The Fault In Our Stars

He Chose The Fancy When It Was The Ugly He Should Have Resorted To Instead. What Followed Was A Goa Equaliser In Added Time And A Dash To The Dressing Room To Howl The Anger Away. Fortunately For Ashique, What Also Followed Were The Arms Of Teammates Who Had All Walked Down That Path, Around His Shoulders, And A Boss Who Raised A Toast To Never Looking Back…

Eugeneson Lyngdoh | Not A Stamp To Collect

It was a Federation Cup qualifier against NISA from Manipur in 2010 that was twenty minutes old when I – in a Rangdajied United shirt – did something downright stupid. A tackle saw one of our men sent off. But as if the prospect of playing with ten men for seventy minutes wasn’t bad enough, I went and stamped the chest of the NISA player who was down. Two showers had to be turned on and we hadn’t even broken a sweat. Needless to say, we lost that game and it wasn’t my smartest moment as a footballer. But I always run back to it the moment a rush of blood threatens to take over. It’s one of those lessons you keep for life.

Albert Serran | The Debut With A Dent

Most professional footballers leave no stone unturned to make sure their debut on the big stage is one filled with happy memories. It wasn’t any different for me when I pulled on the Espanyol shirt to take on Racing Santander in a game that would be my debut in La Liga. Dani Jarque and I were up against two deadly strikers in Pedro Munitis and Nikola Zigic and we were doing a fantastic job. Just when this was turning out to be the debut I dreamed of, Munitis used his body to make it look like I crashed into him in the box, and the assistant referee thought he’d seen enough to award a penalty. I couldn’t believe what had happened. Ezequiel Garay stepped up and scored. Albert Riera’s early goal had given us the lead, but the game ended 1-1. I was distraught, but lucky to have a dressing room that came up and congratulated me for what was a good show.

Gurpreet Singh Sandhu | Not The Right Punch

As a goalkeeper, you’re always sitting in the dressing room after a bad result going ‘what if’. What if I’d got a fingertip to that shot? What if I had stayed back and not gone up to punch that set-piece? On that day in Goa, we were down a goal and I had to make sure we didn’t concede. I remember very clearly; I was trying to collect the ball and I felt Manu Lanzarote’s foot on mine. He was trying to race past me and stepped on the back of my ankle. It was a rush of blood to the head, and I really wasn’t thinking. We squared up, I raised an arm, he went down to the turf and I was sent through the tunnel. I blame myself for that result to this very day. Even with ten men, we managed to equalize and I’m sure we could have taken a positive result if I hadn’t made that massive error of judgement. Making that one mistake taught me something I couldn’t have learned in any training session.

Harmanjot Khabra | The Four-Day Semifinal

People are of the opinion that you only make mistakes and learn from them when you are young. I wouldn’t call it a mistake, but the penalty that I conceded against NorthEast United is perhaps among my lowest points as a footballer. The second leg was three days away and to be honest, for me, it was almost as if that game in Guwahati had never ended. I couldn’t sleep that night or on the flight back to Bangalore and the days after went by so slowly. Everyone came by to support me and even the coach spoke and was positive, but I was in a place where I had let so many people down and it was difficult to come to terms with that. When we spoke ahead of the game in Bangalore, I told the coach that should he play me, I wanted to mark the same player who had won that penalty. It was my way of overcoming that guilt. We won 3-0 in the second leg, and were flawless at the back. As a footballer, you never stop learning and that’s what I absorbed from that experience.

The tunnel at the Fatorda sucked in Ashique Kuruniyan with twice the velocity the twenty-two-year old had just generated on the pitch for a little over ninety minutes. The rest of the squad, meanwhile, gingerly made their way to the far end where a cluster of travelling supporters wouldn’t stop applauding in acknowledgement of the masterclass their team had just served.

The youngster chose the second of four added minutes in the game to betray ‘Ashique the left-back’, for a brief fling with ‘Ashique the winger’. And like most dalliances, it ended with him getting called out. Inconsolable at handing Goa a lifeline they had done nothing to deserve when his tackling leg was in the same postcode as that of Ferran Corominas, Ashique locked himself in the dressing room, sank his head between his knees and wrapped his hands around his sides.

Bengaluru had come to the art convention with purpose behind every stroke. There was just the one easel to paint on and the Blues wanted Goa to watch. The patterns had geometric precision – nothing spilled out of the shapes and triangles were drawn wherever space consented. And then, the brush stuttered.

It had taken an hour to carve out a goal, and thirty more minutes to protect it. But the worth of Bengaluru’s masterpiece fell by more than half in a matter of three seconds.

Manu Onwu had done ever so well to rise and meet Gurpreet Singh Sandhu’s long launch before flicking Udanta on. The winger, who looks like he’s possessed when he has the ball at his feet, chose the calm of a monk in lifting it over Mourtada Fall, letting it bounce a couple of times, roll for a just a little and then placing it past Mohammad Nawaz with an assured inside of his left foot.

The Flash and Chhetri had a warm little exchange after the goal, and it was to do with a deal that goes beyond the formality of signatures on stamp papers vetted by legal teams. But it’s one we know will be honoured. And while we won’t lay bare the specifics, we’re aware of an offer that the skipper’s made Udanta. All the skipper’s protégé needs to do is find the back of the net ten times this season, and Chhetri will hand him a piece of paper with a number fancy enough to have you read it twice.

Back in the team hotel, everyone bunched around the boss who turned 50 on the day. There was an evident sense of melancholy in the room that stemmed from falling short of handing him the perfect birthday present. Chhetri opened a bottle of champagne, but relied on sleight of hand to mute the pop before filling Cuadrat’s glass and taking a big step back. After running a gaze that measured the gloom, the boss decided he wasn’t taking the muchas gracias route to gratitude. ‘Last season, 29 points were enough to make the play-offs. We have two. We need 27 more and that means nine victories,’ he said, going on to place the back of his hand under his chin and propping it up to suggest he’d seen enough of lowered heads. He then turned his attention to the cake on the table in front of him, carved out a piece and called for Ashique from the back of the room to share the first bite with. Just like that, everyone afforded a smile. The loop was now closed on a night of tactical genius.

Ashique’s moment of weakness wasn’t an error, it was a blunder. But those who’ve been down that path were the first to make sure the boy doesn’t submit to sorrow. There were enough and more hands around his back as the team retreated for the night.

It was going to be okay, and the man who scored on Monday knew this for a fact. Which is why his was one of the first arms around Ashique. Guilty of shooting wide after being slipped through on goal against NorthEast United last week, Udanta walked to the dressing room at half time, mentally preparing himself for what would be a justified hiding. As if on cue, the boss called out his name. But what followed wasn’t something the winger anticipated. ‘Look around you. Every single person in this room believes in you and backs you. You just need to believe in yourself.’ Sometimes all we need is just a little lift, a nod or an arm around us.

At the Dabolim airport the next afternoon, there was a steady stream of people on a treasure hunt of sorts, picking out the boys in blue polo tees for pictures. Children scampered around with pieces of paper for autographs and there were those who took the liberty of sticking their phone screens in Chhetri’s face after having made video calls to friends and family in other cities. In all of this, a gentleman, aware of the result from the previous night, but completely oblivious to the events surrounding it, picked out Ashique of all people to have his query answered.

‘You guys were leading, how did the game end up in a draw?’

‘Someone gave away a penalty in the final seconds of the game, sir.’

The boy took the lessons from his folly, but chose to lose the person that committed it. That’s how moving on is done.

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