Taking you back a way here… April 2009… in Goa, India.
It was a family holiday when I was still in Sixth Form as a late teenage lad. At first on this Holiday I was only with my parents, as sister, Kaylie Griffiths, was involved performing at a show and was to meet us out there. Being on my own, and being quite the type for adventure, I made a decision one afternoon to explore outside the hotel walls in South Goa, where foreign people to the area were not so common. In fact judging by the reaction of many as I passed through the town, I was one of the first white westerners to have passed through their village. (most on holiday stick to the nearby beach, restaurants or luxury hotel area).
I set out with a beach/football, I had purchased from a day at the market, in hand. And as I walked through this village, out in the extreme Indian summer heat (it was April, just before their monsoon season) firstly I went by a few shops. The shop worker came out in seeing me, as I resembled money. Not seeing any reason why not, I followed him into the shop and looked about – it was all wooden inside, including everything he was selling, all carved designs. Although I hadn’t any money on me at that moment to buy anything, we got talking; he told me that he had left home at the age of 13 to earn money, no school just work. He moved across India to end up there in Goa, now a skinny man in his early twenties.
The next shop keeper then called me in as I continued on my travels, he looked richer, a shirt on and long hair, and his shop had more appeal to it – jewellery. After talking to him a while he asked me what I did for a living. Instead of boring him with a sixth form student, I had a Crystal Palace top on and a football in hand, “I play for Crystal Palace youth academy,” I informed him. This gave him an element of excitement. He mentioned that he knew the coach of one of their professional football teams, SC Saogoa, which gave me an element of excitement when he mentioned possibly getting me to train with them!
Further on in my route, as I aimed to go to a playing field in which I spotted a football pitch with wooden goalposts with the anticipation that there would be someone there to play football with, I passed the village itself. An elderly man stopped me and called me into his home. He did not speak any English so we communicated through a lot of hand gestures. His house was in fact a shack, made from wood, but he had a lot of family living with him, I said hello and raised a thumb upwards when I believed he was asking me what I thought of his place. He was very proud of his home and seemed delighted to show it to me – with my hair gelled up as it was at the time, and boyish looks from a different culture, I imagine I came across as some kind of flash superstar.
Eventually I made it to the football pitch area. I saw a few kids playing football with a flat ball, using cricket stumps for goalposts. I passed them the ball I had over as I approached them and they appeared to freeze in shock at the sight of me to begin with. Then one knocked the ball back to me as I joined in their game. Football in that respect has one language, completely different cultures and languages understanding one another, that is the beautiful game at its best – which is much more than the rubbish I view on the TV with all those professional drama queens in the present day, a game run by greed. We played, I ware converses on my feet… they didn’t even wear shoes! It was very hot, and considering I am a Type 1 diabetic, perhaps I took a risk running about in those conditions – despite the evening drawing in it was still between the 35-40 degrees mark! Fortunately, diabetes aside, I am incredibly fit!
The amazing part of this story is coming… one by one more people turned up, men from the village, some even with trainers or at least shoes on. One by one… two by two… soon there were enough there for a full on 11 v 11 match – and that’s exactly what they were there for!
“You, you play for us tonight!” a keen footballing middle-aged villager named Godfrey informed me.
It turned out that every month outside the monsoon period the two local villages took each on in a competitive football match…
“We haven’t beaten them for very long time,” Godfrey explained, “it has been years! But now we have you!”
So on the football pitch, with an uneven surface of dried out grass, marked out with wooden nailed-together-goalposts at either end, the game got underway. The difficult part was that it was very hard to tell who was on my team – I didn’t know anybody and we had no kit! Godfrey was the one guy I could pick out, and our main striker… Chief! – the oldest football player in the village, in his late 60′s, with long quite tribal appearing grey hair, no shirt on… I put him through on goal and he had to stop to catch his breath before miss-kicking the ball in his bear-feet…
I got the ball and took people on, it just so happened that when I was a nipper I was a decent footballer, and until my ankle-ligament tears that season, was playing a semi-pro standard in youth level. I was on the mend and focusing on RUNNING ahead of the 2009 Isle of Wight Challenge for Diabetes UK. I cut round a few players and scored 4 goals in the game, which we won 4-0.
…That was a game which made me some kind of hero to the Goan village I was staying in! After that, everywhere I went, every single person knew my name! It was crazy! I went to a restaurant… “GAVIN!” To a beach shack… “GAVIN!!” To the bar at the Hotel… “GAVIN!!!” Past the Taxi booth… “GAVIN!!!!” By the shops, or tent-shops… “GAVIN!!!!!!” Pretty much anywhere… “GAVINNNN!!!!!!!!”
For a moment I experienced what it felt like to be David Beckham…
Two nights later the villages had arranged another game whilst I was there. This time, according to Godfrey, the opposition village ‘main players’ back. They were younger, with football kits on. What was more noticeable to me was that on the road and hills around the pitch, the area was completely filled with watching on villagers, they’d come to see me play!
My dad went to find me and he said a Taxi driver stopped as he saw him and shouted… “TAXI!?”
When my dad replied, “No, I’m looking for my son…”
The driver instantly responded with: “Who, Gavin!? He is over playing football, I take you there!”
It was a tense match, we fell behind early on, and the markers on the opposing team doubled up on me. But I managed to grab a goal when cutting in, and despite the heat I was the fittest engine on the pitch as I put myself about and it was soon 3-1 as I claimed another hattrick. My team appeared to tire out a bit, and the other side got back into it at 3-3, but in a game with no referee to keep a check on the time, I suppose late on… I found the ball at my feet as I used ‘Messi’ teckers to cut around a few players before getting my head up and picking out a very LOUD Godfrey. From all of 5 yards out when my ball arrived to him, Godfrey absolutely put his foot through it to score! 4-3… Godfrey couldn’t believe it! There were still a few moments left for me to add another, this after Chief was bundled over in the supposed penalty area. I stepped up from the imaginary penalty spot to tuck away the last goal of the game, 5-3.
It was a very good experience going to Goa, the people out there seemed very proud of what they had, and happy to talk – which is quite a contrast to what I see over in my hometown, Bexleyheath. This, despite the fact we have money here, big buildings, food, and more… they have wooden shacks to live in!
As a Type 1 diabetic, sure in those conditions blood levels would expect to drop, but I had good control, I ate well and I kept hydrated, which was more important than energy drinks out there in my opinion. As for my running abilities, I went on a early morning beach run one morning, a rough half-marathon distance through a few villages and back. In that heat… Core Blimey, it takes some fitness!