ARNAV KHANNA | 3rd September 2021

Cricket seemed too inaccessible for some reason, badminton too niche, volleyball too demanding. For 8-year old Arnav, the choice was simple: choose football or become the kid who sat alone in the P.E. period.

The latter wasn’t much of a choice anyway, so on I went amongst those who were kicking a white ball around.

To me, football is a very welcoming sport. It doesn’t ask for much and it offers so much in return. You could be a millionaire or just a couple of kids in the park- all you need was a ball and some company.

It was this unintentional ability to welcome that drew me in, the very first time I stepped onto a football pitch. I stood near the back, right in front of the goalkeeper who shouted:

“Are you a defender?”

And there I had it, my very first of a myriad of identities as a “footballer”- a defender. The term, football is in quotes because well, “someone who’s never played the sport” doesn’t have a ring to it.

In a sense, my choices externally on the pitch represented my perception of myself internally.

Trying to abdicate myself of the spotlight by standing back in the defence, the same way I was trying to hide from any eyes that fell on me everywhere else.

Back then, a 5’3” kid who weighed 70kg was a displeasing identity that I found myself in the midst of. I felt out of shape, I certainly looked it and I was made to feel out of place.

The concepts of body positivity and self-love that were foreign to me at the time, would remain unknown to me a for a good decade more.

Performing an unforgiving role at the heart of the defence, I got used to shouts and curses instead of the compliments and the claps.

I was doing the “dirty job” after all, cleaning up after the attackers- the ones who seemed “capable” to me of moving with the ball in a way that I considered too tall of a task for myself.

In retrospect, I never tried. I was too scared to.

The flood of embarrassment and inferiority that tended to make for a cruel concoction that I never ordered was much of the same uncomfortable rush I felt, every time I looked into the mirror.

The mere thought of a chubby kid like myself running with the ball with all eyes on me seemed like a mirror into my underconfident self for the world to peek into.

And from the outside, I was just the chubby kid they’d all laugh at anyway.

It was their job, the ones who were better than me to be the “cool guys” on the pitch. I thought I was simply better off doing what my insecurities considered myself fit for.

Time passed, I grew taller and leaner. The mirror wasn’t such a scary sight anymore, neither was the halfway line.

My mind had started telling me I fit in, my feet followed. If I was to get technical here, I developed from a sweeper center-back to a Bombing left-back.

Running down the wing, urging my teammates for one-twos and swinging in terrifyingly precise crosses for the trained eye to admire and the trained striker to arrow in.

That trademark curl that silky left-footers can produce had come to life after living dormant for almost a decade and a half.

The curses turned into claps; the embarrassment turned into pride. And also, I wore the “leftie” badge with honor as I made the left flank my home, reveling out wide in a way that would make Jurgen Klopp sit up and take notice.

Before I forget, I have to tell you that lefties will always be cooler than righties.

I’m glad that’s understood.

As I was saying, I gave it my all every time I stepped onto the pitch. I guess this was because for the very first time in my life, I was getting something back that was foreign to me- appreciation and acceptance.

Never allowing myself the pat on the back, I started using football as the medium through which, at least I got it from others.

By the time high school came around, the tide had turned. This time, I was the one in the spotlight; and I wanted to be.

In my final form as a “footballer” (I’m sticking with the quotes), I reached my peak as a deep-lying playmaker. In constant motion, forever demanding the ball, I wanted to be the conductor every second of the game.

I had never felt better about myself and it showed. Flicks, roulettes and ball-rolls and caressed passes got me drafted into the school team for the first time.

I’m just saying, getting into the school team to teenager Arnav was the same as getting told you’re performing at Woodstock. Of course, I felt like a rock god?

But I digress.

Today, it’s been almost 2 years since I’d last kicked a football. Yet this sport has seen me develop from a boy to a man. What started off as an engagement born out of desperation formed into a bond that is imbibed into my personality forever.

This is the beauty of this sport, it doesn’t discriminate. The moment you step onto the pitch is the moment you’re family – whether you realize it at first or not.

As for myself, I regret nothing because the journey maketh the man and what I’ve learned that that 8-year old shy, chubby Arnav could always be the lean 18-year old Arnav who’s more than comfortable in being a leader of men.

But being skinnier after playing all these years of football isn’t my biggest win. Embracing myself has.

I like to tell myself that I was treated better because I played better- it’s a simple equation. But deep down, I know that I was treated better because I felt that I deserved better and the rest followed.

Life is good

Let’s wrap this up with a classic “moral of the story”.

Nobody can make you feel small until you let them.

Don’t let them.

Try not to.

Yes, the voices do get loud.

But in the end, that’s all they are.

When you tune them out and let your potential take over.

The ball, more often than not ends up in the back of the net.