"Too Scared To Lose" - The Summer of 1992
We all prepare very differently for the moment we call, ‘the biggest match of our lives' and for the masses, that game will vary in Global validity. For example, before Andrea Pirlo won the 2006 World Cup, he had been victorious in other competitions from amateur football and through the professional ranks. His career blossomed and the cup finals he played in became ever more relevant however, the preparation and emotion encompassed within his mindset was probably very similar in each match experience.
I recall winning a semi-final game which earned my youth club side entry into the 1992 Safeway Coastal Provincial Cup Final – we were a group of 12 year olds who had just earned the opportunity to compete for the greatest honour (in our world) someone could play for and to top it off, we would battle for the trophy against our vaunted rivals, the much heralded Metro-Ford Soccer Club.
We spent the weeks prior to the final waxing lyrical about our chances and dissecting, position by position, how we were better than the opposition. Over that period, through my passion for football, I began to read some valuable lessons about quarter-finals, semi-finals and finals. I came to the conclusion that there is no worse feeling than losing a final – all the effort to get there culminated by the ecstasy of winning a semi-final only for your dreams to come crashing down upon such optimistic shoulders. I was determined.
We arrived at the premises and changed on the practice fields next to the pitch – we’d even bought matching black sweaters with Richmond United emblazoned across the left chest to walk onto the pitch with. Our assistant coaches had been given black Brooks tracksuits in a show of solidarity and my Dad, the coach, maintained superstition by wearing his oiled, long black trench-coat despite the soaring summer temperature. He wore the same trench for every game we played that year - I often wondered if it was an intimidation tactic more fit for the Krays rather than the football pitch. Nevertheless, I think we all felt more confident when he had it on.
The warm up was intense with minimal chatter and extreme 12 year-old focus. A few jogs across the pitch preceded by some touches on the ball were enough to calm the nerves to an extent. The general consensus was that we had prepared long enough for this monumental moment - there was no intense pre-game warm up needed. The time was approaching and we were called into the dressing room for the referee to check our studs and for coach to give one final team talk – perhaps to tell us that we were up against the world but our technical prowess and lion-heartedness would drive us to glory - ‘Blood, sweat and tears of joy boys.’ The actual tune was distinctly different and there was an air of simplicity about it which was perfectly suited to young players overcome with the desire to win rather than focusing on enjoying the moment. ‘I’m proud of you boys, no matter what happens today. Go out there and enjoy yourselves because finals don’t come along all the time.’ The words – so simple, yet so impactful; and coming from the man who taught me everything there was to know about the beautiful game gave them added purpose.
The match was played at the atmospheric Town Centre Stadium where there was a mass of fans, namely loud cheering mothers, finger on the chin fathers and proud siblings. Scattered amongst the masses was the occasional Provincial Team coach and players from other teams who had already played or were getting ready to participate in a final for their respective age group. It was a grand setting: the sun was shimmering on the sails of the stadium cover and the track around the pitch was immaculately pristine. The grass was so finely trimmed that it resembled Wembley on a summer’s evening. The nets were very tightly spiralled around the posts and the giant nails were intensely hammered into the ground securing the back of the nets and ensuring any goal would bounce back with equal force. The sidelines were as perfect as the outline of a Van Gogh painting and the game ball was so exquisitely white that you could see the reflection of any Rucanor boot attempting to strike.
We walked out onto the pitch single file with our all black outfits absorbing the full force of the Vancouver summer sun. We lined up beside our nemesis and listened to the National Anthem. We sang loud and proud while I kept my legs loose by doing some on the spot sprints and toe tapping like Mike Tyson prior to pounding Trevor Berbick to a pulp. Butterflies were swarming my stomach but I chuckled in denial that the moment was having any significant impingement on my soul.
The whistle blew and we were rampant. Our diminutive midfield created chance after chance for our road-runner strikers who were a match for any 100 meter sprinter in British Columbia. The towering back-line added variety by spraying long balls a la Andrea Pirlo for the strikers to run on to. It was the ultimate expression of ‘total football.' You’ve heard about Barcelona but I can guarantee you’ve never laid witness to the Richmond United Under-13’s of 1992 – we were a different class.
‘If you don’t take your chances …’ were the words that began to reverberate within my head from ear to ear as the first half advanced yet our dominance hadn't reaped a goal. I remember my Dad reiterating this to me over and over again throughout my budding football career. The phrase concluded with: ‘... you’re going to get punished.’ Our squad, wearing imitation Newcastle United kits, were so fluid and pure that it only seemed like a matter of time before we broke the dead-lock. However, as the game wore on the heat began to take its toll. Our fate began to feel like it would be more comparable to the Geordies squandering the Premier League title to Manchester United after allowing a 12 point lead to dissipate rather than Barcelona drubbing Manchester United in the 2011 Champions League Final .
Our legs became weary and minds slowed mitigating our high tempo, high pressure tactics. We laboured into extra time and when the final 30 minutes commenced the opposition took control. We were fighting for our lives and then came the moment that broke our hearts and crushed our dreams. A run down the left flank followed by a sub-par cross and the worst shank of a goal in the history of football. What was meant to be a right footed pile-driver ended up a slice with the outside of the foot that fooled our goalkeeper and ballooned into the far side of the goal. Crushed.
The final whistle blew and some players in black and white dropped to their knees as if it were an earthquake drill, others flatly laid out sobbing into the roughness of the dried out grass which was once untarnished. This was no longer Wembley, it was the Stadio Olimpico where Paul Gascoigne had cried tears of sorrow in the Semi-Final of Italia 90 when England lost to West Germany. We trudged off the pitch into the dressing room where 120 minutes prior we had envisaged Gatorade spraying celebrations followed by Domino’s pizza and perhaps a Blizzard from Dairy Queen. Instead, we would head home to our daily routine of school followed by street hockey with tales of tragedy to tell our mates.
24 years on and I can look back upon that special moment in my life as a band of brothers that walked onto the pitch and gave it all they could - all they had. The ecstasy and agony of the day will live with me forever as an experience, a lesson and a story to tell my children and perhaps grandchildren. Luckily, I have been blessed to experience further moments of joy and sorrow on the football pitch and they have contributed to laying the foundations for the person I am today.
Football is a beautiful game – the highs and the lows have a valuable contribution to make in all of our lives therefore, fully absorb them. It is very easy to be overcome with the desire to win and abandon the willingness to enjoy the experience and understand the grace we have been given to compete. Therefore, every time you step on the pitch, enjoy the blessing of being able to put on your boots and share 90 minutes with 22 players who are all in one way or another, part of the fraternity of football.