The day started the same as any other. I have one consistency in my life at the moment and that is having a good breakfast. In Pushkar this looked ominous what with them banning eggs and all! Luckily I had found one, an all you can eat affair and all for the sum of one pound. Full, close to sick, I staggered towards the main arena to see the first day events in the main arena
It was whilst I was enjoying the delights of a dancing monkey show that two English girls approached. They explained that there would be a tourists vs locals football match starting at 10am and they were on the hunt for players as the team was short of a couple. I agreed to play and signed up with the Indian organiser. A quick check of the watch suggested only 15 minutes until kick off.After getting acquainted with the mostly UK based team (there was also an Aussie, an American and a German, come Spaniard, come Caribbean guy), we were all quite relaxed. A bunch of youngsters hung around. We assumed it was them that we were playing. At one point a man sat with some of the kids and we could make out a formation and tactics scrawled on a piece of paper. We laughed. Just how seriously were they going to be for a friendly kick around between us and some kids?
An hour passed and there was no sign of anything happening. The stadium was filling up and the flag unveiling had just taken place. It was at this point that we were ushered towards the touchline. There we were presented with a (strangely for India) over-sized kit. We had numbers written with a ball point pen onto the shirt. We felt embarrassed. Our opposition did not have a kit.
And then from the corner of the stadium walked in a team of adults all in full kit, shin pads and boots. They looked a serious force. Some of our players were in bare feet. They shuddered. From this moment on things started to get strange. We had to participate in seven team photos, each with large groups of photographers and varying sizes of lenses. In typical Indian style all but one of these was taking in the most obscure, unphotogenic place that they could find. The stadium was heaving. We estimated somewhere around 1500 people. But despite team photos being completed and all kitted up it still was not time to play. It was clearly a game working to Indian time!
Hundreds of beautifully dressed women performed a dance on the pitch. That’s our warm up act we joked. Then there were the camel races, surely the main event of a camel festival? It then dawned on us. We were the main event.
Police cleared the sand filled pitch and stood around the perimeter with clubs in hand. Spectators packed out the stands and the touchlines. Crowds gathered around where us and our opposition stood. A band started playing and opposing players started dancing.
We walked onto the pitch feeling a little star struck by all of the attention. It wasn’t the end of it. We lined up around the center circle facing our opposition. There a camera panned across our faces. I felt like singing the national anthem. Over the tannoy the teams were read out. I missed my name because out of the corner of my eye, our captain (a semi-pro and a player we had pinned all of our hopes on) had been called to the front of our line to introduce what turned out to be Sports Minister. He walked along shaking hands and wishing every player good luck followed by numerous family members, security guards and the press. With the ball in the center circle and us all in position, there was still time for the Sports Minister to do a ceremonial kick off. In front of the hoards of reporters, he booted the ball clear over their heads much to the delight of the crowd.
The drumming continued, the crowd roared and they kicked off. The game started with a number of our team blinded by the sand that flew up every time that the ball was kicked. It would take a while to get used to playing on sand, especially one with a cement cricket pitch across the edge of our area! However we adapted quickly and took control. An attacking masterclass brought an early goal but it was swiftly disallowed as the linesman had adjudged us to be offside. It would not be the first time. In total I counted over twenty offside of which only a handful looked acceptable.
Fortunately our disappointment would not last long as a cross from the right alluded everyone allowing number 13, Rob UK to volley the ball with the outside of his boot into the top corner of the net. Bewildered and shocked all I could muster was an Alan Shearer esq celebration before being mobbed my fellow team members. It was a waste. Klingsmans dive, kart wheels, a camel related celebration, there were so many options but none were taken.
We soon doubled our lead and went into the break two nil up and dying in the heat. Huge numbers of people crowded around and watched as we drenched ourselves in water. I enjoyed the admiration, almost idolism of the youth who had decided that my goal somehow made me a world class player. It was fine by me for them to discard the rest of my performance.
After dominating the first half in the second half we capitulated. I found myself unable to run and to far away from the other touchline to organise a substitution. Our rock solid 4-4-2 was reduced to a 4-0-6 as we struggled to muscle any strength to defend. They scored a peach of a goal. A 40 yard looping shot that had us all applauding. More offsides fell our way and more chances theirs, but they took none of them.
Finally after what felt like hours, the final whistle sounded. Strangely many in the crowd celebrated. We later found out it was only the second time that the tourists had ever beaten the locals and that meant they expected a lot more money would be spent in Pushkar that night!
Our rewards were to be given trophies and certificated in front of the main stand. Another team photo followed, one that would appear in every Hindi newspaper. And then we were mobbed by tv crews and radio mikes. It was insane. Some of them were actually beaming out live. After what seemed like an age we returned to a cafe and celebrated with pizza and soft drinks. Of all the places to record a superb sporting achievement Pushkar is not the place. It has banned alcohol.
Over the course of the next few days I achieved an upgrade in my hotel room and received numerous congratulations from random people in the street. Some players were stopped and recognised from TV. It truly was an incredibly confusing and amusing few days.