On The Long Trek To Jamshedpur, We Had More Than Just A Handful Of Boys Who Opened Up About Memories That Ranged From Nostalgia To Rejection, And Even A Nightmare – All Associated With The City. Sunday Came, And We Were Certain About Finding Reason To Narrate Any One Of Those Tales. Then Along Came Gurpreet Singh Sandhu And Subrata Paul To Deny Everyone Of Everything…
It was set up perfectly. So perfectly, that there weren’t enough letters in the alphabet to assign plan names to. We’ll even go out on a limb and say, that had we let a cat scamper on the keyboard and clack away a few times, we’d have an intro ready, albeit with a little spellcheck, just to be sure. For once, The Afterthought would have a problem of plenty when it came to the soul of the piece, the peg of the story. Like manna from paradise, it was raining possibilities.
We wouldn’t have remonstrated if it came off his shin and bobbled across the line unappetizingly, all Chhetri had to do was stick one in the back of the net and we would have engineered jaw-drops with the story of how the second-highest international goalscorer among active players, wasn’t deemed good enough by the Tata Football Academy at a time when his fringe still spilled over his eyes. In Delhi, a shortlist of three was to be further pruned, and two would enter the hallowed gates of India’s football factory nestled between the waters of the Subarnarekha and the Kharkai. A day after the game, Chhetri would visit the TFA and tell the current crop of cadets of his rejection with a grin wide enough to match their disbelief. They all got a ticket that the player they aspire to be didn’t, and here he was, sitting on a chair in front of them and telling them about it.
Then there were tales we would spit out like a rhyming, rapping raconteur of the four boys who had made it to the TFA at different points of time in their life, and pulled on a Bengaluru shirt on Sunday. Friday’s training session at the Academy grounds was the first time that Harmanjot Khabra, Rino Anto, Kean Lewis and Udanta Singh would step on the turf that taught them their trade, since graduating. Carles Cuadrat even mentioned it in his talk before the session began and told the quartet to roll back time and enjoy the hour more than the others. He called it a ‘wonderful feeling’, and it was just that. Khabra and Udanta had 90 minutes, Kean, a few at the death, and Rino none.
The possibilities even spilled on to the bench from where Eugeneson Lyngdoh has made two appearances since his second, and life-giving stint with the Blues. Sunday’s venue had nothing but memories of affliction for the man, from two Decembers ago. It was at the JRD Tata Sports Complex where, a minute before half-time in the game between ATK and Jamshedpur, Lyngdoh suffered a tear to his lateral collateral ligament on the left leg. He didn’t need tests to confirm that this would be a long slide down, back to base camp. And yet, here he was, two years later, with a chance to churn out the astonishing from illegal distances, like he often had in the past.
Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.
– The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
The reject, the ordained quartet, the resurrected midfielder and the Spanish Armada, all congregated, took every possible peg of this piece and cut in half. And then cut that half, into two, till all that remained was a blank document being sniggered at by a deadline.
The night (and this piece) needed saving. And were none better to take matters into their own hands – literally – than the two men who spend most of their minutes on the pitch in a solitary confinement of sorts. They were, by no means, footnotes when this fixture was being previewed, but Gurpreet Singh Sandhu and Subrata Paul weren’t headlining it either.
Like eager but measured contestants on a nationwide hunt to find the best voice, Sandhu and Paul went through the first phase of auditions with safe songs and simple notes. Shots fired straight at them were clutched on to. No spills. No crumbs. No seconds. Then as the competition progressed, out came the bass, baritone, tenor and alto – the whole range.
What started out as a contest under strobe beams, manifold cameras, an audience waving torchlights and composed judges on revolving chairs, soon turned into a freestyle rap battle in the dingy basement of an abandoned industrial building – straight out of a scene from 8 Mile.
A thoroughly-rehearsed Bengaluru set-piece routine in the 20th minute saw Jamshedpur enact the whole deer-headlight routine. Every red shirt was beaten as Juanan nodded down a corner and Khabra slalomed between bodies to meet it on the bounce with a little flick, three yards from goal. But in what was a moment of genius, one TFA graduate, denied the other with a hand that wasn’t meant to spring out at all. At 32, a lot may have slowed down for Paul, but not his impulse to keep the ball out.
He was at it again, this time in the 50th minute when he watched his last line of defence come undone by a delightful chip from Ashique Kuruniyan to find Manu Onwu. The Spaniard was winning the race with Memo Moura by an arms distance when the Jamshedpur ’keeper decided to magnify himself and smother a shot that was destined for the back of the net.
Paul’s piece was done and he stepped back as Gurpreet made his way to the centre of the gathering with his verses ready. Piti’s free kick in the 54th minute bounced off Moura and fell for Mobashir Rahman who fired with spite. But Gurpreet turned up with half a split to save with his feet.
Minutes later, Piti swung in a corner that Farukh Chaudhary’s gaze tracked keenly before the striker chose to take the overhead route to goal, six yards from it. There were three sounds within seconds of each other – that of Farukh’s leg connecting with the ball, followed by Gurpreet’s palm slapping the ball and then that of the mic drop from the Blues’ ’keeper.
In what’s nothing short of a masterpiece in football literature, the late Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano says this of the goalkeeper in his book ‘Football in Sun and Shadow’ – ‘He awaits his own execution by firing squad. He does not score goals; he is there to keep them from being scored. The goal is football’s fiesta: the striker sparks delight and the goalkeeper, a wet blanket, snuffs it out. It’s always the ’keeper’s fault. And when it isn’t, he still gets blamed.
‘The crowd never forgives the goalkeeper. Was he drawn out by a fake? Left looking ridiculous? Did the ball skid? Did his fingers of steel turn to putty? With a single slip-up, the goalie can ruin a match or lose a championship, and the fans suddenly forget all his feats and condemn him to eternal disgrace. Damnation will follow him to the end of his days.’
Between the two Arjuna Awardees, Gurpreet and Paul decided that on Sunday, top bins, panenkas, smash-and-grab finishes, overhead delights and damnation were all off limits. Eternal disgrace, when it does threaten to come, will be dealt with; with a hand you never expected to make in time.