Sunday August 7, 2011
By DZOF AZMI
Faking falls and wasting precious minutes on the field lose points for a winning team.
ANYBODY who knows me knows I’m a big football fan, so you shouldn’t be surprised that I spent last Saturday making my way to Bukit Jalil Stadium to watch Malaysia play Singapore. What should perhaps surprise you was that I had two children in tow to watch such an intense, passionate game.
Truth is, I want badly to share my passion for football with whoever will give me the time to listen. Since most adults seem to have already made up their minds about how football fits into their life, it makes sense to turn to the kids and start moulding their minds instead.
When I say I want to inculcate in them a passion for the game, it means that I want to get them to the point where they feel the same excitement, the same highs and lows that the game can inspire in me. And no matter how highly defined your television set is, nothing beats being in the middle of a passionate crowd in a game that matters.
And boy, did Malaysia versus Singapore matter. It might only have been the second round of many on a very long road to the World Cup, but there are some games that transcend the obvious remark that “it’s just 22 men chasing a ball on a field”.
Instead of a carnival atmosphere, there was tension in the air. Us against them. Do or die. This, to me, is where football’s dark side rears its ugly head.
It is impossible to separate loyalty in international sports from nationalism. But the depths we plumb to show our loyalty are beyond belief sometimes. We booed the team during the warm-up, we booed them as they came on the field, and then we booed them when their national anthem was being played. Although I can just about accept the first two, the third was unacceptable.
Yet, none of the Malaysian team members on the field reflected this disrespect.
When the game began, there was nothing but vociferous support, and the national team showed the right spirit in return. And when Malaysia scored that goal that brought the team to the brink of the next round, there was pandemonium. Being in that crowd was like being engulfed in a shared feeling of joy.
That was the feeling I was waiting for throughout the whole game. That was the feeling I wanted the boys to feel deep in their hearts. This is why I watch football, that’s what I wanted them to know.
But the heights of ecstasy are only possible when you can plumb the depths of despair. You need to risk the downside of the game in order to appreciate the extreme joys. Unfortunately, that means sometimes things must go wrong.
That’s precisely what happened. Singapore had spent the whole game launching the ball at their centre forward, and for once we had neglected to put two men on him. For once, he managed to flick the ball into the path of his team mate, who then slotted the ball home.
The stadium was silent, shocked at the result. I think the crowd was half-expecting the referee to blow the whistle. Surely there was some mistake. But the mistake was ours.
It was a tall order to expect Malaysia to score twice in 20 minutes. A few of the crowd got up and made their way out the stadium, to avoid the bitter end and the inevitable traffic jams.
I bent down and whispered to my young companions. “A real fan doesn’t stop supporting his team just because they’re losing”. So they stayed on to follow the game to the end, giving support even though the odds were slim. And the team played on with grit up to the end.
I wish I could say that it was against worthwhile opposition. However, the Singapore team was a disappointment in comparison.
At every opportunity, its players would try to slow the game down. Whenever one got a slight push in the back, he would collapse in a heap on the grass, and then would try to delay the game as many minutes as possible writhing around in mock agony.
This was the worst performance of the whole night. As bad as the crowd was in jeering the players, it was the players themselves on centre stage who needed to lead by example. Instead of standing up and playing the game as men, the Singaporeans played the fool, making a mockery of not just themselves, but the entire concept of competitive spirit.
That’s what really disgusted me.
In contrast, the Malaysian team that night were heroes. Yes, as individuals they are flawed, and as a team they’re imperfect, but I think they’re made of the right stuff.
I hope the children with me that night learnt a lesson about the difference between losing with dignity and winning with dishonour.
It’s far too obvious here to state the obvious parallel between our national team and our nation as a whole, about how I hope there are enough a few good men to show the way to a brighter future. Although Malaysia’s supporters walked out of the stadium despondent, they were not in despair.
Although the team did not have much hope of making it past the next round anyway, we must remember that coach Rajgopal’s aim has always been to make it to the 2015 AFC Asian Cup in Australia. The team is still young and the Under-23 squad is still in the running for the Olympics.
By that time, the children who went with me to the stadium will be well into their teens. And I’m sure there’ll be another great game at Bukit Jalil I can watch with them by then.
Logic is the antithesis of emotion but mathematician-turned-scriptwriter Dzof Azmi’s theory is that people need both to make of life’s vagaries and contradictions.