When Ralph Marnham organised a football match between two rival schools, he thought that it would be a straightforward affair. Little did he know what lay in store for him…
I was teaching in a small village called Santa Maria Pipioltepec. The local Mexicans there are a mixture of Mazuan Indians and other ethnic minorities, living in traditional villages and farms around the pine-clad hillsides of Valle de Bravo, about three hours away from Mexico City. What had struck me about the school was the lack of sport offered, despite the children playing football every break time in the school playground. They seemed to know most of the English football team, especially David Beckham. Their idol, however, was the captain of the national team, Rafael Marquez.
After having taught in the school for three months I decided to organise a football match with another rival local school, San Fransisco. Henry, a friend of mine, was a teacher there. Although my passion for the game had never translated itself onto the pitch (I was a left back in a very average team), I did rather rate myself as a coach, especially as Henry’s knowledge of football was pretty poor, often confusing it with its American counterpart. We had decided that the age group for the match should be between ten- and twelve-year-olds and the following day I started to hold the trials.
When I had announced to the classes involved that we were going to play a match against San Fransisco, they had all seemed to be extremely excited about the idea. However, when I got to the school football pitch that afternoon, I was still astonished to see how many children had turned up for the trials. Apparently, word had gone round the playground that this was happening and nearly everyone had come along to ask me if they could be part of the team. I reiterated the point that they had to be between the ages of ten and twelve to participate.
This still did not seem to deter a certain Jose, who had a full on moustache, in trying to persuade me that he was in fact twelve. Luckily, I remembered that he was actually seventeen. It was with great difficulty that I managed to sift through the throng of eager faces. After half an hour, we started the trials.
Although I thought that I had come reasonably well-prepared with various exercises scribbled down on my pad of paper, I was soon proved very wrong. Firstly, I asked the group to split themselves into four different categories: goalkeepers, defenders, midfielders and strikers. To my despair, I ended up with five goalkeepers, six defenders, ten midfielders and twenty-nine strikers.
As I started the first exercise, it became clear that most of the boys wanted to chase the football around the pitch and score goals. After a few stern words, I recommenced the training drills. During the exercises, it slowly dawned on me that I was going to have to exclude the majority of the children. Realistically, I could only have a squad of twenty, meaning that thirty would miss out. At the end, I organised a big football match with everyone included.
A few of the kids started to stand out. There was Juan, a big twelve-year-old, who, although sometimes over the top, put in a great number of sturdy challenges. Pedro was the playmaker of the team, and, although the youngest and slight of build, proved to be very adept at finding his team mates with pinpoint passes on the bumpy surface. The two strikers who shone the most were Emiliano and Rogerio. I returned home that afternoon full of hope and anticipation for the coming match.
I turned up the next day with a heavy heart, knowing that at lunch time I had to put up my squad list. I spent most of my lunch breaking up fights and trying to comfort disappointed children. Even my fellow teachers seemed to want to get involved in the debate. In the end though, the whole school seemed to get behind the team and even came to watch us in our training sessions. There seemed to be genuine hope and excitement in the air. It was at this point that I started to get worried. What if my team lost? This was not helped by the fact that Henry kept on telling me about his success as a coach.
The night before the game I could hardly sleep. Henry and I had agreed to play at our school as our pitch was far better than theirs. When I arrived, my anxiety heightened as I saw that the whole school, pupils and staff, as well as the whole village had turned up. Henry turned up with a team of giants. It seemed that the twelve-year-olds from San Fransisco were twice as tall and I started to panic. After a lot of argument we decided to referee one half each.
We tossed a coin and Henry took the first half. Within two minutes, Juan, my star centre half had given away a penalty with a desperate challenge. It was only after a lot of shouting and complaining from the touchline that I persuaded Henry not to send him off. The first half turned out to be a disaster with Henry’s team easily winning the physical contest. At half time, they were four-nil up. Henry had a wide grin on his face, with the teachers from his school cheering him on. I turned round apprehensively towards the headmaster of Santa Maria. He scowled at me and turned away.
The second half kicked off with me as the referee. I had given my team a passionate talk at half time and brought on five eager players, desperate to prove to me that they should have been included in the original team. The changes seemed to pay off. Pedro played a looping pass to Emiliano, and after a one-two with Rogerio, Emiliano slammed the ball into the top right corner of the goal. My team went wild and we seemed to have regained the diminishing interest of the crowd. A quick goal followed from Rogerio, who was excelling in his role as a striker.
Juan made another dubious tackle and I decided to wave away Henry‘s screams from the touchline. Rogerio then scored again. Four-three! I started to hope that maybe we would win. However, it was not to be. After a barrage of attacks from Santa Maria, San Fransisco scored in the last minute from a devastating counter-attack. The game finished amicably with both sides sporting huge grins on their faces. My teachers came up to offer their commiserations. All in all, I felt immensely proud with the children who had participated and with those who had missed out, they had been our most ferocious supporters. An annual fixture between the two schools has been held ever since.