Phnom Penh, Olympic Stadium, Akira FC 3 Reds 4

Olympic Stadium Phnom Penh 07

Akira FC 3 Reds 4 (21/11/2011)

Cambodia is a very friendly country. After all, many western guys get all too accustomed in this part of the world to calls of “Hellooo han-som man”, but only in Cambodia did I get it going through airport security, coupled with a wave from a giggling girl working the x-ray machine. The friendliness all feels genuine though, and even the little kids who plead “Meester, meester….give me one doll-ar” do it with a charm that makes it hard to resist.

After decades of strife, tourism is really taking off in the country. The main port of call is Siem Reap in the North, with the massive and stunning temples around Angkor Wat. It’s a very tourist-friendly town, and like Phnom Penh, has an area pretty much dedicated to tourist bars and nightspots. You sit drinking Anchor Draft for $0.50 in colonial buildings, sitting in the kind of wicker furniture you expect to see Emmanuelle lounging in before she has wild but contextually meaningful sex with a man with a moustache.

Phnom Penh, on the other hand, is a city still showing its battle scars. The ride in from the city’s outskirts can leave you feeling the civil war ended 12 months rather than 12 years ago in parts, and after little Siem Reap, the size of the city can come as something of a shock. Make no mistake, the city is certainly on the up. It even has a few skyscrapers now, as the previously shattered economy slowly crawls to where it would have been had the 70s/80s/90s turmoil not taken place.

Saying that, when two of the city’s main draws are a mass grave at Choeung Ek, where the Khmer Rouge executed 17,000 and the interogation prison, Tuol Sleng, where even more were tortured, you certainly feel that past more than in Siem Reap.

It was directly after visiting Tuol Sleng that I made my way to Phnom Penh’s Olympic Stadium. Using a somewhat fragrant canal-cum-open sewer as a guide to the stadium through Phnom Penh’s numbered, but now always signposted streets, I was expecting to spend no more than 5-10 minutes at the stadium. I knew the national league, the C-League, had long since finished, but upon climbing to the upper reaches of the bowl, it was clear the two teams on the pitch below were going through pre-match warm-ups.

I admit, I had sneaked in through a gap in the fence. After displaying my never-ceasing ability to circuit an entire stadium perimeter before finding the entrance, I followed a lad through the gap thinking it unimportant. It was only after seeing the teams that I wondered if I’d sneaked in without paying.

A quick check around the back of the main stand showed no evidence anywhere of the kind of paraphernalia associated with a match, so I made my way, guilt-free, into the main stand. Without being unkind, Phnom Penh’s Olympic Stadium isn’t going to win too many awards for beauty. That’s all the more surprising considering it was designed by the same architect who produced the delicate lotus-flower shaped Independence Monument in the city, which also features on the back of the 100 Riel note (value, about 1.5p). If the government were hoping for a similarly inspired design, the stadium must have been something of a shock. Three sides of bleak open bench seating faced a main stand which was a raised slab of concrete steps, with another flat concrete slab for a roof. A tiny traditionally decorated gable in the centre gives off a hint of humanity, but it’s clearly a place that looks its best when full, and most of the structure is therefore hidden from view.

That wasn’t really an option on this day though. I had no idea who the two teams going through their pre-match drills were, and judging by the lack of interest of the people inside the stadium, neither did they. There were a couple of hundred people perhaps inside the stadium, but with the stadium completely open to the public, most were either jogging round the running track or just idling about for no apparent reason. With no real plans for the rest of the afternoon, I decided to sit down in the shade, to cool down for a bit if nothing else, and watch a bit of the game, whoever it was playing.

There were two teams. One in blue had the name “Akira FC” on the back of their shirts. The other team, who played in red, either had a sponsor “7CT. Sport” there instead, or had a rather name for a club.

It didn’t take long to establish that these were not two high-quality sides playing, yet there was still enough there to show these were not two Cambodian pub-team equivalents either. The standard reminded me of perhaps Hellenic League football. Granted, played at a rather slower pace – you don’t get to many games in Abingdon played in 34 C heat with 75% humidity – but with a better first touch being balanced out by a reluctance to head the ball.

It also didn’t take long to establish that if any team was to score, it would most likely be the mystery red team. Sadly, in the first half at least, they played a succession of final balls and shots so tear-your-hair-out woeful that Brian May would have looked liked Brian Glover had he been a fan.

With the first half ending 0-0 I did ponder not sticking about, but realising I could get onto the running track myself for a much closer view, I decided to stay. I noticed I wasn’t the only one either. The “crowd”, while still numbered in the hundreds, was decidedly bigger than it had been earlier. I couldn’t understand why, unless the succession of bad misses had got to the level where the Guinness Book of Records might be involved. I also couldn’t understand why most were stood right up on the back of the open stands like Zulus coming over the hill, or why so many of them were women.

Within seconds I realised, as the PA system cranked into life and loud western music filled the air. Of the many uses for a municipal stadium, mass aerobics workouts wasn’t one I’d thought of too often. Here though, a few hundred people went for the burn, dancing about to songs and the back of the terraces, following the lead of their dance instructors. That this sight and soundtrack continued for the whole second half made it somewhat surreal.

Almost as surreal was that after a masterclass of scoring ineptitude for the first 45 minutes, the game went goal-crazy for the second. Early in the second half, a fine – yes fine – through ball put a red attacker clear. He raced through one on one, opened up his body and placed a perfect side-foot shot past the keeper. 1-0 to the reds.

Not long later, another break saw the ball played wide into the left side of the box. From a tight angle this was lashed past the keeper who got two hands up but could stop it powering into the net for a 2-0 lead.

Just a couple of minutes later it was 3-0, with a red striker given far too much space in the box, allowing him to steer low into the corner of the net.

Another good chance was missed before it was 4-0 just after the hour. With the Akira defence putting up marginally less resistance than a set of traffic cones, another move down the left allowed to simple pass for a tap-in.

With the clock ticking towards 5.30, and neither side opting for the “with floodlights” option when renting the pitch, it was starting to get distinctly gloomy. For Akira FC, who must have been distinctly gloomy already at 0-4 down, they could have been excused for hoping for darkness to hide their embarrassment. Instead, like a team of badgers in blue polyester, they came alive as darkness started to fall. First they pulled one back with such stealth that I didn’t even realised they’d scored until I saw the teams line up at the centre circle to kick off.

With 10 to go they got and scored a penalty, and 5 minutes a later a ball flashed across the 6 yard box was turned in to set up a tense, not to mention very dark, finish. Even the aerobicisors, silhouetted against what was rapidly becoming a night sky, might have taken note.

Could Akira pull off a remarkable comeback? No. Not unless they scored and it was missed by everyone, which would certainly have been possible in the gloom. Maybe it was just as well. Extra time without lights – now that would have been a real challenge.

I later found out that the Olympic Stadium can be hired by literally anybody, the equivalent of being able to hire Wembley for a kickabout with your mates from work. This game though seemed to have been part of a “Sport For All” tournament, for (presumably) the best strictly amateur teams around the country. Akira FC have been competing for a few years, but I still have no idea who the team in red were.

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