It’s New Year’s Eve and everybody is dancing and having a great time. I tried dancing, but I don’t feel like it tonight. I sit on the side steps and watch my friends enjoy. I can only think about one thing. I am taken back to the start of the semester, to the thing that has defined my year.
At the start of the semester in August, the hopes and confidence of our Football team were on a high. And why not? The team reached the Quarter Finals last year, performing very well in the match. Add to that already successful squad, 3 senior players returning, new talented newcomers joining in, no player going out and the others gaining experience of the Inter IIT Sports Meet. We knew we had a real chance this time.
A couple of weeks into the semester, our most prolific goal scorer, our winger, Rajat fractured his leg badly. Out of the tournament. Well, we can cope up with that, we thought. For the first time, there was going to be cut throat competition for making it to the squad, let alone the playing 11. We changed our formation, got other players practicing for that position. Meanwhile, the groups got declared. We had Kharagpur, Indore and Mandi in our group. That was good news. We almost held KGP to a draw last time, conceding only in the dying minutes. Indore and Mandi have never been very good, we should beat them. Quarter Finals almost certain. Great team on paper. Let us take a step further. Let’s get a team medal for IITGN.
As October came, our energy levels were high after the mid-semester break, and everyone looked up towards the pre Inter IIT training camp. Bang! We lost our center-back, our best defender, our Captain – Parag. I am a Goal Keeper or rather Parag has made me a GK. Forget diving, kicking and punching, he even taught me how to catch a ball and now I was supposed to play without my coach, my commanding center defender. Even though he is a defender, he scored goals for us, helping the midfield and attack. He was our leader on the field. Could we cope up with that? Impossible. We had options, but Parag is indispensable. Another change in the team. Heads were now down. Couple of weeks later, another defender, Ankit broke his shoulder. The depth of the squad depleted.
We picked ourselves up. We still had a very good team, we could still do it. We chose our squad, which looked balanced and capable. As December came, we had 10 days to practice and get ready. We had to go to DAIICT to practice, our ground is half the size of a full football field, not good enough. There are too many holes in it, so we had to fill it up with sand with our hands to prevent unnecessary injuries. It was difficult to wake up early in the morning in the winters and the sessions were grueling at times, tough on the body. On the breakfast table, everybody used to be tired, but the Football team has never been short of entertainers. We were refreshed by Naaji’s singing, Aditya’s hugs, Zaaki’s comments, Sancheti aka Baba’s talk and several other things that are best left unsaid. These have been the best moments of my 4 year journey at this place.
With two days to leave, Adarsh – our better side defender, fractured his toe. On such a short notice, no replacement could be made. Luck wasn’t on our side, was it? Nevertheless, he travelled with us. In the last training session, 8 out of our 17 players had injuries, they couldn’t even take the field that day. 3 out of the remaining 9 were not fully fit. We could sense that the times ahead were to be tough. A day before the match against KGP, I asked Adarsh: “How is your toe?” He replied: “I have come to play and I want to play. Their players do not know that I am injured. So, I can play.” We knew KGP, they have the best wingers and we needed Adarsh and he did what he’s best at: tackle them, hit them.
Now, Hydar is one of our best players. He loves playing attacking midfield, but since we were short on defenders, he came back to play side-back. He walked up and said: “Mujhe Center-Back khilao. Last year KGP ne bahut cross dale the, Parag cleared them. This time I will do it. (Let me play Center- back. Last year, KGP sent many crosses, Parag cleared them. This time I will do it.)” We asked with suspicious thoughts: “Hydar, tujhe midfield khelna tha na? (Hydar, didn’t you want to play midfield?)” He replied: “Fir kabhi, abhi team needs me to play center-back” We all knew that his dream to play ahead and score goals might never come true and yet he sacrificed his dream, to do the right thing. He performed exceptionally well and teams found it extremely difficult to get past him.
We were greeted in Mumbai by Rajeev, two years our senior, working in Pune, Captain of the team two years back. He had specially come to Mumbai from Pune just to watch our matches. Other alumni – Rahul, Atharva, Shyamal and Monica also came and their presence eased our anxieties considerably, lightening the mood and taking us back to the time when we were new. The tournament kicked off and we cleared the group comfortably. Our Quarter Finals was now against Guwahati. They had beaten Delhi by 3 goals (who had been the Finalists for the last 3 years) and drawn against Madras and Mumbai. They were on a roll.
We started the match very well, but conceded a goal somehow. 1 – 0 down and then, we played the best football of our life. Ojas beat the keeper twice, gaping at an open goal, but the ball just went out of his reach, he couldn’t score. They started panicking, clearing, shouting, unable to control the ball. Our midfielders did not let them keep the ball. A couple of through balls almost got converted. A shot clipped the cross-bar, went out. They counter attacked, our defenders stopped them mid-way, pushed up, we wanted an equalizer, we wanted to win. We took a shot, their keeper fumbled only to hold it in time from our incoming striker. They were taken aback. This was not happening, a new IIT was not supposed to attack them, this was supposed to be easy for them. We got a free-kick. Ojas walked up and took a shot. The ball hit the cross-bar yet again, went out. The final whistle blew. We lost, out of the tournament, whereas Guwahati went on to win the Silver medal.
My last match for IITGN and what a farewell did we final year students get (5 of us). The ten men in front of me in that match, a lot of them injured, were like a house on fire. For the 1st time that I have seen, has an old IIT defended more than they attacked against a new one. We wanted to win a medal and in spite of several severe setbacks, we again almost made it. I couldn’t hold back the tears. Joy, hugged me, told me: “Harsh, 4th year me hai. Itna acha khele. Rone ki kya baat hai? (Harsh, you are in the 4th year. We played well. What is there to be sad about?)” Teary eyed, all I could say was: “4th year hai isliye toh, ab fir chance nahi milega. (It is because this is our 4th year, now we won’t get this chance)”
Coming back to the present moment, I could still feel the loss. I could still feel the ball beating me and going into the net. I wish I had saved it somehow. I could still see the ball dipping and hitting their cross-bar. I came back to my room, leaving the celebrations and I knew that I had to write this article down right now, that this is a long time coming. This is my love and respect towards my team-mates, present and past, who have given me some great moments, to cherish forever. This is my gratitude to all the graduating players, who have worked tirelessly to take their respective sport to a higher level, who have seen the same dreams that I have seen and who have undergone the same disappointment that I have undergone. Finally, this is a call to all the players, who will play next year. Go out there and play to win! You won’t get many chances and what hurts the most is losing your Last Chance.