Muang Thong 2 Kashima Antlers 1

Muang Thong United 2 Kashima Antlers 1 (28th Feb 2017)

With complaints about their tax avoidance, and their general dislike among the lefty unwashed masses for representing everything bad about global corporations, Starbucks struggles for praise these days, so I’ll break the trend. Not for their coffee, and certainly not for the way they took advantage of my heat-induced weariness in the Bangkok sun to tempt me into their “special offer” hideously over-priced coffee-of-the-day. No, they get praise for providing free papers, one of which, the Bangkok Post, I had a flick through while trying to cool off from the 35C heat outside.

On the sports pages, there was a preview of that evening’s AFC Champions League tie between Muang Thong Utd and Kashima Antlers of Japan. I knew the game was taking place, but with me already having a ticket reserved for Muang Thong’s game with Chonburi on the Sunday, I hadn’t been considering trekking all the way out to their ground in Nonthaburi, 15 miles to the north, twice in half a week.

The match report though talked about the game being at Supachalasai Stadium, smack in the middle of Bangkok, just a few stops away on the elevated Skytrain, kicking off in a couple of hours time. I’d been to the smaller stadium directly next door, but not to Supachalasai, so this was an ideal start to my first few days in Bangkok.

First though, I had to get back to my hotel on Soi Nana for a quick shower, as Bangkok heat, and high humidity, don’t exactly keep you fresh. Soi Nana is certainly one of the more “interesting” and “colourful” streets I’ve ever stayed on, at times feeling a bit like something out of the wild west, where you could probably find everything you want, and everything you don’t want, if you looked.

What it does also have is an abundance of taxis and tuk-tuks. Usually these are pockets of rampant inflation compared to prices half a mile in any other direction, and you’ll struggle to find a taxi with a “working” meter on this street. I, however, got touted for a fare by a “freelance” (for freelance read “some bloke with a heap of shit car who’ll drive you somewhere”) taxi driver who agreed to go to the stadium for 150 Baht, about £3. Way more than the Skytrain fare, but it’s a 10 minute walk to Nana station, and I was feeling lazy.

The stadium was only two miles away, but in the glacial traffic speeds of central Bangkok, it took half an hour to get there. My taxi driver, I feel, was just starting to fish for a larger tip with tales of financial struggle, as we got close enough to the stadium to suggest that I could get out now, handily just a short walk from a ticket window and a 300 Baht (£6) ticket, with the stand picked for speed for getting back to the Skytrain after the match.

The stand I’d chosen was clearly a popular one. Even armed with very little useful knowledge of the Thai langauge, I was still able to tell the people with the megaphones outside the entry gates were ushering everyone further down the stand. I’d previously asked the meaning of the series of Thai squiggles under the row/seat area of my ticket, to confirm it meant “unreserved”, but arriving with just about 30 minutes before kick-off, I had less choice than I’d hoped.

I’d wondered why the queues for the pretty ordinary looking refreshment stands outside the ground were so long. Once inside, it was clear – there was absolutely no provision for food or drink inside the ground. I asked a steward about food/drink – more of a mime than a question – and my ticket was re-scanned, so I could go out of the ground and come in again, but this time with some cold drink to cool me down. The sun may have set, but it’s fair to say that nobody thought they needed to put a jacket on to keep the cold off.

The Supachalasai Stadium doesn’t hold too many, a shade under 20,000 but it looks much bigger. For a start the ends are straight, despite behind the curve of a running track, making the ground more of a “D” shape, like Fiorentina. It’s also the only ground I’ve seen, and I’ve seen quite a few, where fans are prevented from getting onto the pitch by means of a large hedge.

After the inevitable flag-carrying FIFA anthem ritual that seems deeply ingrained into football culture here for some reason, the match started, and the hosts started the best. Kashima Antlers were favourites, befitting the club that just two months earlier were 38 minutes away from being crowned World Champions after taking a surprise 2-1 over Real Madrid in the FIFA World Club Final. Unfortunately for them, this meant that they seemed to treat beating the Thai champions as a formality, keeping it tight at the back, and waiting for the breakaways that would win them the game.

Muang Thong had other ideas, and deservedly took the lead in the 12th minute, scoring direct from a free kick from 25 yards, to the delight of the home support. They ought to have made it 2-0 not too long later. A move into the box ended in a shot being blocked. It spun perfectly for another Muang Thong player following in, but his shot was also blocked and the chance was gone. Kashima Antlers posed a minimal threat, seemingly oblivious to the danger they were in, and you had to worry that Muang Thong weren’t making the most of their dominance.

Full credit in the first half must go to the Kashima Antlers fans. A few hundred had made the trip over, and despite the fact that their team spent the first half looking like they’d rather have been shopping in one of the numerous vast shopping malls the line the next mile of so east down the main Sukhumvit Road from the ground, they spent the half singing away, waving flags, and jumping up and down continuously. For me, just walking up the steps to my seat was enough to bring me out in a sweat, so their commitment was admirable.

I’m not sure what the Japanese equivalent of “being given a bit of a bollocking” is, with “saving face” being more important than displays of anger in many Asian cultures, but Kashima Antlers came out in the 2nd half looking like their half-time team talk has been a bit more stern than “keep it up lads”, and it took just two minutes to level the score. There was a big element of luck about it though. There was a lovely cross in to Kashima’s Brazilian forward Pedro Junior, but he completely miskicked the ball, only for it to bounce off his standing leg and run perfectly for a 2nd chance against the wrong-footed Muang Thong keeper, and a virtual tap-in to equalise. He’s also one of those players who adopts the stupid trend of wearing his socks pulled up over his knees, just to give you more incentive to dislike him.

Rather than push on for a winner though, Kashima went back into to playing for a draw mode, albeit a bit better than they did in the first half, and with less than 10 minutes left, it looked like they get a winner they didn’t deserve.

A very soft penalty was awarded to Kashima Antlers when a Muang Thong defender touched a Kashima player’s shoulder, or perhaps just looked at him in a funny way, and the ref pointed to the spot. Up stepped the Kashima No.9, Yuma Suzuki, and he calmly sent the keeper the wrong way from the spot. It would have been the perfect penalty, had it not rolled about a foot the wrong side of the post.

This fired up the crowd and put a new burst of life into the Muang Thong team. They’d not played as well as in the first half, and overall Kashima had shown in glimpses why they were favourites, but Muang Thong had the greater heart and got their reward right at the death. In the 6th minute of stoppage time a nice exchange of passes saw the ball cut back across the 6 yard box, where one-time Newcastle United flop Xisco Jiménez was on hand for a happier career moment, by tucking in the winner at the far post.

As it would turn out, this would be the only Muang Thong game I’d see. Their home game a few days later got switched to an away game, apparently something to do with the League Cup draw, but if you are going to see a “stand-in” game, you can’t ask for much more than a dramatic late winner for the home side. I was happy. Not as happy as the home fans, but Thailand is known as The Land of Smiles, and theirs were positively beaming.

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