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Friday, November 1, 2013

Sticks away — time to have a ball — Logan Raj

OCTOBER 31, 2013

OCT 31 — The players were scattered all over the training ground. Their weary bodies and jaded looks were apparent. Volker Knapp, the coach, looked worried.

We were three months into the physically, demanding and mentally exhausting 1998 World Cup training programme. Hockey was becoming a chore — a bore in all honesty. Players were losing their zest and productivity dwindled as days passed by. The only other thing more distasteful than hockey at this juncture, was long, dreary runs around the field.

We lumbered to the middle of the field and circled our coach, awaiting instructions.

He divided us into two teams of 11 and told us to get on with our warm-up. We moved around the field with as much enthusiasm as a kid being fed broccoli and carrots for breakfast… with a hefty dose of cod liver oil prior, to aid digestion. 

After 30 long minutes, we huddled around Volker again, sticks in hand. He told us to leave our sticks on the bench and split up into our respective teams. Volker walked onto the pitch with a slightly deflated football in his hand. He rolled the leathery, spherical article onto the turf, turned and walked away. We gawked and wondered what the hell was happening. Has the coach gone bonkers? One of the players called out to him and asked what was going on?

He looked over his shoulder and said all of two words.

“Bola Sepak! (Football).”

The energy on the pitch shifted instantaneously. Laughter filled the air. Players were zipping from one end to the other like adrenaline-fuelled headless chickens. Defenders and forwards switched roles, bringing no order to the game. Tackles were as loose as brothel women. Everyone thought they were someone else, some unabashedly calling themselves the Cantona and Gerrard of Malaysia.

Players like Mirnawan Nawawi and R. Shankar were impressive footballers. They appeared to know what to do with both ball and feet. Most of us, however, had benches for feet. Some of us — in addition to our bench-shaped feet — had two left legs in the shape of bar stools — sturdy and well-designed, often the provider of much required support for the lovely womenfolk in and around the country, but utterly useless when it comes to controlling and kicking a ball.

We played for two whole hours. No one knew what the score was. No one really cared. We had an amazing time. It was a break from the norm, a welcome distraction. It was also one of the hardest physical sessions we had, but no one really noticed. When you’re having fun, nothing is ever arduous.

The next day, players rushed to the ground, some already wrapped in jerseys of their favourite football clubs. Tactics and match strategies were discussed earlier in the day amongst the senior guys, the casual game of football now a serious battle. 

We grouped around Volker excitedly and awaited his instructions.

“No hockey today, boys!” he yells. We clapped and cheered upon hearing the news.

Volker then smiled and said:

“Today we run for hours. No breaks.”

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malay Mail Online.

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