Sriracha 1 Osotspa 1 (26/11/2011)
As a club, Sriracha of Thailand’s Chonburi district don’t have too many obvious things to boast about. Five years young, their only previous season in Thailand’s top division had ended in instant relegation, and things weren’t looking rosy this season either. The club has no honours beyond winning the 2nd tier last season, and this lack of success has meant they haven’t enjoyed the mini-boom which has hit Thai football in the last few years.
They do, however, manage to boast no fewer than four club songs. One is a calypso number. Another, sounding rather similar to the first, is the only song I’ve heard which seems to feature a wobble-board without Rolf Harris doing the vocals. Another featured Barry Manilow style piano playing and singing, with the last sounding like Green Day had been roped in to do a number. If only the Sriracha forwards were as prolific, they’d have been safe weeks ago.
They also, thanks to the unexpected match in Cambodia, were the hosts for my 200th ground. That little stat will have zero significance for anyone at the club, but it makes the club a tiny bit special to me.
Sriracha, actually pronounced Siracha thanks to Thailand’s baffling and endemic habit of including silent letters in the transliterations from its own alphabet, is about 20 miles north of the rather more famous, or perhaps infamous, tourist resort of Pattaya. Pattaya’s certainly an interesting place. It’s big and brash, although it’s hard to imagine just how big or brash until you get there. The bright lights of Walking Street are certainly an area you’ll like or loathe. The live open-air music bar round the corner from my hotel, which had Thai bands playing Black Sabbath’s Paranoid and similar numbers into the small hours didn’t endear me too much, but it was OK. A Russian invasion is also in full swing, with them now outnumbering all other tourists put together. The men all look like ex, or maybe even current Russian mob hit-men, and the typically attractive women by their sides pose for holiday snaps as if they are on fashion shoots. That said, if you can get your head round the crazy excesses, it’s OK as a base for a week or so.
A common day-trip from there is to the Sriracha Tiger Zoo, and this allowed me to have both the day trip and see the football in Sriracha town itself. Such is the drop in optimism with “The Blue Marlins” stuck in the relegation zone all season, that if I’d followed the crowds I’d have ended up at the nearby Robinson’s department store rather than the ground. Luckily the charmingly kitsch and temple-laden Sriracha Pier provided an easy guide to the stadium, with it being 100m from the end of it.
Sriracha’s stadium isn’t the best in the world, but is perfectly adequate for a club of their stature. Satellite photos of the area from Google Maps suggest the area was an undeveloped municipal athletics track until very recently, so praise should go to what’s there, not what’s not. The ground does boast a smart new main stand, with a dozen or so rows of seating – read white concrete steps – with glazed VIP/media boxes at the rear. Such is the palatial luxury of this stand that a massive 150 Baht (£3) is charged for admission. For this premium you are allowed to choose your own reserved seat, albeit from a printed sheet of paper showing what’s left rather than by computer, with the ticket for your chosen seat picked out by hand by the women running the table selling tickets. Small-time, maybe, but I’ve never felt so endeared to a ticketing system since I saw Crewe Alexandra’s old main stand reserving bench places with the use of sticky labels with season ticket holders’ names on them.
Opposite the main stand was a stand holding eight rows of bleacher seating. This housed the vociferous element of Sriracha’s support, who, like all of Thailand’s committed fans, think nothing up jumping up and down for 90 minutes, even when the mercury is pushing the high side of 30 C and the humidity is at levels which rival Turkish baths.
Curving round, but not really filling one end, are several other bleacher stands. Just four rows deep, and offering a rather poor view from behind the curve of the track, these seemed to have been put there to block the otherwise free views from the street rather than any need. The one exception was in one corner, where the away fans of Osotspa were housed. Around 100 yellow and red clad fans had made their way down from the Saraburi district, around 100 miles to the north.
The other end was completely undeveloped, beyond a scoreboard, and relied on several condominiums with unimpeded views to fill the gap. So not perfect, but given that all four sides were like that not so long ago, the club is taking a “from small acorns…” approach. Without a rich backer, it’s all they can do.
As well as a lack of stands in some places, one thing I was also noticing was a lack of fences and turnstiles. It turned out, common to all the Thai games I’d attend, that with no refreshment facilities inside the stadium, ground control worked on the “school disco” system of having a rubber stamp ink a mark on your wrist to show you’d paid to get in. I can’t imagine they’ll be adopting that policy at EURO 2012 next summer, but it worked fine here.
Sriracha’s fans may be small in number, only 850 were at the game on this night – a season low by some margin – but they were big on enthusiasm, singing away and banging drums to try to encourage the team to victory. With the situation at the bottom looking very troubling, just 22 points from 25 games, and three points adrift of safety, a win would have been very welcome.
The team’s performance even matched the fans enthusiasm, with an almost gung-ho willingness to attack being thwarted by a frustrating knack of playing a bad ambitious ball when a simple one could have reaped dividends. There is also, as I would learn, seemingly no equivalent of the phrase “man on” in Thai. Players would dispossess others with ease, only to have the ball pinched back off them just as easily.
I was enjoying the game though. It was open with both teams looking committed, and my team for the day certainly playing the better football. Unfortunately they are the second lowest scorers in the division, and it was showing. As the game wore on, Osotspa got more and more into it, and were looking increasingly likely to nick one on the break.
With just 13 minutes left though, it looked like Sriracha would have that vital win. A break down the left resulted in a shot that the keeper couldn’t hold. Journeyman Brazilian Cristiano Lopes, who up to then had had one of those busy but unproductive games that makes it hard to decide if the player is playing well or badly, reacted first. Before the ball had even bounced down he’d pounced to side-foot into the corner through a crowd of players. 1-0, and maybe this could be the score to lift Sriracha out of the bottom three.
Alas, with just 5 minutes left, criminal defending landed Sriracha right back in gaol. A ball cut back from the byline should have presented no danger with only one Osotspa attacker forward and six Sriracha players around the six yard box. Somehow none of them thought to either block the ball or mark the attacker, and he had the freedom of the six yard box to flick the ball past the understandably annoyed goalkeeper. Two points thrown away, and if there was a Thai translation of “…that’s why you’re going down…” then the Osotspa fans would have been justified in singing it. They wouldn’t have done, of course. A couple of recent unsavoury incidents involving Thai Port fans aside, there doesn’t seem to be any animosity in the crowd between the fans in Thai games. Everyone just seems to be there to enjoy themselves. And despite the disappointment of the draw, I know I did too.