The loud piercing shriek from the referee’s whistle signaled the beginning of the most significant ninety minutes in Subroto’s life; the Final of the Nation-wide Under Grad College Football Cup was underway.
It was a pleasantly sunny December afternoon. A beautiful cool breeze blew in from the sea. The stadium was packed to capacity with supporters of both sides in equal attendance. Well, almost equal attendance. The home team support, Ogilvy’s College – Mumbai, perhaps enjoyed a slight advantage over the visiting Sterling College –Kolkata, Subroto’s team. But only just. The noise was intolerably exhilarating.
Ogilvy’s College had assumed a position of absolute dominance very early in the game. And the tempo it had built up wasn’t showing any signs of diminishing in the near future. The game, for all its hype and hoopla, was turning out to be hopelessly one sided and confined for the most part, to Sterling’s half of the field. But, Sterling continued to cling on, Ogilvy continued to be denied. Half time – Goal less.
Subroto had never had it easy in his life. Born into a poor fisherman’s family on the outskirts of Kolkata, he’d been exposed to the cruelty and toughness of life very early in his life. His earliest memories were watching with sleep-ridden eyes, his father go out to the river at dawn, waking up to the shrill abuses of his mother, fooling around with the other children in the mud and slime of the riverside, and coming back home, dirty and nauseatingly smelly, to the faithfully unwavering spanking from his mother. And sometimes, father too.
The mood in the dressing room was understandably gloomy. The players knew they were being outplayed and that the absence of a goal was more a case of delay than denial. The coach, industriously mindful of his duties and completely oblivious to the lack of attention he was getting, continued to blabber some incomprehensible, but apparently motivating, gibberish into everybody’s ears. None of the players really heard, nor did they actually care to hear.
Subroto went to the neighbourhood school till the fifth grade. It was a decrepit little building, he recollected, and the filth within and without was matched only by the repulsive quantities near his own home. But he studied hard and he studied well.
He went to better schools after that. Not because his father suddenly thought it to be the proper thing to do, but because Subroto managed to win the President’s scholarship award that year.
The only visible difference the second half had ushered in was the confinement of the game to the opposite half of the field. Sterling’s were at the receiving end again. And Subroto was as forlorn and out of luck as ever. Standing near the half line in ever diminishing hope of a breakthrough pass coming to him, he had ample time to contemplate the result and after effects of the game. The goalkeeper, Bhaskar, was doing extremely well, he noted. So were the four lion hearted defenders. But for them, they’d be 3 goals down, he figured. But the menace of Jackson continued to torment them.
“Its only a matter of time”, he said to himself for the hundredth time.
Even a permanent place in the football team had not come easy to Subroto. When he’d expressed his desire to participate, he was ridiculed and shooed away. Despite his brilliance in all activities, academic and otherwise, he still remained a poor man’s kid and a complete misfit in the up market college that Sterling was. But he fought on. He trained harder than ever.
And one fine day, his chance came. The then regular striker, Ranjit, suffered a broken leg and he was allowed to play. Subroto scored twice in that match, and was never dropped after that.
A particularly severe shot on goal by Jackson jolted Subroto out of his reverie. For what seemed like eternity, but was actually not even one second, he followed the ball’s searing path towards the goal with his heart in his mouth. He saw the goalkeeper dive with his arms outstretched and the ball going past him.
A roar from the Ogilvy’s section of the crowd, then silence, and then a roar from the Sterling fans.
Fortunately for Sterling and heartbreakingly for Ogilvy’s, the ball ricocheted off the left bar and founds its way into one of the defender’s feet. Intuition, something that had been honed by hours on the field, told Subroto that the chance had finally arrived. The defender lobbed the ball over the ring of players towards Subroto. A ten meter sprint forward and to the left, and the ball was at his feet.
Everything was a blur after that. Twenty yards into his run, Subroto encountered the first defender, side stepped him with magical elegance, before dribbling his way through two others. The crowd had become deafeningly still, they sensed something special in the air; a surreal feel hung over the stadium.
But Subroto didn’t notice any of this. He had managed to outrun the last defender quite comfortably and was screaming into the penalty area, even as the terrified goalkeeper moved forward to cut the angle. Subroto saw the goalkeeper coming forward, allowed him time to lunge, and then raised his left foot to shoot…
And then, the pain shot through his legs. He screamed in agony and…
He woke up with a start, wet with perspiration. His heart sounded like it was beating with a Dolby surround enhancement module. The image took a while to clear but it eventually did. He’d been watching the Football World Cup final, he recalled. And he’d fallen asleep. The television was still on.
He also recalled that day. The finals - His bike tire deflating - The rush to the garage – The frustration as he stood waiting - The tearing drive after that. And the truck.
On the television, he saw the Italian team lifting up the trophy. He banged the table in front of him in disgust. He had supported France. The initial fury passed and he sighed.
He picked up his crutches and helped himself to his solitary left foot. Slowly, he hobbled his way to bed.
He had never had it easy in life.