each other lashing out with our fists and feet. By the time we were separated by our teammates the damage was already done. Both of us were banned for a year. When the ban was lifted I found my place had been taken by a younger player. That was the end of my career. This unfortunate episode taught me one lesson which I want each one of you to remember. Play a sport like a sport.”
“You have exactly ten days to go and I am announcing the team – the playing eleven and four extras. The rest will accompany the team as cheerleaders,” Guru said with a smile.
“Ravi will be the captain and Salim the vice captain.” There was a huge round of applause for the two best players of Ashray. The other names followed.
“Have you thought of a name for your team?” Guru asked.
“Karan Eleven,” Salim declared. There were loud cheers.
In all there were 8 teams divided into two groups. After the league stage the top two teams of each group would make it to the semi-finals.
The first match of Karan Eleven was with Orchids Club in their home ground.
As the two teams took the field, there was a huge round of applause for the hosts who were hot favourites to lift the trophy.
The match was all but over in the first fifteen minutes with the Orchids slamming five goals. The Karans looked battered and bruised by the end of the first half and the final score-line read 9-0.
Guru led them straight to the abandoned park where they used to practise before they met Guru.
“You know boys, the Orchids didn’t win, you guys lost. They didn’t beat you, you beat yourself. You got overawed by their fancy shoes, dress and the crowd support they generated. You didn’t play even half to your potential,” Guru said, very softly, looking at each of them.
“We’re sorry Guru, we let you down.” Ravi managed to whisper.
“You are wrong Ravi. You didn’t let me down, you let yourself down. But all is not lost. From the next match onwards give it all you’ve got.”
Guru then went on to elaborate on the mistakes the Karans had made and their game plan for the coming matches.
Karans now had to face The Champs. They played well and managed to beat their rivals by a solitary goal. Their confidence grew and they won every other match in their pool. Orchids lost one match due to a last minute mess up by their goalie and drew one. Karans topped the pool and Orchids stood second.
In the semi-finals Karans were pitted against ‘The Superstars’. The match went into extra-time and then a penalty shoot out. Thanks to some wonderful saves by Karan Eleven’s goalie Joe, they managed to win 5-4.
In the other semis Orchids put up a fabulous show thrashing their opponents 6-1.
The stage was now set for an epic clash between the rejuvenated Karans and the marauding Orchids.
“Just play your normal game and don’t let history bother you. Just because Orchids beat you once doesn’t mean they can do it again,” Guru told the team.
The game started on a sedate note but suddenly the Karans shifted gears and slammed three goals with Ravi and Anil moving in perfect tandem. The Orchids didn’t know what hit them. They stumbled along for a few minutes and then counter attacked with a vengeance. But this time it was not football, it was more like a bout. They almost went berserk targeting the best players of Karan Eleven - pushing them, jostling them and even landing a kick or two. Every time the Karans appealed the referee chose to ignore.
During break the scores were tied 3-3.
“Guru, we can’t continue playing like this. They are hitting out at us and we are tolerating everything like cowards,” Ravi said.
“Even the referee is partial,” Salim added.
“If we don’t do anything fast we’ll lose and lose badly,” Anil said.
“What do you want to do?” Guru asked.
“A kick for a kick and a punch for a punch,” Ravi replied and everyone nodded.
“Is that what I have taught you?” Guru asked, his eyes glinting.
“You have talked of fair play. But are Orchids indulging in fair play?” demanded Anil.
“I don’t care what they are doing. But you will not resort to rough play at any cost. If you do that, it is the end of our friendship.”
The Karans went back to the game. They put up a heroic fight. And despite continuous provocation from the Orchids they did not play rough. They ended up losing the match 4-3.
Terribly disappointed, they collected their runners up medals with long faces.
After the prize distribution the chief guest Aseem Ganguly, MD Planet Sports, the premier sports manufacturing company of the region took the mike.
“Friends, I have been a great football fan since my childhood. My greatest sports icon has been Pele. And his greatness was not just his genius but a special quality that made him stand taller than anyone else. He was a perfect gentleman and fair play to him was more important than the score line. Today I found one team indulging in the worst kind of gamesmanship and the other continuing to play fair. The first team won the trophy but I am sure the other one won all our hearts. My company Planet Sports is planning to organise an Inter-State football championship. I have picked the Karan Eleven to represent our State.”
The announcement was greeted with a thunderous applause and loud cheers. As the Karans hugged each other Guru could be seen wiping his eyes and grinning from ear to ear at the same time.
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