08 April 2017

The Red Card I should have Gotten but Never Did


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Letran turned out to be all hype and little substance. The Visayans the school recruited from the national training pool were skillful and knew how to play. In our match against them at the Rizal Memorial Stadium, they enjoyed more of the ball than we did but lacked penetration. In the end, we won comfortably, 3-1.

I will forever remember this game for when one of Letran’s players whacked me just under the right knee with his boots, in the process burying two of his studs under the skin. I had tracked back to defend and slid to take the ball away from him. He could have pulled out but instead, swung his foot with all his might. I had no doubt whatsoever that the kick was malicious, and in the modern game would have been given a straight red card. He wasn’t even given a yellow.

How I was able to play on, I did not have the foggiest. There were two gaping holes oozing with blood just under the knee and initially I couldn’t even get up because of the pain. Dima came to me and stretched my leg this way and that before the team doctor took over. The latter first cleaned up the blood then sprayed the wounds with antiseptic. Afterwards, he sprayed the entire knee with something cold that was probably some kind of anesthetic.

I was expecting to be substituted but Dima worked my foreleg this way and that again and then told me to get back into the game. I managed to finish it but the next day the knee was swollen and I limped around the campus to go to my classes.

That Letran game was also significant in another way. One of the team managers – DLSU alumni who brought us snacks and drinks every match – spoke to me after the match and I told him that I was only playing at a fraction of what I was capable of at the left wing. He must have spoken to Dima because the next game I was back out on the right. My season turned for the better the day I returned to what I always thought was my home position.

That was the game against San Beda which was scheduled to be played at that school’s own field at the Mendiola campus. All of the previous season’s matches were played at the Rizal Memorial Stadium, which I just loved even if its field was often bald and gravelly and its empty stands always looked remarkably sad. But playing at San Beda’s field offered a bit of a novelty.

The novelty would soon wore away and I couldn’t say that I became very fond of the San Beda field. It was a tad smaller than the Rizal Memorial field, so I had to run less. That said, this also meant that there was less space available and very little margin for errors. The Rizal Memorial field was kinder to mistakes.

I was surprised to see Manolo Lucido in San Beda colors when we started to get ready for the match and even had a short chat with him. Dima had restored me to the right wing, so when the match started and I saw Manolo playing at left fullback, I was even mildly amused by the coincidence. We were two Lipa boys on opposite sides, and his job was to mark me. I hadn’t seen him play since I moved to Manila for college; but I knew from coaching his Little Olympics team that he wasn’t blessed with pace.

Midway through the first half, I managed to turn him and gained a couple of yards. Enough for me to deliver the sort of cross that I just couldn’t really manage when I played on the opposite wing. The pass was inch-perfect for Monchu Garcia, who was bursting into the penalty area from midfield. His shot was even something of a miskicked half-volley, but it helped that he did not make full contact with the ball. The goalkeeper’s timing was thrown off and the ball crept under him into the goal. San Beda was an improved team from the previous season; but we still won the match comfortably.

This was one of the best matches that I played in the entire season. Being restored to my favorite position had something of a liberating effect on me, and mostly because I was comfortable and didn’t have to overthink what I was going to do.

In the second half, the San Beda coach must have seen that Manolo was having difficulty keeping pace with me and sent in a substitute. If anything, I had an easier job with the replacement. I was sending in cross after cross and we would have won by a wider margin if San Beda hadn’t often resorted to manhandling our center-forward Paul Zuluaga to prevent him from scoring from these.

For once, Dima appreciated what I was doing on the field. There was this instance when I broke free from the entire San Beda defense from the halfway line and had a chance to go one-on-one with the goalkeeper. Unfortunately, I lost my nerve when I saw their sweeper bearing down on me through the corner of my eye and took a shot. I knew as soon as the ball left my foot that I had made a mistake and really should have tried to bring the ball forward some more. The ball went wide of the far post and I was half-expecting to be admonished by Dima. Instead, I heard him shout, “Nice try Rex!” I didn’t see that coming, but it felt good! I instantly knew that Dima was happy with the way that I was playing.

There was an incident in the second round match also against San Beda that I would never forget, but for an entirely different reason. I wasn’t playing bad; but I wasn’t playing particularly well, either.

Midway through the second half, I chased a 50-50 ball just inside the penalty area. The San Beda goalkeeper got to it just fractionally ahead of me and I had already sidestepped him to avoid a hard collision. But the goalkeeper raised his forearm to protect himself and hit me on the chest.

Although I was generally even-tempered, I was also occasionally prone to unpredictable and sudden bursts of almost maniacal anger that would dissipate almost as quickly as they came. The San Beda goalkeeper’s elbow hitting my chest triggered one of those episodes. Without even pausing to think about it, I raised my arm and smacked him on the back of his neck as hard as I could. I’m sure it must have hurt.

Instantly, I was surrounded by the entire San Beda team, each one shouting invectives at me. I pushed each one away and was mentally preparing to defend myself if anybody threw a punch or a kick. Nobody did. I would think about the incident many times afterwards and wonder why nobody dared. Perhaps, they all saw the murderous look in my eyes. I must have looked like a crazed dog and frankly, I felt like one.

After a couple of minutes, the referee managed to calm everybody down. Including me. Typical of my temper flashes, it was gone almost as quickly as it came. The San Beda goalkeeper tried to explain that he was only trying to protect himself from my momentum, but I countered that I had already sidestepped him and that he had absolutely no need to do that.

Play soon resumed, and I would wonder later why the referee did not show me even just a yellow card. Even in those days, smacking an opponent was a straight red card, and I really should have been issued my marching orders. Yet, I finished the game, which ended in a draw.

As for my DLSU teammates, none even came to my aid, the bastards! I was even the object of good-natured heckling at the college canteen in school the next day because of what I did. I should have known better than to expect sympathy.

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