So close, no matter how far

Eleven Millimetres, Two Points, 0.01 Seconds. Semboi’s Shot At The JN Stadium Could Have Crept In And Hit the Net, It Could Have Rolled Along The Goal Line And Spun Home, It Could Have Even Made Its Way Back To The Striker Or Gone Out Of Bounds And Qualified As A Complete Miss. But, In Pure Sadistic Fashion, It Chose The One Route That Leaves Us Ruing The Margins…

Eleven millimetres on a winter’s day in Manchester had decided the direction in which English Football’s biggest prize would move later that summer. In the run-up to what was the most valiant finish to a League campaign in the history of the sport in the country, John Stones had managed to hack the ball away when its shadow had already crossed the goal-line against Liverpool at the Etihad Stadium in January 2019.

Also playing a part in the clearance was club groundsman, Lee Jackson, a lifelong City fan who has worked at the club for over a quarter of a century. His freshly cut blades of grass were watered just enough to ensure that the ball bounced only as high as it must for Stones to slice away with Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane ready to pounce.

It ended 2-1 to City that night, consigning Liverpool to their only defeat of a campaign that saw the title tilt by just one point. And we won’t stop at football.

The field was a court, the goals were rings and the clock had been stopped at 4.2 seconds in the final quarter when the Philadelphia 76ers and Toronto Raptors faced each other in Game 7 of the East Conference semifinal last year. Philadelphia’s Jimmy Butler had tied the scores at 90 apiece with a driving layup, and Toronto called for a timeout to draw up a play. The arena lights were ready for overtime, but Kawhi Leonard had other plans.

Spaniard Marc Gasol played it over to Leonard as the Sixers organized themselves at the back. Leonard, turning his marker and racing across the three-point line, attempted a 15-foot fadeaway from the corner over Joel Embiid. Twenty thousand people stood as Leonard followed his shot with a crouch.

The timer had read 0.6 seconds when his toes left the floor, 0.4 when the ball left his hands and the buzzer had already sounded when it finally landed on the rim. Leonard watched as bounced off the rim and to the top of the backboard, before landing on the rim again and bouncing on the other side twice before finally tipping over to give the Raptors a two-point victory. It was the first winning buzzer-beater in a Game 7 in NBA history. And we’re not done just yet.

Before winning six medals at the 1985 Jakarta Asian Championships, PT Usha had lost the final of the 400-meter hurdles at the 1984 Summer Olympics. Ask her today and we reckon she’ll trade every medal she won in Indonesia for the one she lost in Los Angeles. In the all-important final at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, Usha finished in fourth place with a time of 55.42 seconds, behind Romania’s Cristieana Cojocaru by 1/100th of a second. That’s not 0.1 seconds – that’s 0.01 seconds. It isn’t common, but it happened twice that day as Swedish Ann-Louise Skoglund finished 0.01 seconds behind Usha in fifth place.

If sport has taught us anything, it’s that the thicker the plot, the thinner its margins. What determines whether there are tears on the floor of a dressing room or champagne on its ceilings are the finest of lines – as Carles Cuadrat’s Bengaluru learned at the Nehru Stadium. Long before their trip to Chennai, there were instances – a sombrero gone wrong in Goa, a momentary lack of concentration in Hyderabad, a claim that never was in Mumbai, to name a few – that had pegged the Blues back on the charts. There were very few grains of sand left in the boss’ hands, and another blip on the road effectively meant the tornado.

As if their target for the night had not been made clear enough in wildly animated pre-match meetings, a bus that had the word ‘WIN’ plastered across rolled up to pick the Blues up from the team hotel.

Secretly, we were pining for this piece to be one that Erik Paartalu anchors. It was set up perfectly for the Australian. Long before he could muster the patience to grow a beard and maintain a man bun, Paartalu had come up against Owen Coyle in Scotland fourteen Octobers ago, in what was his professional debut as a footballer.

Turning out for Gretna against St. Johnstone, Big E chose to mark the occasion with a goal in a game that ended 3-3. It was a season that would go down to the last minute of the final day. Tied on points at the top of the Scottish First Division table after St. Johnstone had the lead elsewhere, Gretna scored in injury-time forcing the chopper heading to St. Johnstone with the trophy, to make a dramatic U-turn mid-air and leave the spoils with Paartalu’s side.

A whole fourteen years later, the two men were up against each other once again. Of course, the equation wasn’t anywhere as nearly intense as it was in 2006 and there were no helicopters taking detours, but there was a top-spot at stake.

Even if we took Coyle, Gretna and St. Johnstone out of the equation, there was still enough reason to want Paartalu to succeed on the night. It was in this fixture last season that the Australian suffered an injury that consigned him to the galleries while his mates went to battle for the ultimate prize in the final. But our headlines, hopes, and largely our greed, were all denied.

We’re beginning to think Suresh Wangjam will see his entire childhood pass by without getting his hands on that toy he so badly wants. But who would blame us for not lending a hand? Like a bull at the famous encierro in Pamplona, Wangjam clipped at every ankle and tugged at every shirt that came his way. Shifting from one white shirt to another, we’ve nicknamed him El Torito, though his intentions are to heckle and rarely malevolent.

Out on the sidelines was Chhetri, who couldn’t help but play every pass and nod every header from the uncomfortable confines of the Bengaluru dugout. The skipper pranced about in the technical area until S&C Coach Mikel Guillen marched him to a patch of turf behind the goalposts on the premise that he would be warming up. For Chhetri, who was carrying a muscle strain that required him to miss the game as a precaution, moving relatively further away from the action didn’t mean much. He peeled away from his teammates in bibs and watched closely with his elbows clamped down on the advertising boards.

But a game that had largely bloated about with little intention of giving us a headline act came to sudden life in a matter of minutes in the second half. The Blues had stayed compact and concrete at the back until Rafael Crivellaro found himself in a rare patch of space down the right. One open door had coincided with another, as the Brazilian lifted his gaze to find his Maltese teammate unmarked in the box. Picking him out with the finest of passes, Crivellaro handed Andre Schembri the duty to poke it home. Gurpreet, making himself as big as he could, got a touch to the striker’s clip allowing Bheke to shut the door behind him and hack away. In real-time, it was a clearance and nothing more. But upon dissection, it was a tip of his glove, awareness from Albert Serran to not get a frantic touch, and immaculate positioning from Bheke that got the ball away from danger.

Bengaluru had been on the ropes in that second but showed Chennaiyin how they too were living dangerously just moments later. Juanan, stepping up and into midfield, made an interception and then curled a delightful pass forward that sent Eli Sabia and Lucian Goian spiralling into the turf beneath them. Semboi surged down the middle with Vishal Kaith and the frame of the goal at his mercy. The stadium froze in that second, as Chennaiyin fans bit their nails out and the Blues’ faithful felt their brows rise as muscle memory.

We felt the moment play out in ultra-slow motion as Semboi took a touch that was arguably unnecessary, and sent Kaith the wrong way with his shot. The ball, as if destined not to hit the target, turned in its trajectory and came back into play off the upright. Semboi sank his face into the turf as Chhetri vented his frustration through the bib he was wearing. As the cameras zoomed away from the skipper’s forlorn figure, it saw the boss urging the boys to keep going. ‘Survival’s the name of the game’ said John Helm, and quite aptly.

At the Changlimithang Stadium just a few days earlier, Semboi had struck the Blues’ only goal on an afternoon in which temperatures dipped beneath three degrees on the Celsius scale. Wheeling his way to the dugout and to his boss, the striker drew the frame of the goal with his hands for a celebration. Cuadrat’s message to Semboi had been to go for the target, and that all else would fall in place. It did in Bhutan, but as it had on so many other occasions this season, the smallest of inches in Chennai meant the Blues came away with lesser than they had pined for.

Strangely, the dressing room after the game wasn’t the cauldron you’d expect it to be. Chances to finish atop the table were squandered along the way, and Sunday night in Chennai was possibly the final straw. The boss could have been kicking things around and you’d pass it off as the fairest reaction to disappointment. Yet, when it mattered the most, he chose to stay on the right side of a fine margin.

In trading anguish for calm and compassion, he made sure that there was no slip into an abyss when there was a title to retain. He turned to the man who came so close to winning his side the game. ‘Semboi, that action was good – you made the right run and tried. You gave us victory in Bhutan, and we hope that you help us again on Wednesday when Paro come to the Kanteerava.’ On Wednesday night, Haokip answered grace with a goal glut.

‘Football is about dynamics’, Cuadrat had said to the press ahead of their trip to Chennai. ‘When you are winning, everything is good. But with every win, you are that much closer to defeat. For every game in which you do not score, you are closer to the one in which you will.’ The boss’ words played out like clockwork as Chennaiyin’s winning streak came to a halt and Semboi’s four-goal haul rewrote the record books just three days later.

For the best part of two seasons in the League, Bengaluru had flirted incessantly with finer margins and always ended on the right side. At one point, Cuadrat’s Blues had become friends with 2-1 victories, sniffing out even the most remote corners of impossibility to force their way through to the top in campaigns that required of them only to finish in the top four. But football will always be about dynamics and the Blues will do well to use dejection as a trampoline that will lift them to the top, albeit that of the podium. Because, for now, nothing else matters.

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