The Dutch gave the world totaalvoetball. The Dutch also gave the world Chess Boxing. While it’s Rinus Michels’ football philosophy we’d like to have aped in bits and pieces, it was Iepe Rubingh’s performance art that involves alternating between rounds in the ring and across a chequered board laden with kings, queens, knights and pawns that we ended up embracing after two legs of the semifinal. Or we felt like that, at least.
Between a first leg deficit that included a penalty in the last minute of added time and the promise of turning it around at the Fortress in front of twenty thousand home supporters, an eon had passed. For those of you wondering why this piece didn’t pop up after defeat in Guwahati, it’s because the war needed The Afterthought, not the battle…
Juanan Gonzalez smashed the ball high and far. On another day, you’d have had someone in a blue shirt at the end of that gorgeous diagonal that the Spaniard pings from deep within Bengaluru’s half. Except this time, all those who would have watched the flight of the ball, were down on their knees with their gaze fixed on the ground. The Indira Gandhi Athletic Stadium had erupted and it was another Juan – Mascia – who had orchestrated the delirium. Redeem Tlang had given NorthEast United a first-half lead and the Uruguayan, the winner. Both teams would take flights to Bengaluru the next morning, but it was Eelco Schattorie’s men who had their noses in front.
The second half was everything Bengaluru wanted in the first. They had the hosts sitting deep and with a relative look of discomfort. As for the Blues, the urgency was apparent. An away goal would change the equation of the game in big ways. With eight minutes to the ninety, Miku set Chhetri off on a small chase down the left. With Reagan Singh sticking to the Bengaluru skipper and the ground ahead of him, running out, the right thing for Chhetri to do was slide the ball in the box and pray to whoever he believed in, for a blue shirt to get to the end of the pass. Wrong. Chhetri tried to shake his marker off with a blank swipe of the leg, but Singh wasn’t buying it. The touchline was now visible. For Chhetri though, he still had enough ground to keep the NorthEast man close for a few more seconds before forcing him to slide and then making that pass with the ball literaly on the white paint. It’s all about the inches. The red shirts in the box had their eyes on this engaging tussle and it was just the distraction that Xisco Hernandez needed to ghost in and tap home.
Post-match broadcast obligations all wrapped up, Carles Cuadrat was about to be swallowed by the tunnel when stopped in his tracks and turned left. Twenty-five yards later he was standing in front of 14 Bengaluru fans. On most matchdays, they sing for him, he claps for them and the love can be felt. But that night in Guwahati, the boss took advantage of an empty stadium and a small audience and decided to speak with them. It did take a bit of a shout to get his message over to the gallery from pitch-side, but Cuadrat was audible. “I’m sorry about tonight. But guys, remember, we have to play at the Fortress. Don’t lose hope.” There was an apology and an assurance – both of which were genuine.
The dressing room, as you’d expect it to be, was a sombre setting. But not the kind at a funeral, where hope wafts into the pyre. Harmanjot Khabra had the team’s new portable speaker in a tight clutch, but the virtues of the acquisition weren’t on display. The boss gathered round his troops and had a stern instruction – no long and depressed faces. He then went on to spell out his trust in them, spoke about the energy the Fortress will throw their way on the night and that they had this. Khabra wouldn’t lift his gaze. If he could, he would land in Bengaluru and drive straight to the Kanteerava to play the second leg.
The distance from the lockers to the team bus was a short one, but long enough for the home fans to exercise speech-related liberties at the team while glaring at them. Thursday night belonged to the hosts. The boys understood this well, swallowed it in and made the bus. The windows might have drowned out the noise, but the gestures were visible from big, transparent panes. A visibly upset Udanta Singh had to be held back from throwing a retort, but he reminded us that NorthEast had to come to the Fortress in three days and that we would settle scores then. Those around, nodded.
It was at this point that the Media Room at the BFS was having second thoughts on The Afterthought. The feature banks on telling a story from the beginning to the end. 2-1 wasn’t the end. What had started in Guwahati, would finish in Bengaluru. In something that makes our hearts glad, our Twitter feed is often home to several queries for this piece once a game is done, but not one came through between Thursday evening at the Indira Gandhi Athletic Stadium and Monday night at the Fortress. We knew, and so did the Blues’ faithful; that it ain’t over till the fat lady sings.
Three days to kick-off and the BFS had children lined up outside, waiting to ask all and sundry if they had any tickets to spare. Two and a half hours to kick-off at the Kanteerava Stadium, and they were still there, when the Blues made their way onto the bus after a quick meeting. We’re not sure if they ever found a ticket, but we are steadfast in our belief that they made it in. When the Blues marched out for the warm up routines barely an hour later, the atmosphere at the Fortress was almost palpable.
‘King of the South’ read the banner in the West Block before action got underway. The Fortress hadn’t been breached in over a year, and as Carles pulled out his notes ahead of the game, he noted that six of the nine results Bengaluru had claimed at their hallowed home turf would take them through to the final.
It didn’t take long for the Blues to set the tone. Miku flicked a ball into space with his ankle, and Dimas controlled every pass that came his way with little need to look at it. Bengaluru were in cruise control, but somehow, somewhere, something was flawed.
It began from the left, when Nishu curled in a cross for the Venezuelan to meet. Unmarked and with all the time in the world, Miku gave the ball boy his cue with a header that fizzed wide. It was uncharacteristic of the No. 7, but it wouldn’t end there. Moments later, Udanta got on his bike to race past Keegan Pereira and cut it back for Miku, but once again the effort blazed high of the frame.
Expletives in Spanish could only be lip-read through the cameras as Miku made his way back to the half-way line. There was a problem, and he had to find a solution. Bengaluru, needing just one goal to progress, were finding the deadlock the toughest to break. Having let his teammates down from both flanks, Miku took the onus on himself and made himself a yard, over and over again, and almost scored what could have been the goal of the season.
Collecting the ball twenty yards outside the area, Miku chopped one, flicked another, and then feinted past one more NorthEast defender. With one last player incoming, we expected him to pull the trigger. Almost in slow motion, he rolled the ball and pushed it forward once again to make space and time that he had no right to. Xisco had his arms up in the air in celebration already, but they would soon go down to his head in despair as 21,000 people watched Miku with the tamest effort of the evening. Dimas hopped over to give his striker a word or two of consolation. It was turning out to be one of those nights. But Bengaluru couldn’t afford one of those nights; not that night. At one point, we caught Miku taking a breather, sitting on his haunches on the edge of the eighteen-yard line and staring straight at the goal. We’re certain he was asking the frame a few questions.
The Final Quarter
Cuadrat’s Blues went down the tunnel with the equation still the same as it was when the ball had first been rolled, but the time they had to find that elusive goal had been reduced to half. There may have been a few nails that bore the brunt of nerves that began to show in the stands, but in the dressing room at half time, Cuadrat was everything but anxious.
“I told my boys to stay calm because the goals would come. I am happy that they took the instruction, because that is why we scored the goals. Because we were patient,” the boss would later say.
Seventy minutes had been played when Bengaluru finally found the net. He’d missed what’s oft called a ‘sitter’, and had blazed one over the bar from six yards out. All that before poking the ball to the ‘keeper after taking the mickey out of four defenders, but when Miku finally found the net, it was a chance that very few others may have converted from.
Khabra’s punt forward died at Xisco’s outstretched foot, before the Spaniard played it back for Udanta. Flash wasted no time in squaring one into the area and the rest was poetry. With a flick of his left ankle, Miku sent the ball far past the reach of Pawan, kissing the upright on its way into the frame. The striker had his face away from goal.
Ecstasy took over and Bengaluru knew that the job was half done. Miku, who was on a mission to make amends for his trio of misses, had a part to play in the second as well. Climbing high to clear a defensive corner, his header found Udanta on the prowl. With Tlang approaching, the Udanta pushed the ball around and turned on his turbos. He was upset that night in the bus in Guwahati. And he hadn’t forgotten.
Having made space for himself after running over half the length of the pitch, Udanta faked a side step before looping the ball over the area. Caught wrong-footed, Pawan Kumar could only palm it onto his frame and as the ball bounced back into play, in the box were Chhetri and Delgado. Bengaluru’s grand old men had arrived to the party and the skipper left it for his Spanish teammate to finish. There was no Hollywood celebration as an unforgiving tackle followed Delgado’s perfectly placed shot. He writhed on the floor in pain, but was at the very bottom of a pile-up in blue soon after. Two-nil Bengaluru.
With the tide and tie tilting the Blues’ way on aggregate, the visitors pushed forward for a goal that would take the game into extra-time. Schattorie’s men wanted 30 minutes to salvage their pride, but in going for that strike, conceded another of their own. Taking a shove and a tackle in his stride, Chhetri played the quickest of give-and-gos with Miku to beat the offside trap. The only man standing between Chhetri and the frame of goal was Pawan. The skipper would have none of the NorthEast custodian’s antics, as he skipped over with ease and pushed the ball into the net before wheeling away in celebration. We use the word ‘celebration’ only because the wry smile we saw on his face was a lot more than he usually offers.
At a time when ‘texter’s thumb’ is a syndrome, Rahul Bheke is happy to clutch on to a pen and put it to paper. He doesn’t come across the kind of bloke who scribbles his thoughts in a diary, or so we thought. Sitting in an ice bath after the game at the Fortress, the defender pulled out his phone, clicked to the gallery and handed us the device. On the screen was a picture of a page and the ink on it read – “Tomorrow, my team plays the semifinal. We will win this game 3-0. Miku, Chhetri and I will score. I will give 100% to the team”. It was scarily accurate [almost] and endearingly honest.
The Afterthought could have competition, only if Bheke is up for The Premonition. Over to Mumbai.