CHENNAI: Redemption. It’s a word often thrown about when writing about the beautiful game. Football, by virtue of being a great leveller, offers teams and players plenty of shots at redemption. You’re always a goal or two away from erasing bad memories, from gaining closure for a heartbreaking result from the fact, from ending an episode of personal woe. But every now and then, along comes one such story that tugs at your emotions a little bit harder than the others.
As Chennaiyin FC routed FC Goa 3-0 to enter their second Indian Super League final at the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium on Tuesday, interwoven into the narrative were quite a few tales of redemption. The last time Chennaiyin FC had played a semifinal in front of their home fans, they had lost out to a last-minute Kerala Blasters goal (the home leg of their semifinal two years ago, when they won the title, had been held in Pune due to the Chennai floods). The last time they played FC Goa at this ground, they had received an absolute hiding. The day before the game, it was pointed out to Chennaiyin coach John Gregory that Jeje Lalpekhlua hadn’t found the net in seven games. On Tuesday, the striker was on hand to head in Chennaiyin’s first goal and their third. Then there was Karanjit Singh who pulled out all stops to prevent the tournament’s most lethal strike-force, days after he was overlooked for the national side.
But it was the tale of the man who scored Chennaiyin’s second goal that felt like it meant a little bit more. Dhanpal Ganesh is something that Chennaiyin don’t have too many of — a local boy. He comes from the slums of Vysarpadi, a couple of suburban train stops away from the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium. His family, friends, boys from the same slum who grew up wanting to be like him, all turn up at games to watch him. They don’t know any of the English chants that are routinely belted out at the JN Stadium, but they know to scream at the top of their voice when Dhanpal plays someone in or makes a crunching tackle.
Despite being uniquely positioned as the one player who was truly ‘one of their own’, the 26-year-old’s time at Chennaiyin has never been the happiest. In Chennaiyin’s first season, he was in and out of the team, Marco Materazzi giving out the impression that he never quite trusted the defensive midfielder.
Then came a disastrous injury, sustained while on India duty, that he took more than a year to recover from. Dhanpal spent Chennaiyin’s title winning season on crutches, lingering around in the team hotel like a ghost, despite knowing he would not kick a ball. And then in their third, he was deemed to have not fully recovered and did not get a game.
Last year, as he loitered around the same venue at I-League outfit Chennai City FC’s squad announcement, all he was hearing was ‘but are you all right now?’. On Tuesday, as he went down on his knees, after heading in a free-kick, brushing aside two rival defenders with brute strength, Dhanpal Ganesh more than emphatically answered all those questions from his past. He was more than all right. He was great!