For no good reason

Saturday Night At The Fatorda Could Have Been Much More Than The Goalless Draw It Was. But It Wasn’t. Why? We’ll Always Wonder…

It is way past midnight when he decides to flip the first pages sitting on a chair that’s nestled between a lampshade and a mountain of cardboard boxes. There’s one with a Christmas tree in it, but the mood looks anything but that of mirth. A few chapters in, he moves to the edge of his bed, propped up on his elbow. It’s uncomfortable, but his search for something between those pages is far more overbearing. His mother nimbly walks in with a can of an aerated beverage and a chunky sandwich. She senses it’s going to be a long night. By chapter XVI, he’s made it to another chair, then one that’s drawn to his table and then back to first one, before he finally slams the copy shut and lets out a profanity that we’ve all sought comfort in when things don’t go like we’d want them to.

Bradley Cooper was well within his right to send a hardcover copy of ‘A Farewell to Arms’ through the glass frame of his bedroom window in Silver Linings Playbook. You would too. After close to four hundred pages, Ernest Hemingway did no one a favour by turning what could have been a picture-perfect ending, into an anti-climax that made you want to scramble for a lighter and burn the book. For those of you who haven’t read it, you’re better off.

Saturday night at the Fatorda proved to be bathos of the highest order. It had been a fixture that had been earmarked to become an epic, much before anyone had even put a date to it. We’ll be honest in telling you that we had smacked our lips at the idea of writing The Afterthought for this fixture. It was to be a reunion. It could have even been a homecoming of sorts. And yet it was nothing.

Five thousand miles away, sitting on a couch (and probably moving around from one chair to another) in Catalonia, was a man we had foreseen sharing a hug and a little more with Carles Cuadrat before the battle. It was a moment that we had let our imaginations run wild with for the best part of six months. Chants of ‘Carles Cuadrat’ followed by those of ‘Albert Roca’ in the West Block, even as both men took their seats as adversaries in the dugout. But it quite simply wasn’t to be.

And while destiny took its turn and left the galleries echoing every kick of the pigskin, it did us a small favour by giving us a Roca on the touchline, perhaps for old times’ sake. Or maybe just for poetry. Manuel was no Albert, but he was a Roca alright and Cuadrat greeted him with a warm embrace, much like the one they shared when the two sides met for a pre-season friendly a fortnight ago.

Cuadrat chose to roll out the same men who had imposed and then imploded against FC Goa. As for Hyderabad, the sinners from last season had found salvation this time around and Cuadrat didn’t need more than a friendly and watching them once on television to determine that this team would compete hard through March.

When Gurpreet Singh Sandhu came out to guard his posts, he turned around to tell us how much this moment meant to him. He was in the zone but just had to share what sounded like an eclectic mix of glee, awe and gratitude. He went on to narrate how, as a kid, he would sit in these very stands and watch his idol go through the paces between the frames during national team camps. All these years later, the stadium was the same, Subrata Paul was doing his thing in goal, and now Gurpreet was at the other end. Uncannily enough, Spiderman was the comic chosen to take shape and colour in Sandhu’s sketchbook earlier in the day and a man who went by the same sobriquet clapped his gloves just as the whistle blew.

The intentions were clear. Kristian Opseth was manhandled, tugged at and hauled to the floor on three separate occasions. The Bengaluru dugout stood animated, Cuadrat’s visible and very audible disbelief making its way through the TV screens. It seemed as though the referee’s whistle had been lost, for a moment. We then realised that it was the same one that refused to be heard on a rainy May night in Kanteerava five years ago. Actually, let’s not go there.

On a day when so much was left wanting already, the Blues quickly realised it could have been more. Gurpreet looked straight down the barrel as Aridane Santana nudged Juanan out of the way and aimed a header towards goal. You don’t dodge shots, especially if the man with the trigger is standing four yards away. You merely wait and hope that not enough lead finds its way through to kill you. But that’s only if you haven’t made a career out of keeping yourself alive.

Shifting on feet that were ready to spring, Gurpreet launched himself into the air. It wasn’t so much a dive as it was a drop. In his red and white strip, he had almost looked like a roulette wheel turning in its place. Santana wore the croupier’s gloves and had sent the ball spinning. At that moment, Hyderabad’s target man held every number on the table. But a strong right arm is what it took to send the ball off the wheel, and deny him his winnings.

In a game that was anything but easy on the eye, Hyderabad resorted to strange swipes from distance. It seemed ludicrous that they would think a punt from 30 yards out could beat a man who wouldn’t allow one from point-blank to get past. Santana’s header proved to be an anomaly on a night when, albeit with great battles won and lost in midfield, the ball simply refused to make its way towards the frame of the goal. But there were plans on the wall of the Bengaluru dressing room and Cuadrat was keen on seeing them come to life. Dimas Delgado’s introduction was step one in the process.

His wand had been among the final acts the previous week, but with El Mago’s influence evident on that night, he was given a run out at half-time. With a thigh strapped up and more pre-seasons than some of his teammates had seen birthdays, Delgado began to command. As if having a shoulder to drop wasn’t enough, Delgado’s markers now had to deal with a high pony that danced to his every tune.

Hyderabad tried everything they could to get Dimas off the ball, but it kept finding its way back anyway. We have reason to believe that Delgado can find a needle in a haystack even if it isn’t really there. Slapping it hard to the flank when needed and caressing it enough just to weigh the perfect pass for a teammate on other occasions, Dimas began calling the shots. And when the ball travelled thirty yards forward, it was a Brazilian tasked with the rest of the act.

Cleiton had left lunch to a rather encouraging request from one of the staff at the team hotel. ‘Please score today, sir’ were the words used. With a smile that we now believe he keeps through his slumber, ‘I will try, my friend’ was his response. And try he did. Switching flanks, then chopping and changing every yellow shirt that came his way, the Brazilian was the closest Bengaluru came to breaking the deadlock. But it still wasn’t to be.

Yes, there were signs of life at the death, as the Blues began making inroads, but it wasn’t quite enough. Subrata could have worn a Victorian frock coat through the ninety and walked away without a smudge to show for it. Much like the rising action in A Farewell To Arms, a lot of noise was made and a lot more was expected. When the whistle blew to share the spoils again, there were those seeking answers, some others looking out for those responsible, and some more wanting to know why things happened the way it did. Or, well, why nothing had happened.

Two thousand years ago, Aristotle, in one of his many scrolls, mentioned that ‘everything happens for a reason’. We believe him, we have no reason not to. The drab nil-nil at the Fatorda on a night that was supposed to be so much more, happened for a reason too, we’re sure. But in 1929, a famous American novelist also wrote that ‘there isn’t always an explanation for everything.’ And we believe him too.

We’ll spare you the trouble and tell you it was Hemingway. It’s in his book, but we still don’t want you to read it.