I have never been a fan of Brazilian football, even when their greats played together while I was still a kid. Maybe I did not observe enough or probably did not like aligning with the heavyweights. World Cup 2018 was proving to be far more eventful than any previous edition, as it kept on throwing surprises for the spectators on a daily basis. Brazil played against Mexico on 2nd July, my bet was on Ochoa and his men. There were no surprises this time out as the Canaries had won it 2-0, with considerable ease. My mother seemed happy with their win. She was asking the names of the new faces in her favourite team. She knew Pele and that was a long time ago, must not have got free time to update herself. She was equally interested for the next match that was going to be aired. What excited her was a piece from that day’s newspaper, which discussed about the chances of the only Asian team still alive in the competition. It was the round of sixteen, Japan playing Belgium at the Rostov Arena of Russia, the same day when Mexican waves rested.
This is a story of disappointments. Also a story of how there is an innate quality in a few to be with the underdogs, at every walk of their lives.
Portugal, the team I supported was already sent home after conceding a damning defeat to the Uruguayans. What lied ahead was to stand against the tide, to support the underdogs in expectance of a surprise, for them to be the dark horses. Dinner was done, my mother joined me for the match. Her nap time roughly matches with that of a typical university student. Comfortably seated in my cushioned sofa, stretching my legs onto the adjacent teapoy with a water bottle at my right hand’s reach, I was positioned perfectly for the first half of the match. I lacked the luxury of having a football enthusiast to discuss the live match with, the strategies of both coaches, refereeing mistakes and such interesting details. I had the company of my mother, her priceless reactions even when the shots went flying beyond the bar, into the stands, sufficient to keep the excitement going.
Japanese fans had already won over the world’s hearts with their post-match practice of cleaning out stadiums, wherever they had been to. It had impressed my mother too. Although she doesn’t recognise many players, she was no less a fan of sports in general and football in particular. Cleaning is not a gendered task at home, similar was the case of the Japanese. I felt a weird connection at this moment of realisation, a distorted random sloganeering fading away. Workers of the world unite! Such a universal character football had, uniting people globally. Among the hues of these thoughts, the match had kicked off.
It was Belgium who started the proceedings but the initial minutes were surprisingly owned by a relatively weaker side of Blue Samurais, as the Japanese football team are fondly called. The golden generation of the Red Devils, which needs no introduction, were not able to stamp their authority yet. By the time the game had reached the half hour mark, Belgians had found their footing. They were already beginning to threaten the Japanese goal face. It came to an end with the half time whistle, just after Courtois fumbled on a rather powerless dab inside the box. Both of us, myself and my mother, had no moments of joy although I liked the way the Belgians were playing offensively. But we were watching a team game and the respect granted was mutual between the opponents. We felt like we were the sole supporters of Japan, the underdogs, apart from the gentle Japanese nationals. Things were going to get spiced up in the second half, which we knew very little about during the break.
A beautiful through ball which Vertonghen missed to cut out was received at the right flank by Haraguchi. He allowed the ball to roll towards the goal and his shot went past the right palm of the Belgian giant in a flash. It’s a goal! My jubilant mother clapped in both shock and ecstasy. It took everyone by surprise, the same way Courtois would have felt when his defence let out an open passage for the ball to get into the box. Second half started with a high and it was sustained with a second Japanese goal in quick succession. A nudge back on to Inui who was well outside the Belgian box, delivers a shot which reminds you of the likes of Gerrard or Riise. My mother was convinced that the Belgians had no chance now. A knock out game of football, in alien conditions, two goals down, it seemed very unlikely that the Red Devils could overturn such bad odds.
The game had turned cold as the Samurais sat back and defended. They countered at will until Belgium made a double change. Fellaini in for Mertens and Chadli in for Carrasco. The shift in the dynamic of the game was obvious. Very soon Belgians got their first return goal, courtesy Vertonghen. A looping header slowly descended into the goal over the head of the Japanese goalkeeper. In as much time Japan got their second goal, Belgians got theirs too. With a few dribbles just outside the left flank of Japanese box, Hazard successfully launched a left footed cross deep into the box. It was met by the obvious target of Fellaini with his head. Goal! All the excitement the Japanese had acquired via the initial goals was dissipated in no time by these two headers. The heavyweights were again winning, it was disheartening. I had told you, this is a story of disappointments. But the last nail on the coffin took some time to arrive, I mean, took a long time.
It was levelled out for anyone to plough and take the yield home. The cracker seeds were sown, enough sweat to nourish them and the whole world waiting to see who is going to ignite the final spark. Both teams rained in shots and headers, knocking at the gates relentlessly. The gate keepers were resilient enough to not let anything go past them. But the most brilliant moment in football for me came in the last minute of the stoppage time. This is my answer why this particular game is one of the greatest football match I saw live, for the moment of courage at the last significant minute before the final whistle.
One minute to go in the stoppage time, the Asians gained a corner in the Belgian half and then chose to do something, which in hindsight might have been the decisive moment of the game. They chose to go for the kill. Ignoring the obvious physical and aerial advantage the Belgians had, they thought this might be their opportunity to nick it at the end. Unfortunately for them, Courtois collected the corner ball as if that was easiest thing he has ever done and casually rolled it on to the feet of Kevin De Bruyne, who was darting through the middle. He ran through the centre, dissecting the midfield, dribbled towards the goal and passed the ball to the already advancing Meunier on the right flank. He poked in a rather weak ball into the box for Lukaku who had made his way inside. He was in company of a Japanese defender but with his bodily might, he could have possibly got it past the goal line with a smart touch. But then, he does something which was very unlikely of a striker. He lets go of the opportunity of glory, of possibly scoring the winning goal. He did not even attempt to make a contact but leaves the ball on its trajectory for Chadli, who might have well been surprised, but neatly strikes for a winning goal. I was rather awestruck with what Lukaku did than being disappointed with my team losing it right at the end. It was all over, another round of sixteen exit for the Blue Samurais. They were brave and fearless, won hearts just like their travelling fans did.
To leave the ball the way Lukaku did in that final moment, it takes courage and confidence to do that. He probably had the vision of a rather unprepared Chadli running behind his back. Remember, the fortunes of Belgium’s advancement to the Quarterfinals rested on that decision Lukaku took. Although Chadli’s goal was celebrated, I feel the real architect of that goal and for the Belgian win was, in fact, Lukaku. As it slowly synced in, my mother had enough of the late night drama, she was not interested in a post-match chat either. The situation was left to myself, to contemplate upon. She had been giving me company not just for this match, but for all my sporting endeavours. She made sure that I play daily for a few hours from my childhood, would not let me sit at home empty minded. Once even registered her protest towards teachers, who thought, letting me play for the school team in class 12 would not do well for my studies. Bought me all I need, to play any sport I wanted, books to read and understand the world.
I wonder, if not for a typical office goer, would she have been some sportsperson, if the situations were different for her back in those times? I was nurtured by that courageous woman by keeping faith in me. She would wait for the right moment, for me to score that winning goal. Being the Lukaku for my Chadli, being the real architect of my life.
The writer is currently pursuing M.Phil. in Sociology at University of Hyderabad. This article is the fifth in the series “most memorable football match of my life” by our readers. If you want to write about your experience of watching your favourite match, you can contact us via firstname.lastname@example.org. Let’s use this quarantine time to reminisce our football memories.