Bangkok Glass 2 BEC Tero Sasana 0 (03/12/2011)
Although I look forward to visiting all the grounds I go to, very occasionally some grounds are a little special. Bohemians Prague’s “Dimple” was one, having acquired a loosely-termed following for the club, along with a tiny part-ownership beforehand. Bangkok Glass’ Leo Stadium is another in this very short list.
It wasn’t always that way. When I first arranged this trip, way back in September, I chose the Bangkok Glass game over another in the city purely because it looked likely it would be more full than the impressive 25000 seat Thamasat University Stadium nearby would be for a game there.
That all changed when news of the floods hitting Thailand caught my eye. Anyone seeing the blink-and-you’d-miss-it coverage in the UK media would be forgiven for thinking the Thai floods were much like those you might see in the UK, where a town centre would be underwater for two or three days, before the waters recede and people are mopping up and getting back to normal within a week. The truth is very different. A volume of water large enough to fill everything inside the M25 six metres deep, sat over central Thailand, and inched its way slowly towards the sea.
Day by day, mile by mile, flood defences were overwhelmed, and drainage channels were found to be not maintained or illegally blocked by development. Everything in the water’s path got submerged, long term, by waters over a metre deep. That FROC, the Flood Relief Operations Centre, had to move itself because it got flooded, kind of highlights that lack of organisation and coordination that only seemed to make matters worse.
If there was one thing they did agree on though, it was that Central Bangkok had to be spared. For a country that relies a lot on foreign investment and tourism, it was devastating enough to see a succession of major industrial parks flooded to the rooftops, but having the capital underwater for a month just before the peak of the tourist season, as well as seeing the financial centre out of action, would be too much.
The plan, to control water into the city with sluice gates and flood walls worked to a large extent. Some parts of the city, notably including the domestic airport, did flood, but the centre of Bangkok stayed dry. Walking round Central Bangkok, I still saw plenty of hastily built breeze block or sandbag defences outside shops and business, but at least for them the danger had passed.
The downside of protecting one area is that if the water didn’t go into central Bangkok, it had to go elsewhere. And that elsewhere was effectively all the outer districts of Bangkok. They suffered – and in some places are still suffering – flooding two months later.
One of those districts is Pathum Thani, 20 miles north of the centre. A sprawling district, its 800,000 population is largely located near a few main highways, and canals, which became the main route the water would also take southwards. One major canal, Klong Rangsit, running East-West, would suffer serious flooding. It is directly north of Klong Rangsit that you find Leo Stadium, home of Bangkok Glass.
The stadium itself did not flood. Being next door to the Bangkok Glass factory, the whole compound was protected by earthen flood walls and water pumps, but the neighbouring areas were not so lucky. Dreamworld, Thailand’s biggest theme park, almost opposite on the other side of Klong Rangsit, was put out of action for 6 months. The homes of thousands suffered an equal fate. Discussions on a Thai forum with an English Bangkok Glass fan, actually the club mascot, ended abruptly when he announced that he’d lost everything due to the floods submerging his house completely. I was worrying about a football match being postponed. It does put things into perspective rather.
The corporate name of Bangkok Glass may be a an initial turn-off for many fans around the world, but the Thai League does have something of a tradition of corporations running clubs. As recently as four years ago, 12 of the 16 TPL clubs were either affiliated with or had direct control from a company or authority. It’s down to 9 of 18 now, and even many of those under company control have made efforts to move to areas, often in completely different parts of the country, to gain support.
One of those 12 in 2007 was Krung Thai Bank FC. Their decent record in the Thai League up to that point, including back to back titles in 2003 and 2004, is probably indicative of the weakness of the TPL at that point rather than the strength of the club. Playing in the AFC Champions League in 2008, their six group stage matches recorded a remarkable 47 goals. These included 1-9 (home) and 1-8 defeats to Kashima Antlers of Japan, as well as an 8-1 win of their own over Nam Dinh of Vietnam.
For some reason that isn’t entirely clear, the club was unable to take part in the 2009 season, and that’s where Bangkok Glass stepped in. Bangkok Glass had set up a football club three years earlier playing at a small stadium in the 4th tier of Thai football, next to its Pathum Thani factory. The ground had one small stand holding maybe 400 people, but was otherwise more or less undeveloped. It would have looked perfectly at home in the Rymans League, other than the fact that you don’t tend to see palm trees outside the likes of Billericay FC.
Bangkok Glass took over Krung Thai Bank FC, and leapt into Thailand’s top division, and the stadium grew along with the fan base. The 6500 they regularly draw to Leo Stadium make them one of the better supported clubs in the country, albeit considerably behind the booming “four titles in their first four seasons” Muang Thong United, and the recently moved champions-elect Buriram PEA, whose backing has allowed the building of an impressive 25000 seat stadium.
One small element of good fortune was that during the very peak of the flood crisis, the already fragmented TPL season took a three week break for the Southeast Asia games. By the time of Bangkok Glass’s next home game, two weeks before I was due there, the roads to the stadium were still impassable and they had to play at Muang Thong United’s ground, a few miles west. Less than 1500 made the trip, and that possibly made the club determined to play the next game at Leo Stadium if at all possible. With the flood waters starting to recede, maybe it would also be a sign of things starting to return to normal for Pathum Thani as well.
With a week to go before the game, I still did not know where it would be played. The hilariously mangled Thai-English translations from the official club site through Google Translate implied a determination to play at Leo Stadium, but it wasn’t until asking an official at the BEC Tero Sasana (BGFC’s opponents) match on the Wednesday that I had it confirmed that I definitely would be going to Leo Stadium after all. Being played on the last weekend of three and a half weeks of travelling, getting there had almost taken on pilgrimage significance.
Mind you, getting there from Bangkok wasn’t quite as easy as I’d hoped. There probably are buses from Central Bangkok to Pathum Thani, but as any tourist knows, understanding a foreign city’s bus routes and timetables rivals deciphering the Rosetta Stone in complication, particularly when written in an unitelligible script. With no other public transport going near the stadium, this left me with taxis. Not wanting to be quoted tourist rates in the centre, I ventured out to the Skytrain’s northern outpost of Mo Chit. At the height of the floods, the southern extent of the water could be seen from here, but it was dry now. The number of taxi drivers who could speak English had also dried up though, and none of the ones whose English was even “nid noi” (a little) seemed to have heard of Leo Stadium. Luckily they had heard of the Dreamworld theme park opposite, as well as Tesco, whose store next door to the stadium was a continuing part of the supermarket chain’s bid for world domination.
All looked fine until we reached the Klong Rangsit turn-off. Admittedly, the route was by elevated toll-road, and if that was flooded then things would be really serious. The slip road took us past the Future Park shopping mall, and it was there that I got the first taste of how much flooding, even then, remained.
Thailand is 95% Buddhist, and officially the second religion of the country is Islam. Spend any time in Thailand though and you realise the 2nd biggest religion is actually shopping. Despite being a much poorer country than those in the West, the country loves its shopping malls. It’s tempting to say they are like malls over here, but they aren’t. They are much bigger. Future Park is 6 stories high and is three times the size of the supposedly huge Lakeside near Thurrock. There are other malls double the size of Future Park in the centre of the city, and the Lakeside probably doesn’t boast a Maserati showroom either.
Less welcome for shoppers was the fact that Future Park also had several inches of water in the car park. Less welcome for me and my taxi driver was that this water was also present on the slip road we had to drive down. It was deep, but keeping over to one side of the cambered surface at least kept it under their height of the door sills.
If we’d thought going through that was it, we were wrong. Every few hundred metres along the four mile road to the stadium saw a dip in the road with a similar few inches of water to traverse. Side roads all along showed canals where there once were streets. Dirty brown tide marks a metre high on the buildings showed where the water level was until very recently. You couldn’t help but wonder what the people here felt about their communities being deemed expendable so Bangkok could stay dry.
The four mile trip from the toll road took nearly half an hour, such were the problems with the floods, but eventually, through the forest of advertising hoardings that line the strip of the road by Klong Rangsit, the huge Warren Stand of Leo Stadium came into view. Illogical butterflies of excitement went through me. This was a place I really wanted to be, and that stand would be my home for the best part of the rest of the evening.
When the stadium developed, the first additions were two stands flanking the original main stand, taking the seating capacity to around 2000. While not constrained by a running track, as found at most Thai clubs, BGFC did, and still do, have the problem of not owning the land beyond the far touchline. While not really an issue in the early days in Thailand’s 4th tier, it became more of one once in the TPL. Bangkok Glass’ approach, rather than following the norm of having bleachers at both ends, was instead to build a towering triple deck stand holding 6000 seated at one end. So steep are the upper tiers that terrace style crush barriers had to be installed, which is just as well as everyone who goes there treats it as a terrace anyway.
A smaller single tier away stand at the far end was added in three sections later, adding perhaps another 2500 places. The third section had only just been completely, but the surprisingly disappointing turnout of maybe 200 BEC Tero Sasana fans didn’t come close to filling one section, let alone needing the third. The fourth side remains resolutely undeveloped. A series of tarpaulins hanging from the high fence give the side a sense of enclosure. Hidden is a thin strip of wasteland, with the monolithic Tesco Lotus rising beyond.
With the other stands fairly low-profile, the view from the back of the “Warren” Stand (BGFC are known as the “Glass Rabbits”) feels even higher than it otherwise might. There are higher stands, certainly, but you really are getting into the realms of the world’s major stadiums to find ones that feel significantly taller, such is the impact of the lower stands around it, and certainly not many are steeper. You don’t get many better views for £1.60 (80 Baht) either. The only slight disappointment is that even up at the giddy heights, there’s not a great deal to see in this part of Pathum Thani. Central Bangkok is just too distant, and the view north is mainly flat. It does offer a decent view of the Rangsit Canal and the flood defences, but so does walking past them.
A tad over-enthused, I decided to buy both a scarf and a fetching Bangkok Glass polo-shirt. The latter was a mistake. It looks fine enough, but a lack of appreciation that a Thai “Medium” shirt doesn’t have quite the same cut as a UK one (despite a chart indicating it’s meant for 38″-40″) meant I’d purchased something a shade too snug for my liking. Regardless, with wrist stamped and refreshments bought, I was ready for the game. I did decide the middle tier would be a shade more sensible than the very top though.
Below me, in the lower tier, were the more noisy contingent of Bangkok Glass’ fans. As at BEC Tero Sasana, these fans were led by guys with megaphones and drummers, but they had the advantage here of greater numbers, and were more impressive. Interestingly the fans’ anthem, sounding a bit like a distant cousin of the verses from Yellow Submarine, was sung in English.
With the teams having already been led out to the FIFA Fair Play anthem, and the “Sponsor Thai” booth outside (The TPL’s sponsor is an energy drink called “Sponsor”) having stopped playing their Sponsor Thai song at last, “We come to cheer….BGFC, we come to cheer….Pathum Thani” was the refrain. All cheering again was cut short for the national anthem, and another minute’s silence (possibly also for Gary Speed) as the sun set across the stadium.
Maybe it would have been too perfect to expect a classic game as well, as the game started with Bangkok Glass flattering to deceive. They were certainly the better side. Having been pretty unimpressed with BEC Tero Sasana when they’d won in the week, I was brimming with confidence for a home victory. I was just wondering if the Glass Rabbits would shatter my hopes as they made heavy weather of breaking down surprisingly limited opposition.
Chances did come and go. A near post effort was met by a good save. A couple of shots were skied over from decent positions. A deep cross was headed by a player who probably wasn’t the intended target, drifting harmlessly wide. Perhaps the worst miss of all was just before half-time. A cross to just beyond the back post should have been perfect for a blast into the net. Instead the striker seemed to be seeing the headlines before doing the job, and sent the ball high and wide instead. Not that the visitors were doing much either. A poor free kick troubled only the ball-boys, and a shot from an angle should probably have been saved more convincingly than it was. Still 0-0 at the break, and only one team looked likely to break the deadlock.
BEC nearly took the lead completely against the run of play in the second half. A long range shot out of the blue almost caught out the Bangkok Glass keeper, with his save only just clearing the crossbar as it dropped down.
Just as the game was getting into “I wonder if it’ll be one of those games…” territory, Bangkok Glass did make the breakthrough. A little series of one-twos from a free kick on the corner of the box gave the chance of a cross from the byline. Crossing had been something of a weakness in the Thai games I’d seen so far, but this one was perfect. It looped over a stranded keeper and was on a plate for club captain Amnaj Kaewkiew to head in from six yards. 1-0 and the fans around and below me burst into life, singing away and waving flags.
It should have been 2-0 not long later. A header from a set piece was spilled by the keeper, but the on-rushing Kaewkiew, looking for his second, could only somehow hit it straight into the BEC keeper’s midriff, who gratefully clutched onto the ball this second time.
Bangkok Glass weren’t to be denied though. A through ball after a stumble played in Japanese midfielder Hironori Saruta, who’d looked dangerous all night. The BEC No.5 took the unusual step of deciding to pull out of the tackle rather than possibly concede a free kick on the edge of the box. Given that this allowed Saruta a clear run at goal, this perhaps wasn’t this wisest move, and a firm right foot finish into the bottom corner made it a costly mistake. That No.5, BEC’s vice captain Prat Samakrat had opted to have the first part of his name on his shirt seemed suitably apt at that point.
That the goal was a gift, didn’t matter. Victory was ours, there was no doubt now, and I savoured the win. The end to a very fine day. There was enough time afterwards for another round or two of the fans’ anthem, with the team lined up in salute, and even victory songs outside on the concourse as fans filed away. Those with transport that is. For those without, and I may have been in a minority of one, it was a case of waiting for a taxi to drive past. It may have taken a while but one eventually did turn up, and he even agreed to turn on the meter. And as any “farang” in Bangkok knows, if that happens it proves it really is your lucky day.