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Of Life and Sport

People who are not into sport often look upon us either with contempt or pity as we continue to sweat it out on the football field in the scorching heat of day or, perhaps, under the pouring rain. We are looked upon either as fools out to prove a moot point or maybe as people who brave the elements practicing something which, seemingly, has no practical application in life whatsoever. What, indeed, are we? And why do we bother to do the things that we do?

Life is, indeed, tough in any sport; but we football players seem to get more than our fair share of abuses. In a perfect world, opponents will play by the rules, avoid committing blatant and cynical fouls, behave like Victorian gentlemen and shake hands firmly at the end of each match. But where does this world exist?

Alas, it is not a perfect world at all; and we football players have to deal with unscrupulous opponents who will kick even our ageing grandmothers if it is necessary to win a game. We get kicked; we get hacked; we get spit upon; we get our shirts torn off our backs; we get cursed and insulted.

At the end of each game, even just the simple task of standing on one’s two legs seems colossal; and the most fanciful thoughts are those of a warm bath or shower and the comforting softness of one’s own bed. As we examine our exhausted bodies, we find scratches, bruises, gaping wounds, torn ligaments, lumps and sprains.

And if we are ever so unfortunate to have actually lost a match, we find ourselves struggling to cope with badly bruised egos as well. On top of these, the recuperation periods between matches hardly ever seem enough for us to get over the physical and emotional battering.

A Manchester United player once wryly commented that no football player is ever one hundred per cent fit. Cynical, but true. There is always a throbbing muscle somewhere; perhaps a bruised shin; maybe even a black toenail. It is a life of pain.

Then, there is the training aspect of the game. The legendary Liverpool FC defender Tommy Smith, immortalized at Anfield, was once quoted to have said that the thing he liked best about his club’s obsessive physical fitness training routines was that they made match day the easiest day of the week.

In today’s modern world of football, and of sport in general, the search for the prestige and honour which invariably accompany success has made winning the paramount objective of every sporting endeavour. Those who uphold the virtue of friendship over success probably wallow in mediocrity in the first place and take refuge behind rhetoric.

It follows, therefore, that training routines are devised by many clubs and coaches to simulate the pressures and strains which are encountered in actual match situations. Players, thus, are exposed to stressful situations not only during actual matches but even during ordinary training days. It is a brutal cycle which all players learn to live and cope with.

Yet, why is football such a global phenomenon? How can it elicit so much passion, to the extent that countries have been known to fight wars over it?

“Football is life; and life is hard.” This was a statement I uttered offhandedly at the end of one rigorous training session one day in school. It was not a particularly inspired statement; just one of those things that an experienced coach digs up from his databank of wisdom and then promptly forgets soon afterwards.

But, to one player, a sixteen-year old boy who would soon afterwards die in a macabre vehicular accident, it became a rallying point when aching limbs must have made it so easy to give up the struggle and just take the easy way out and quit the team.

It has since become my team’s battlecry. For what, indeed, is life but exactly that... hard! So simple; and yet so painfully true. For only a fool or an optimist – and many will ask what the difference is – will say that life is easy. Anyone who will pause for a while to be brutally honest with himself will eventually admit that life is, indeed, an uphill struggle all the way.

It is a series of puzzles and a continuous quest for answers. It is a marathon run for endurance and perseverance; and those who fail are culled and fall by the wayside. It is all about setting goals and working one’s way laboriously towards them. It is about overcoming obstacles and beating the odds. It is about survival. That is life... and life is hard!

And so, we are neither pathetic fools nor martyrs when we brave the heat and the rain in the seemingly aimless pursuit of trying to place that quaint-looking black-and-white ball in the back of the net. To us, the essence of sport is not so much the scoring and the winning, which are inconsequential to the true meaning of what we do and aspire for.

Rather, sport is all about encountering obstacles and learning to work one’s way around them. It is about setting goals and pushing one’s self to the brink in order to achieve these goals. It is about coming out on top and giving no less than the best of what one can give. It is about knowing what is right and what is wrong. It is about making decisions without being saddled by doubts as to their foolhardiness. It is about life itself!

That gravelly field that we trod each day, it is not just a football field. It is a microcosm of life itself; and my players are apprentices for the real life in the real world outside the dimensions of the field. There are many who will not survive the rigorous training routines; and just as many who will not be able to provide the commitment, the loyalty, the dedication and the perseverance demanded of them as football players.

Alas, for adolescent kids still struggling to find their true selves, the distractions offered by the world outside of the football field are often too deceivingly attractive to cast aside.

But those who stay will, one day, look upon themselves with pride in their hearts, knowing they had pitted themselves against the odds, called into the forefront the steel within themselves to survive the game of life. In football, as in any sport, it is always a struggle against others, against the elements, against many other things but, above all, a struggle against one’s self.

To come out on top, to beat the odds, to be able to give the best of what one has to offer, to make correct decisions, to learn how to become better men – that is what the great game of football is all about. Millions of footballers around the globe cannot be wrong.

[In the old days, I used to give my players year-end reports partly so they would have mementoes of the year to keep for the rest of their lives and partly so they could also assess their respective parts in the season that just ended. In 1996 or 1997 – I am not entirely certain which year – I decided to write an inspirational piece instead of the traditional year-end report. I had forgotten all about it until one of my former players had his copy – and who would have thought he still has it – scanned and posted on Facebook. It brought back memories. This is made public for all those who played under me at one time or the other and for anyone who took on the joys, the pains and the tribulations of this thing we simply refer to as “sport.”]

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