To believe the tabloids, anyone visiting South Africa for the World Cup would be robbed, beaten up, shot, murdered several times, given AIDS, beaten up again and then shot once more for good measure. And that would be before clearing immigration at O.R. Tambo. None of that happened to me though. Partly it was because I like to think I’m experienced enough to avoid tricky situations, but mainly because I cancelled my trip. Due to South Africans having convinced themselves that the average football supporter owns his own yacht and sprinkles ground banknotes on his cornflakes in the morning, I cut my losses on $900 worth of world cup tickets, and in a fit of pique, booked myself a three week trip to Thailand instead.
Bangkok does have a certain reputation. When western tourists are lured by bright lights and find themselves in the company of young men one evening, typically there’s a rather alarming element of surprise to the proceedings. Luckily for me, my encounter was purely intentional, and strictly above board – the lure of floodlit football.
Keen for my World Cup substitute trip to also include something of a football fix if possible, I scanned the internet for any games in the country during my stay. There wasn’t a lot on, it has to be said. The Thai League isn’t the most vibrant, but even that had finished by the time of my visit, but there was a Thailand v South Korea fixture on. Great! Except it was the U19s. Ah.
But I wasn’t going to let something like a possible low quality game being played in from of a small crowd in a basic stadium deter me. Oh no. In some ways the novelty value made it more appealing. At least that’s what I convinced myself of while having a bottle of Chang or two in a Bangkok bar before heading to the stadium.
And the bars there can certainly are different. I recall one bar offering not only very cheap beer for happy hour, but also the chance to watch the Merseyside Derby on the big screen. In itself that wasn’t unusual, nor was the support for Liverpool. Every single person in Thailand, by law it seems, supports either Liverpool or Manchester United. Chang’s sponsorship of Everton seems to have failed to make the locals change allegience. Interest was high. All the workers in the bar were watching avidly, and – this is where is starts to differ from a Wetherspoons – were all female. The bar had something of a cowboy theme, and the cowboy hats and boots looked authentic enough, although I confess, it’s hard to remember bikinis typically featuring in too many westerns. At one point I turned from the screen to notice that the workers had discarded the less authentic parts of their outfits, and certainly weren’t now dressed in a way I recall from any John Wayne films of my youth. Funnily enough, for some reason I did find it hard to concentrate on the events at Goodison Park for a while.
The Thai Army Stadium, venue for my game for the evening, is well off the usual tourist route, tucked away next to a road that was as quaint and picturesque as 16-lane multi-level highways tend to be. Luckily I didn’t have to cross this road. Dignitas could no doubt send their clients here and give them a more interesting exit than a weekend in Switzerland. I did, however, have to negotiate the typically Thai labyrinth of side-streets to get from the metro stop to the stadium. Losing my bearings slightly, and the impossibility of rushing to do anything in the Bangkok clinging humidity, meant I arrived just as the teams kicked off.
Unlike my world cup tickets, where I’d paid $160 for some games, entry here was priced at just 50 Baht, about £1. The price, and “AFC U19 Qualifier” were all I could read on the ticket, bought from a man sat by the door at a trestle table, as if selling tickets for a school disco. I half expected him to put a stamp on the back of my hand in case I wanted to come back later.
Inside, before I’d even had a look round, I was able to make my usual scarf purchase, even if a foreigner, a “farang” as Thais have it, supporting the Thailand U19 side might look a little unlikely. Unusually for a football scarf, it was of the synthetic “fake silk” variety favoured by 80s new romantic bands. Even more unusual was that the flip side of it featured Thai script and love hearts, which I later found to say “We love the King”, which isn’t that surprising in a country where the King is the Queen Mother, Lady Diana, The Beatles, and any other cherished icon you can think of, rolled into one. The Thai royal family has always been revered. It used to be unthinkable for a member of the public to even touch a member of royalty, which had tragic consequences in the 19th century when locals thought it an unforgiveable breach of etiquette to touch the Queen, even when she was drowning in a river.
With my scarf – no programme sadly, even though it would have been utterly indecipherable – I took my seat. The lateness of my arrival, and a crowd better than I’d expected, meant I was confined to Row B. The stadium itself was fairly basic. An oval around a running track, about 15 rows deep, with bare concrete deemed adequate in lieu of anything resembling actual seats. The main stand, where I, and virtually all of the other spectators were sat, was the only covered part of the ground, and was more or less full of surprisingly enthusiastic fans, banging drums and singing away to cheer their team to victory.
The crowd were in full voice, and soon the sound became something of a visual spectacle as well, with the arrival of a giant flag unfurled over the seats. The guy who brought the flag also handed out specially printed Thailand headbands to all those in the front rows, including myself. I could have tied it banzai style around my head, but didn’t, partly because I thought it’d make a good souvenir, but mainly because I thought I’d look a right tit.
The farang contingent also doubled, as another western tourist arrived, looking thoroughly cheesed off as he saw me, seeing that he wasn’t the only westerner at the game. He walked the other direction, avoiding me, perhaps not wanting the pair us of to look “same same” as the Thais say. Maybe he even took the extra step of wearing the headband, as that would make us, as that other ubiquitous Thai-English phrase goes, “same same, but different.”
As it happens Thailand didn’t actually need to win the game. They were already top of their group, which was one of several round-robin groups played over a week and a half in the same Asian city to decide who qualified for the finals. Second placed South Korea had already surprisingly lost to Vietnam, who were third in the group. Thailand just had to avoid defeat in this, the final game, to qualify. South Korea needed to win to make qualifying certain, but if they won, and Vietnam also won, then Vietnam could possibly pip Thailand for the 2nd qualifying spot.
If points were level, it would go down to the head to head scores. Vietnam had beaten South Korea 1-0. Thailand had beaten Vietnam 1-0. A two goal win for South Korea would knock Thailand out, but a 1 goal win, in which both teams scored, say perhaps 2-1 to South Korea, would guarantee both Thailand and South Korea qualified on goals scored. I don’t want to ruin the surprise, so I’ll dwell on this no more.
Much more important was my surprise at how good the play was. The Thais might not be giants on the field (or indeed off it) but the U19s exhibited levels of ball control and skill that belied a nation who thought employing Peter Reid and Bryan Robson as national coaches would improve their game. And if a few cynical souls had predicted an obvious outcome to the match based on the situation, the Thais certainly hadn’t read the script, going at the Koreans and full pelt. It was no surprise that Thailand took the lead, with the ball being bundled in in uncharacteristically untidy fashion, given the play so far, to be greeted with a mix of a roar and of a squeal of youthful exuberance. They really should have gone further ahead, such was their play. The fans, and the players deserved more, but it didn’t come, so it was just a one goal lead at half time.
I was feeling slightly peckish so I went in search of food, but found nothing I could identify. Buying food you can’t identify can be an adventure, but unpleasant when it goes wrong, such was the time, gasping with thirst, that I accidentally bought a bottle of tonic water in Budapest. In Thailand I’m a bit more wary though. An incident on a previous trip caused by something odd I ate, made me temporarily lose 90% of my hearing and vision, beyond bright lights, on parts of a very unpleasant flight home. And as delicious as the street food probably was there, I only had to look at it to have visions of my hotel toilet turning from a casual acquaintance to an earnest and trusty friend. At least (and apologies in advance to anyone eating lunch) they have an alternative to toilet paper in such cases, which might as well by industrial strength sandpaper after a day or two of such a scenario. They don’t go the whole hog Japanese style, with full electronically controlled bottom valet service, but they do provide a hand-held jet-wash, rather like the extendable soft drink dispensers they have in pubs. I don’t think they have a Coke, Sprite or Fanta option, but they are welcome all the same.
For the second half, I, like several other fans, opted to forsake the cosy confines of the main stand and seek alternative viewpoints. While not fit for the King, the main stand area was palatial in comparison to the rest of the stadium. The concrete had a kind of gritty patchy black coating which is the kind of look that haunts neglected cheap 1960s stadiums the world over. Maybe being an army stadium, it’s intended for hardy souls who regard such conditions as being the sort of thing to put hairs on your chest, while lesser civilians only worry about black marks on their clothing.
The first half had been something of a black mark against South Korea, who’d barely competed at all. Either there had been some very strong words in the dressing room at half time, or an envelope stuffed full of used high-denomination Baht banknotes was slipped under the Thai dressing room door, as the second half was completely different. Gone was the enthusiasm and competitiveness from the Thai players so evident in the first half. It was South Korea, as if suddenly realising the ramifications of losing, who came out playing all the football. My decision to move behind the Thai goal was now something of an act of folly, as all the play was up the other end in the distance, with a backdrop of the curious Army club behind the goal, with its sloping curved roof looking like it had escaped from a Dali painting.
On the hour Korea levelled the scores, sending the South Korea fans present into a frenzy. Their drums beat out on the far side of the stadium, making as much noise as seven people with two drums between them are ever feasibly likely to make.
This minor set-back seemed to inspire Thailand for a while, and those who’d lumped their savings on that ever-so-possible 2-1 South Korea victory were starting to get nervous every time the ball crossed the half-way line. It didn’t last though, and South Korea pressed again. As time ticked on their play went from urgent to desperate, and local bookmakers started to anticipate the flutter of discarded betting slips. South Korea couldn’t have been more camped in the Thailand half if they’d pitched tents and cooked dinner on a barbecue, but that elusive goal just wouldn’t come.
A late chance for them came two minutes from time. A free kick, fairly central and a few yards outside the box, presented a great opportunity. The kick was hit with power over the wall. Either side of the keeper and it would surely have been a goal, but the kick taker decided he’d seen a gap where the goalkeepers hands would be, and aimed there instead. It was an inspired decision, as the ball went straight through the keepers hands as if his palms were made of barley sugar, powering into the net.
So 2-1 it was. A script as predictable as a Roger Moore era Bond movie, complete with late against-the-clock drama to avoid disaster. The Buddhist Thais would no doubt just claim it was fate, and as the Vietnamese qualified anyway as best third-place finishers, probably no complaints there either.
With qualification assured, both teams left the field to almost embarrassed delight. The seven-strong travelling army cheered away, and the pink-clad stewards had an easy afternoon coping with the not-quite-sure-how-to-react crowd. There was a palpable sense of anti-climax, tempered by qualification, which the prospect of sticking around for the bottom-of-the-table clash between Bangladesh and Laos would do little to ease. That 3800 of the slightly ambitiously stated 4000 crowd chose to not stick around to witness that game wasn’t a surprise. Even later drama there saw Bangladesh score two very late goals, going from last place to the giddy heights of fourth in the process, while condemning Laos to the wooden spoon. Like 3799 others though, I wasn’t there to see it. Those less famed bright lights can only appeal for so long.