Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The South Asia Int'l School Association (SAISA) Football 2007 Tournament

I'm just back from Delhi where our Lincoln School boys won the SAISA football/soccer tournament for the first time in Lincoln's history.

As you can imagine, the boys were beyond thrilled late Sunday afternoon, as the day dimmed in New Delhi, when they finally won a youthful triumph that had eluded their friends & local heroes at Lincoln for the past decade. For each of them winning a SAISA championship was reaching the languid, welcoming arms of championship heaven, at last.

For some of them, like Josh, Tim, Sudip and Narayan, the result was especially sweet, as their beloved Lincoln teams had already lost to Dhaka in the SAISA volleyball and basketball finals this year.

This year, starting with their first stunning win over Delhi on Friday morning, our boys steadily advanced to the final winning all of their games along the way. One by one, they knocked off each team they faced, keeping a 'clean sheet' (no goals against them) in every game except for the one goal they conceded to Lahore late in the semi-final -- when it really didn’t matter. Until, at last, unexpectedly, feverishly, relentlessly, against a team that was expected to dominate them, they beat the favored, much bigger and, possibly, over-confident Dhaka Tigers football team.

There is no doubt, for those of us there to see, these Lincoln boys wanted it, really wanted it. They had trained well and wisely. With their coaches, Jerome and Luke, they started each game with gentle exercises and an analysis of their opponent before joining each other in a sacred circle, arms around each other, raising their fever, their tempo and their exultation in their abilities. Then, sixty exhausting minutes later, they finished every game with a team review session. As they sat quietly away from the pitch, they selected different stretches to ease their muscle aches as they rated their own performances (usually with a modest 7.5), and commented, with humor and gentle teasing, on their individual strengths and mistakes during the previous game.

They knew when they beat Lahore in the morning 1-0, and then learned that Dhaka had beaten Delhi 4-0 on the other pitch, that the late afternoon game against Dhaka would be the biggest game of their young lives. Yet their spirits were calm. As a team, they always know how to keep their sense of friendly humor, constantly teasing each other and never, never letting any one person’s ego rise above the team’s collective intention to win.

At 4 pm, they were on the pitch, dressed in their road red uniform, warming up and concentrating on the moments ahead. Jerome and Luke gave them their final words of encouragement and to the Tibetan chant of “Chik Ne Tsum!!”, the boys gave their official war cry, “LINCOLN!!” that echoed around the pitch. Then eleven proud young men from Kathmandu quietly took their field positions.

With their friends and peers in the stands to cheer them on, the referee blew his whistle, the clock moved and the SAISA 2007 football final began. Lincoln won the first ball, but a short back pass was awkwardly misplayed and a brief doubt crossed the mind. Yet, that sudden flicker of nerves passed quickly while Lincoln kept to their game plan. They moved the ball well in the center, controlling the pace of the game -- although losing many of the goal kicks or headed balls to Dhaka’s taller players, but then quickly, with a few touches at mid-field, stealing the ball back from Dhaka and continuing to control the ball on the ground.

Like calm professionals, our teenage Lincoln boys played as a true team, talking to each other and encouraging themselves on. Adish, Josh and Tim were excellent in mid-field, setting the tempo of the game and taking their time to carefully pass the ball among the open players. Suraj and Dechen kept control of the side wings by racing up the pitch to create opportunities. Tenzin, the lone striker up front, roamed the open field for sudden opportunities. Behind them, Sudip, Yurop, Silash and Yontan formed a formidable, usually impenetrable defense allowing Ez, Lincoln’s starting goalie since 7th grade, fewer serious challenges at the mouth of the goal.

At half time, thirty minutes gone, the game was tied 0-0, to Dhaka's surprise. But, LS wanted this victory, they wanted this SAISA trophy, they wanted this more than anyone else at this SAISA tournament.

Starting the second half, LS again took control of the ground game and were attacking Dhaka persistently; however, no clear shots and no goals. Yet, they kept coming and coming. Finally, with time slipping past, three minutes before the end of the game, Tenzin made a great run to goal with a beautiful patiently timed & placed pass from Joshua from about 40 m. out. But, Tenzin may have waited a second too long and a big Dhaka defender tackled him from behind sweeping down both Tenzin & the ball. Tenzin fell hard and immediately the referee called a foul in the penalty box.

From a distance, we couldn't really tell if it was a serious foul, as the defender seemed to get his foot on the ball, as well. But whether he brought Tenzin down first, then the ball, only the non-existent instant replay can say. But, as we know, winning sometimes means that the g-ds are on your side and those instantaneous, passionate calls go your way. In this case, it was the ref's call and he pointed to the spot meaning only one thing in the beautiful game, "penalty!!"

Three minutes to play and advantage Lincoln.

But, to our equal chagrin, Tenzin stayed on the ground, even after the penalty was called and then five minutes later still lying on the ground was stretchered off, Lincoln's only striker out of the game with extra time looming large.

With Tenzin out of the game, Tim, the team’s captain, quietly lined up the penalty kick, stood to look carefully at his target, then WHAM his kick hit the crossbar at the top of the goal but richocheted immediately into the net. GOAL!!! With the football g-ds on our side, again! The boys, as you can imagine, went wild with the flush of anticipation as the clock continued to count down the final seconds.

Then, as the Lincoln boys were jumping and cheering, the Dhaka coach quickly yelled at his team to put the ball in the center circle and start the play. Without a clear signal from the referee to restart the game, and with most of the LS players still on the Dhaka side of the pitch, Dhaka suddenly whacked the ball down the field just as Ez was set ting up with only two unprepared defenders in front of him. Making a slight move to evade one Lincoln defender, the Dhaka striker, got a weak kick off that bounced past Ez and dribbled painfully into the net.


With now less than a minute left in the game and Lincoln's first SAISA football trophy seemingly in hand, the score was suddenly tied again. The LS players & coaches were going wild with anger. They didn't want to start the game again as they felt that Dhaka has clearly bent the rules (or ignored them...) in a cheap trick to try to win. The crowd started booing and the game seemed out of control. The refs brought the coaches to the center of the pitch to discuss the situation while the wiser LS team heads tried to calm themselves down, realizing that there was no way that the refs would change the course of the game or take back the Dhaka goal. When the Delhi coach came over the told the crowd that 'we don't 'boo' as SAISA games.', the booing switched to "Go Lincoln!! Go Lincoln!! Go Lincoln!!"

Finally, with a raw anger and frustration in the air, the refs re-started the game and the last minute of time quickly ran out. After 87 minutes of a 0-0 score line, it was 90 minutes full time over now Lincoln vs. Dhaka 1-1 with added time now needed to determine the SAISA winner.

The LS kids were going nuts in their 'shamiana' tent, yelling, swearing, punching chairs and letting out their agonized pain after having come so close to a final SAISA football victory. But, Jerome and Luke did their best to bring the boys' open emotions back to the game at hand. They held them, soothed them, reinvigorated them and brought them back to the real reason they were in Delhi: to win this SAISA championship. It took some time, but, again, the true leaders of the team stepped forward and brought the team back to their center of their concentration.’’

Back on the pitch, the clock set at five minutes of overtime for each side. Lincoln lifted their heads, stared at the goal and pushed themselves further than they thought they would have to go. There wasn’t an exhausted body or soul among them. The wait for Tenzin’s injury, the time needed to restart the game, then the break before the extra time had given them the rest they needed. The sense of disenfranchisement and anger that their honestly won victory was being taken away from them ennobled their spirits and concentration.

But the first five minutes went by with Lincoln again attacking without a clear result. Their passes were good, but the finishes not clean and the Dhaka defenders kept Lincoln from a clear shot on the goal. Time evaporated and only five more minutes of extra time were left.

Of course, the mind moved to the possibility of a penalty shoot-out if no one scored in the extra time. Ezra was likely the best goalie of SAISA, but the Dhaka strikers were big, strong and would no doubt be determined. Lincoln’s best striker was out injured (with what would be determined later that evening to be a cracked radial bone in his left hand). Lincoln’s strength this year was not in its strikers, but its formidable defense and determination. Those, unfortunately, mattered less in the sudden death of a penalty shoot-out.

The whistle blew and the game began again. No time for future thought. The present was enough to manage. Emotions were still high from the tension of the angry scenes around the pitch a few minutes earlier. It was time to concentrate on the ball, the movement of the ball, the passing, the smooth swift strokes, the threatening legs surrounding yours, patience please to find your fellows in red and the wide spaces of the open goal on the other side of the distant pitch.

Yet, the ball kept shifting up and down the pitch, hugging the sidelines, bouncing into the center, time passing and the pressure growing. Then, a sudden burst, quick movements with Lincoln pushing the ball down the pitch, a long pass, a fearful Dhaka response and the ball sailed over their goal line: corner kick!

Silash lined up the ball with the scoreboard over his head showing less than three minutes left. All eyes were on the scrum of players jostling in front of the goal for position; most of the Lincoln players having pushed up by the penalty box to battle for the corner. Then, quietly, almost serenely, Silash gave the ball a subtle gentle push out of the corner to Tim standing unmarked 15 meters away. Wham! Almost beyond belief, the orb was in the back of the net. The feint having worked; the Dhaka goalkeeper was caught off-guard as Tim swiftly stroked the ball into the left side of the net. GOAL!!! GOAL!!! GOAL!!!

Pandemonium broke out among the Lincoln team, the coaches and their almost unanimous supporters in the stands. A surge of adrenaline, excitement and wonder at the nature of such unexpected, unplanned, unfettered joy. Yet, a wariness from recent experience meant no one needed to tell the Lincoln kids to rush back on defense.

But Dhaka seemed lost, possibly disillusioned by the way that they had tied the game a few minutes earlier. Their spirit was gone. They had the height, the reputation, the powerful legs, but they had lost their will and their desire. The last two minutes ebbed away as Lincoln stood in front of their goal like their native soil. No one was going to pass and nothing was going to enter.

This game was Lincoln’s and everyone knew it. Tim’s goal had sealed the victory on the pitch, in their hearts and in the minds of everyone who had watched. This SAISA was Lincoln’s. For the first time in SAISA history -- the only history that counted for these boys on that day -- the SAISA football championship was going home to Kathmandu, where it belonged for 2007.

How sweet it was. How very sweet it was…

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