“Oh you make me feel, like I’m alive again!”
– Coldplay, Adventure of a Lifetime
The afternoon sun, which hasn’t yet begun to set behind the hills, paints a perfect picture: its rays amplify the red and brown hues of autumn, and bathe everything in a golden glow. For a change, even the otherwise raucous crows are content to sunbathe lazily in their nests. As the muezzin’s mellow voice fills the air, a few lanky teenagers vault over a rusty gate, and trickle into an empty, rather uneven piece of land. It is only when the ground is cleared of bricks and broken Coke bottles that the boys split up into two teams, set down a tattered grey football, and begin to play.
An astonishing assortment of brightly coloured shirts, shorts and boots begins to move, and the world’s worries and woes are lost in this wonderful whirl of colour. Everyone is dressed in their finest: an original Adidas shirt, a much cheaper Chinese imitation, or even just a simple shalwar kameez. It does not matter, for material things have lost importance. Far over one of the rickety goalposts, you catch sight of a glimmering tower of steel and glass that contrasts jarringly with the natural beauty of the hills behind it. At Islamabad’s premier shopping mall, which has recently introduced an expensive entry ticket, everyone does not cannot feel as welcome as they do here.
The game is becoming congested and untidy. As in a game of chess, victory is determined by strategic control of the space available to both sides. On the offensive, space must be explored, exploited. On the back foot, it must be closed down. Good players look for space; great players create it.
“Beya,” you call. It is all the Pashto you know, but it is enough to transcend a world of differences. Ajmal has the ball in the centre. He turns with consummate grace, defenders snapping at his heels. He shifts the ball from one foot to the other, effortlessly evading a lunging tackle: “La Croqueta” – improvised by Laudrup; immortalised by Iniesta.
He passes and the ball arcs through the air, heading your way. Suddenly, something strange happens. The world goes quiet, until the only sound you can hear is of your own deep breathing. The ball grows and grows until it is the only thing in your sight. Your pounding heart beats even faster. Adrenaline courses through your veins. You feel a knot in your stomach, and a rising sense of panic that makes it difficult to think clearly. This is fear, primal and potent. The ball speeds towards you, spinning rapidly. The ground is uneven – every crack and contour seems suddenly magnified. There are too many variables. It could bounce anywhere. You are off balance, and rushing towards you is a thick-skulled defender who would be happy to admit that he finds the whole idea of gratuitous violence quite thrilling, to be very honest. If you hesitate you will get tackled, and probably very badly hurt. If you miscontrol or lose possession you will embarrass yourself, and demonstrate to the world your ineptitude. But you realise that there is something you fear much more than failure in an individual capacity – it is the seemingly inevitable prospect of disappointing your team-mates, of betraying their trust and belief in you. You thus learn an important lesson about leadership, and the pressures concomitant with responsibility.
If you afford these dark thoughts the respect they so brazenly demand, they can prove to be self-fulfilling. But at the back of your mind, another voice makes itself heard: meek yet unwavering, insistent that it be granted credence. You close your eyes, and open them to find a little schoolboy still in his uniform, standing in front of a wall with a ball at his feet. He seeks escape, from the boys at school and the weight of the world. The little boy kicks the ball, and when it hits the wall the sound echoes around the house, drowning out the argument in the living room. Brittle beige chips break away and fall to the floor. He struggles to bring the ball under control when it comes back to him. It is challenging and more than a little frustrating, but he perseveres nonetheless.
“Le contrôle est très important,” Zidane says, very seriously.
The little boy is learning a valuable lesson, that sometimes in life one must act with blind faith, confident that hard work and dedication will eventually pay dividends.
So now you let go, and give yourself up completely. And in surrender you discover serenity. The defender rushes towards you, and you let him. You relax, waiting for the ball to come to you. All the time in the world. Hours of assiduous practice kick in. Guided almost by divine instruction, you caress the ball and it falls lightly to the floor, out of the floundering defender’s reach.
“C’est magnifique,” Zidane says approvingly, smiling into the camera.
Language, it is said, is a hallmark of civilization. Yet after so many shared emotional experiences – of collective hope, heartbreak, despair, delight and tears both of mirth and misery – words can seem so woefully inadequate: so prosaic and powerless. When you play, you experience again and again that magical feeling familiar to all of us: of being able to look in someone’s eyes and know exactly what they are thinking, like looking at a best friend and seeing them struck by the same hilarious thought, or staring into the eyes of a loved one and seeing a twinkling within. Your relationship with your teammates is based on a similarly telepathic understanding; you know where Hassan is going to be before he’s even there. You play through to him a perfect pass, wonderfully weighted. Euphoria surges through you, washing away the pain in your legs.
A sudden explosion of unrestrained joy knocks you out of your reverie. As you celebrate with your teammates you are embraced by Hamza, the goal scorer. Like many others, his family left everything behind when they crossed the Durrand Line in search of security. But the grin on Hamza’s face tells you that right now he too is in a different place. Outward differences of language, ethnicity and nationality, and inward ones of morals, opinions and beliefs all cease to exist – in this magical moment, you are all bound by a bond stronger than blood.
The shadows are lengthening. Jesting calls from your side to end the match are instantly drowned out by the losing team’s protesting cries. Eventually though, the onset of darkness forces you to stop playing. A circle is formed, and otherwise reticent boys exchange stories as they stretch. There is a subdued silence as one of the boys discusses the strain an older brother’s drug addiction has taken on his family. It strikes you that perhaps a passion for sport has saved him from a similar fate. You pull on your jeans, put your boots in your bag and shake hands with everyone. One of the older players offers to drop you home on his motorcycle. In the darkness, the light cast by a cell phone glances off a silver cross that hangs around his neck. You walk out together.