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Our Tattered Footballs Taught Us the Importance of Fighting For What We Love

Our Tattered Footballs Taught Us the Importance of Fighting For What We Love

  • Culture
  • Life
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Objects of Affection is a column centred around the things and spaces that serve as hallmarks of our relationships, from the personal to the professional, and everything in between.

“This ball is from the 1986 World Cup, and it is very rare. It is the most important thing in the world to me.”

At seven, I expanded my chest and declared this assertively to my classmates. The ball was neither rare nor from the 1986 World Cup, but it was without a doubt the most treasured object I had in my possession.

It was the second Show-and-Tell day during Primary One and like the first time, I had forgotten to bring an object that was special to me. Not wanting to be on the receiving end of another earful from my teacher, I paced to the front of the class with the football my father had given me a year earlier.

As I delivered a heartfelt monologue, my teacher, along with the girls in my class, watched with envy. I told them that this ball was once caressed by the boot of Diego Maradona, one of the best football players of all time. I tried to justify the tattered exterior of the ball by exaggerating how hard professional players kicked the ball.

The boys, however, knew that I was full of shit.

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An hour earlier, we were kicking this relic of mine over the muddy fields during our recess just as we did every single day. Football was the only reprieve we had from counting the number of apples and oranges in baskets the people in our textbooks had all day in school. Years later in secondary school, we would learn that it was all part of a ploy to teach us algebra.

*Shiver*

During the weekends, there was no school, and that meant no playing of football with my classmates in the field. But I would bring the ball to the neighbourhood park, where other boys my age loitered, as they waited for their mothers to cook dinner.

From 5:30 PM to 7 PM every Saturday and Sunday, we would get together in the field to play the world’s most disorganised football match, as we tried to hone our skills and emulate our favourite footballers from the football matches broadcasted the night prior.

As an Arsenal fan, my favourite player was Thierry Henry, a lethal goalscorer hailing from France who had the ability to wrap his foot around the ball as he was whipping it. The result was a spectacular visual treat, as the ball would seemingly defy gravity, float over and curl around a wall of defenders, before beating the goalkeeper. The rustling of the net as the ball went into the goal soon became my favourite sound.

Because of him, I spent hours on end practising my kicking by whacking the ball against the walls at the void deck of my HDB flat at the expense of my neighbour’s ears and, occasionally, their safety. This also meant that the “World Cup” ball very quickly lost its shape and couldn’t even roll in a straight line.

When I was nine, I bought a black and red adidas football after saving about $30 from my own pocket money. I was sick of playing with the “World Cup” ball and wanted something more modern that I could show off to my peers.

Before I even had a chance to bring it to school, I kicked it against the void deck wall and the newly installed spikes against the wall punctured my ball. Thanks, Tampines Town Council, for crushing the soul of nine-year old Shaun.

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Despite that, it would take a lot more to destroy a young man and his love for the beautiful game.

Boys being boys, there was always a healthy dose of friendly competition with my peers.  From attempting the tricks we saw on the Nike Joga Bonito advertisements to going in needlessly hard on tackles, everything was fair game.

We might have occasionally gotten into scuffles, but by the time the whistle blew, (or when our mothers screamed for us to run home) the animosity was put to bed. We were all pals once again, waiting for the next weekend to arrive.

Those were some of the happiest times in my life. Even though we weren’t rich, we were always more than happy to share a 20-cent ice pop with a friend after a sweaty game of football. In a way, that was how we showed our appreciation for one another.

Now, in my mid-twenties, it is much harder to organise a game of football with friends because of work or personal commitments. On the odd occasion, we strap on our expensive first-grade football boots, throw on our replica kits and waltz down the perfectly trimmed astroturf football pitches, each blade of glass perfectly visible in the nighttime thanks to the floodlights. All this is made possible because of our expendable income.

Still, we may be bigger, faster, stronger, and more skilful than we were when we kicked tennis balls around a basketball court, but it never seems as fun as it was back then.

Perhaps it’s because of how goal-driven we are, living in a pressure cooker, success-driven society like Singapore. Even a friendly game of football evolves into a competition amongst peers.

What is originally intended to be a friendly kick about with acquaintances turns into a game of flagrant one-upmanship, showing off our latest gear or needlessly wearing a luxury automatic watch while we play football. It has become eerily similar to the business card comparison scenes in American Psycho.

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Brazilian football legend Pele may be one of the most celebrated footballers of all time, but he claims his fondest footballing memories are juggling coconuts at the beach, or playing with friends in favelas, Brazil’s local equivalent of a slum.

Similarly, I reason that we enjoyed playing with a tattered ball more than we ever will with a $200 ball, simply because we had fewer things to care about. On the rare occasion I do step on a football pitch these days, I yearn for the smell of the worn rubber bits of the tattered world cup ball I once had.

Perhaps I just need to realise that this hapless pursuit of recreating my childhood will lead to nothing, instead of trying to bolster every other aspect of the game.

The least we can do now is to hope that children today have the chance to express themselves with football the way we did. But from the spikes in every HDB void deck to the diminishing number of empty grass patches, we face an uphill battle to keep our childhoods more than just a memory.

Truth is, we will probably recount stories of ourselves playing football in an HDB void deck just as our fathers tell us fondly about how they used to catch spiders.

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Author

Shaun Tan Staff writer