Eurohop – Part 1

May 9th, 2018

In England, the groundhopper has been a part of the non-league scene for many decades now. There are several hundreds of people who travel up and down the country “ticking” the small grounds. The hobby has spread to other countries as well, with Germany probably having more practitioners than the UK, and others coming from Scandinavia, the Netherlands and Switzerland.

I am not an expert on linguistics, but I have long held the belief that there is a linguistic grouping in the type of behaviour that leads to hobbies such as groundhopping (see also trainspotting, stamp collecting, etc.). In fact, this appears to go for any hobby which requires at least mild obsessive-compulsive actions. The desire to complete one set, and then go in search of another set does not appear to be so pronounced with people who speak Latin based languages (such as French, Italian and Spanish). Belgian hoppers are more likely to be Flemish speakers than Walloon, and Swiss hoppers are almost inevitably German speakers.

Of course, football goes beyond borders, and so not surprisingly, groundhopping does too. The most well-travelled groundhopper I know in England has, I believe watch football in 117 countries, and is at pains to say this is only FIFA members. It certainly puts my 71 countries (to date) in the shade, but some of the German hoppers are likely to have beaten these figures.

My figure, incidentally allows me to count Monaco (which is not a FIFA member, but is a member of the UN as a separate country). Monaco is odd insofar as while the football played in the principality is in the French Leagues, the grounds used for the main Monegasque competition are in France. The one I have been to, the Stade Plage Marquet Cap d’Ail is only just behind the arches of Monaco’s Stade Louis II

It has become a common theme with those of us that travel the grounds of Europe to make a tour in May, as the English season is drawing to a close. If one travels some long distances, then it may be possible to do games every day on a two to three-week period, even as those grounds already visited are not part of the equation. Yes, I do go to grounds I have been to before, but in the obsessive nature of hopping, each ground can only be “ticked” once. Two of those who have travelled with me most often in the past are in Europe at the same time as this trip. My son has given them both nicknames, so to avoid undue publicity, they will be referred to as Pizzaman and the Minion. The whole trip will be coloured slightly by the fact that another regular traveller, Paul Sparrow is no longer with us.

These trips are by rail, with us holding interrail tickets which makes the long runs easier. When we were younger, the trips would always include a fair number of overnight trains, but these days we tend to prefer hotel accommodation as much as the timetables allow. Interrail means that we are not stuck to the same itineraries. Our past records mean we want different grounds. In particular, the Minion and Pizzaman have done more of this type of trip than myself, but I have probably done more solo trips at other times.

So, I get a one-day head start, and this is typed from the Vienna to Graz train. Pizzaman will follow the same route 21 hours behind me, and we will then meet up and head to Slovenia. The Minion is coming into Vienna with Pizzaman, but I am not seeing him until Saturday, when we reach Germany.

My first game is in the Austrian Regionalliga Mitte, a match between SC Weiz and Vorwarts Steyr. This was always my intention when starting the trip, but just after I had booked my ticket, it was switched from Tuesday to Wednesday. Then two weeks later, the Austrian Cup final was scheduled for the Wednesday and my game was returned to the Tuesday. Austria has two professional divisions, which if we remove sponsors logos are Bundesliga and 1. Liga. They have been running with ten teams each and a 36-game season, but this is due to change next season. The Bundesliga will go to the 12-team format that is gaining in popularity. After 22 games, it will split into two groups, with the winner of the lower group is included in the play-off for the last Europa League place. The second tier will expand from 10 to 16 teams, meaning 8 new teams coming up from the three regionalliga. Champions and Runners-up should go up of right, and it appears two of the three third placed teams will go straight up, the third having a play-off against the bottom team in the 1. Liga. Although I had not seen this written, I had suspected that Regionalliga Mitte had drawn this short straw as they were finishing a week ahead of the other two – this would have made sense when the 1. Liga had an earlier finish but it now runs on to the same weekend of the Ost and West Regionalliga finish

As it happens events have got in the way. The Austrian Football Association have been hard pressed to find enough teams to bring the second level up to 16. It appears that the bottom team in the current 1.Liga will be reprieved from even a relegation play-off. Once those clubs who either do not want to be promoted, or cannot get a licence, it appears that only one club can be promoted from the Regionalliga West, Three from Regionalliga Ost, leaving four from the Mitte. Even then, it is not a matter of finishing in the top four. Neither Gleisdorf 09 (second when I started the tour), nor Union Vöcklamarkt (4th) want promotion, while Allerheiligen (7th) cannot get a licence. It is fairly certain that Lafnitz (confirmed as champions), Pasching/LASK Juniors (3rd), Vorwärts Steyr (5th) and Austria Klagenfurt (6th) will be promoted.

I arrive in Weiz by train quite and check into my hotel mid-afternoon. Weiz is a pleasant enough town, but very quiet with little happening. It is surrounded by hills, and therefore gets visitors who want to trek and take in the scenery. It is only a ten-minute walk from my hotel to the Stadium. The ground is basically two sided, with a few rows of terracing (uncovered) behind the goal as you enter, and covered stand running the entire length of one side. There is space behind the other goal, but this is grassed, with the area near the dressing rooms unused, and that further away having a marquee for use by the VIPs. It was not well used.

The other long side is very narrow and is an overgrown steep slope, interrupted only by team benches and the scoreboard.

When I arrived, they had opened an extra gate and put a fence between the end terrace and the rest of the ground, but when it became clear the visiting fans numbered a couple of dozen, not a couple of hundred this was abandoned, allowing the fans to mix freely, or more accurately allowing the visiting fans to find a good position to hang their surprisingly large array of flags.

Even though it was not a promotion requirement, I was told by a home official that Vorwärts still wanted to win and hence “earn” promotion, rather than gain it by default. The early stages of the game certainly suggested this was true, with them having a couple of chances before the division’s leading goalscorer, Yusuf Efendioglu found himself receiving a cross unmarked to open the scoring in the 8th minute. Steyr committed enough men forward that when their full back was disposed five minutes later, they did not have cover to prevent Weiz equalising, but quite quickly Efendioglu got on the scoresheet again to regain the advantage. For the rest of the first half, Steyr were well on top, and it was a surprise that they could not increase the lead. Weiz’s efforts were very limited and easily blocked.

In the second period, Weiz played better, committed more men to attack and created more chances, but still the edge was with the visitors. Lichtenberger hit a rising shot against the crossbar, and Efendioglu managed to balloon over an easy chance to complete his hat-trick. As the half wore on, and a mix of substitutions and yellow cards broke up the play, Weiz were still pushing to get back into the game. It was not until the 89th minute that Efendioglu managed to beat both defender and keeper to a loose ball to complete the scoring (leaving both of his opponents in a heap on the ground)

The result lifts Vorwärts into third place, two points behind Gleisdorf, with two games to play.

The next morning it was out of the hotel by 8, and on the train back to Graz. Here I had an hour for a coffee and to update my writings while waiting for the Pizzaman to arrive on the through train from Vienna to Ljubljana. Pizzaman sent me a message to say where he was on the train and we headed onward.

Considering the potential for things to go wrong, the Slovenian leg of the trip was smooth in a way that the football presented during it was not. Originally the thought was to go to Velenje on the Wednesday, for an evening game, and Kranj the next day for an afternoon one, but realising that the timing of the fixtures, (4, 6 and 8 o’clock on the Wednesday) meant it would be possible to go to both Domzale and Velenje on this day. The only catch being that one had to cover the 60km between the two by road. Once I had discovered that I could hire a car for as little as €18 for a day from a place very close to Ljubljana station, the plan was straight forward. With the train into Ljubljana being delayed, I called ahead to the rental company and asked that the car would be ready for a hurried take up. The company (Inter rent) were very good about this, and we just had to go through the normal paperwork before driving away. We arrived in Domzale around 50 minutes before kick off and parked in the car park for a supermarket, which backs onto the main stand.

All three of the grounds we were to visit in Slovenia had running tracks around them, and a main stand to one side. The away sides for the Wednesday matches were the two best supported teams in the league. Both Olimpija Ljubljana and Maribor claim over 3,000 supporters for their home games, while the next best in the league still get under 1000. In both cases, this resulted in a similar setting for the visiting fans, with a section for the “ultras” who would stand and sing during the game, and then the next block being occupied by the other visiting fans, who would sit and support their club in a quieter manner. There were some police and security around, but nothing to suggest that there would be any problems. Everyone was arriving and leaving through the same routes.

Maribor Ultras in Domzale.

One thing that does differentiate these Slovenian games from most of those I go to in Europe appeared to be the limited catering. As far as I could see, none of the clubs were selling any food to their patrons at all, and the only drinks options were for cold drinks, including lager.

 

Domzale was the only one of the three grounds which had a covered area opposite the main stand, this was mainly given over to VIP and press seats. Thanks to Pizzaman having made an advance application, we were allowed into this area. The press appeared to have no access to the refreshment areas on the other side of the ground at all, while VIP’s had to walk around behind the goal, crossing the line of players entering and leaving the pitch to get their fill.

Over the two-day period, we were to see the top five teams in the ten-team division, and Triglav Kranj, placed bottom. Slovenia gets one place in Champions League qualifying, and three for the Europa League. With five games to go, the title was between Maribor and Olimpija, with the Ljubljana team leading by one point. Domzale were third, but with little hope of catching the leading two, and already mathematically certain of maintaining a minimum of third place, which means they get European football. Celje (fourth) and Rudar Velenje (fifth) were battling for the fourth place in the hope that Olimpija would win the cup and give them European competition. Aluminij are the other cup finalists and are placed 8th, just about secure from relegation. Triglav started the round two points behind Ankaran Hrvatini. Both of this pair were promoted last season. The one that finishes bottom goes straight down, while the ninth place gets a play-off against the second division runners-up.

The first game set the scene for the football we were to see in Slovenia. Both teams liked to attack but did not commit many players to forward positions and moves tend to break down with a weak pass or a quick shot into a blocking player. On many other occasions we saw players in good attacking positions losing the ball as they were trying to get into a position to shoot on their best foot. When they shoot with the other foot, the ball goes off into the middle of nowhere.

Not surprisingly, considering the poor football on fare with the best teams in this league, not one member of the Slovenian football team which gave England a close run last autumn plays in the Slovenian League.

For most of the games, we were also treated to a series of poorly taken corners that either flew directly into the keepers’ hands or were easily headed away – and yet somehow corners led to late equalisers in both of my first two games.

 

One felt from the way the games went, that both Maribor and Olimpija Ljubljana thought that they only had to run up in order to win their games, despite the relatively high positions of their opponents. Both got a shock to their systems. Maribor had been well on top of the game at Domzale, but then went behind early in the second half. The goal came from an error which allowed a free run on the target. Admittedly, based on what I had already seen, there was no certainty the ball would be hit at the goal until the shot was unleashed, but for close on to forty minutes, Maribor were behind.

The equaliser came in the “final minute”, although we still had several minutes for injury and time wasting to add. I see that different web sites give a different scorer. The Slovenian League site gives it to Dervisevic, who took the corner from the right. When this reached the near post, three players went up for it. Two defenders and Marcos Tavares. I thought it was Tavares who got the touch, but even watching the video several times, I cannot say that for certain. Whoever headed the ball, it then bounced down and went through the goalkeeper’s legs, with him getting the final touch. Domzale tried to claim the ball did not cross the line, but in these games, we had no less than six officials, and if assistants behind the goal lines have any purpose, then it is to confirm whether or not the goal went in. For this, the video does confirm that the officials were correct in awarding the goal. Soccerway gives the goalscorer as Tavares, a Brazilian born player who has been a regular with them for ten years. I am going along with that.

The crowd was given as 2500. In all three cases on this trip, I felt there was a discrepancy between the number given as crowd, and the numbers actually present.

By car, it was an easy run from Domzale to Velenje – with the most traffic we encountered being on exit of the car park, (and that added less than five minutes to the time). When we arrived at the stadium in Velenje, all was quiet – and the arrival a minute or two later of a coach carrying Olimpija Ljubljana fans, not a lot changed. A quick investigation revealed not only that the only refreshment stall at the ground was again limited to cold drinks, but also that it would not even be open until shortly before kick-off.

Pizzaman was complaining about the fact he had not eaten since breakfast, and I fancied I could do with a snack. I was missing the sausages that are DE rigour at German and Austrian grounds. Fortunately there was a bar just across the car park from the entrance. It appeared to be styled as a trendy spot, but all it could offer was beer and a toasted tuna sandwich. Naturally given this choice, we settled for a beer and a toasted tuna sandwich.

Pizzaman in search of the all elusive sandwich

The ground is basically one sided. The ascetically pleasing wrap round roof is surprisingly not cantilever and has uncovered seating extending out from its ends. At the far end, this was used as the enclosed section for the Olimpija ultras. For most of the rest of the ground, there is nowhere for spectators to go, and a small area of uncovered standing behind the near goal was not being used. This end was more notable for the impressive street are mural favouring the home club

The game followed a similar pattern to the one earlier in the day, with Olimpija clearly the better side, but not being able to change this into goals. Where it did differ was it was Olimpija who opened the scoring, and the home side which managed to level the scores late in the day.

The following day, we had to return the car to Ljubljana, and we stopped briefly outside the old national stadium, not disused since the new stadium further out of town has been opened. Through gaps in the fencing, one can see what was once a large, if very open stadium, with no signs as yet of planning to redevelop the site.

Having returned the car, it was back to the rails for the shortish trip to Kranj. This was probably the most interesting of the towns we were taking in, as well as the only one that we would actually take enough time to see. The old town is set on a rock that separates two rivers shortly before their confluence. From the station, we had to cross the larger river and then climb the hill into the town centre. Pulling my case, with one of the wheels having a tendency to seize up, this was a far bigger job than it might have been. Fortunately, once up the hill, we had just a couple of hundred yards to traverse on level ground, and then crossing a high-level bridge over the deep gorge of the tributary river. The hotel was next to the bridge. The ground was a short walk, crossing the bridge again.

The arrival at the sports complex which includes the ground is indicated by a statue of a naked man, hand raised presumedly in position to take a selfie of himself with the stadium and mountains in the background.

Again, we have a main stand on one side. In this case there are open seats on the other side, in a concrete block which has the dressing rooms underneath. The enclosed section for visiting ultras is within this section, but if there were any from Celje, they kept themselves anonymous and stayed on the other side of the ground. This block is two sided, with a couple of rows of seats on the opposite side looking over a second pitch. While the main pitch is glass and not floodlit, the second one is artificial and floodlit. There were children’s training sessions on this while the game was on the other side.

One has to go outside the ground to transfer from one side to another, but with just a wire fence, the views from here are better than inside some grounds, and a few had elected to watch all or part of the match from outside. The home teams is known as Triglav Kranj, and has apparently borne this name for over 60 years. We felt that the name was a reference to the highest mountain in Slovenia, and not a sponsor, although you may notice the name Triglav on advertising boards at most Slovenian league games.

Triglav have their own “singing section”, called the Small Faces, who have one end of the stand. For a 16.00 kick off on a working day, the numbers here were limited.

At the other end of the stand were a larger group of school children who also did their best to enliven proceedings with chants. Efforts that were appreciated by the crowd. The match, as with the others we had seen in Slovenia did not add up to a great deal. Triglav started the day bottom of the league, but a 1-0 win in this game allowed them to climb one place, which would give them the potential to avoid relegation via a play-off. Both of the bottom two had won promotion last season.

The result was a poor one from Celje, reducing their chances of finishing ahead of Rudar Velenje for what could be a place in the Europa League. Their chances were further diminished the following weekend, when they were beaten at home by Rudar (?)

After the match, Pizzaman and I headed into the town, and found the Teresa bar, which sold beers supplied by Kranj’s small brewery. A change from the mass-produced beers of the main Slovenian brewers. We settled on the Rye beer, and very nice it was. The locals here were in good form and quickly struck up conversation in English, which helped us to extend our stay in the bar. They even gave us a lift back to the hotel, where the local Kranjska Sausages were a speciality.

The next morning, there was a break in the smooth running of operations. We had our breakfast and made our way down the hill in time to have a coffee in the station café before the train was due. Then we waited, and waited. OK, in reality the train was only 30 minutes late, but it was running just to cross the border in Austria, and then we were both intending to board a connection to Vienna, dump our bags in a locker and go to different games before meeting up again in Vienna for the night train to Germany.

The consequence of the delay was the connection was missed, a two hour wait for the next one. Pizzaman wanted to go to Ebreichsdorf, while I preferred SKU Amstetten in the same division. The two carriages that came up through Kranj would have normally been attached to another train at Villach and taken to Frankfurt. Because of the delay, this was changed with our train terminating in Villach, but the Frankfurt train would at least wait, unlike the Vienna one. Judging by the effect of the train conductor’s comments when he walked through, around half the passengers were going each way – almost none were heading to Villach itself. So while Pizzaman waited for his train, and by slightly changing route, arrived at his destination by 18.00.

My journey was somewhat more straightforward. I took the Frankfurt connection as far as Salzburg, where there is a train every 30 minutes to Amstetten, arriving more than 3 hours before kick-off. On a sunny afternoon, Amstetten is a pleasant enough town, and I wandered around a little, stopping at an ice cream parlour before heading down to the ground. The stadium is about a ten minute walk from the station close to the river. The leisure area has a theatre, as well as many different sports facilities.

The venue is three sides, with one end giving way to nothing except a fence to the tennis courts. The other three sides have a modern appearance and have clearly been designed with the size of the club in mind.

The ground looks close to full with 1450 in it for my game and would not look empty with only a third of the capacity. Naturally, it would struggle to hold 3000, but that type of point tends to be moot in Austria. The average crowd at Amstetten is a little short of 1,000 – still better than some in the division above.

Behind the goal, there is a fairly wide concourse, and close to food and drink outlets at both ends, there are bar tables, so as one can stand, with a beer and still watch the game. There are also ledges to place your beer glasses in the standing areas behind the seats.

Austrian civilization – beer and football

Covered seats go around all three sides that are pen for spectators, but one section, behind the goal is reserved for their “12th Man” group – the singing fans who come equipped with drums, a strobe light and occasional apparently smoky wafts, not smoke bombs, but apparently dry ice. At times it looks more like a disco than a football ground

One of the first things I asked at the ground was the situation with regard to promotion. Having been given four names from the Mitte earlier in the week, I was pleased to fill in the one (Wacker Innsbruck reserves) from the West. As far as the Regionalliga Ost is concerned, my feeling the Ebreichsdorf would not be promoted was correct, this being one of the reasons I preferred the idea of going to Amstetten. League leaders (at arrival), SV Horn will go up, with two from Amstetten, Austria Wien reserves and Karabakh. With the latter two playing each other at the same time as my game knew that if they won this one, they were promoted.


It took a while for the game to settle down, and while deserving it, Amstetten were fortunate with the incident that led to the first goal. The visiting keeper failed to hold the ball, and as Markus Keusch was trying to control it, he was fouled from behind. A completely unnecessary foul on a player facing away from goal. Milan Vukovic scored the penalty, the first of hat-trick (completed with a later penalty). Two goals in a minute early in the second half put Amstetten completely in control, and the score went up to 6-0 when Vukovic scored his second penalty. That incident left Bruck with ten men, but Amstetten did not score again until injury time. A final score of 7-0 left them in an emphatic conclusion to their promotion campaign

I stayed long enough to see the start of a celebration that I suspect was still going on after I had changed trains in Vienna, meeting Pizzaman again and heading to Germany

The Price is Right? Selling Football by the Euro.

April 27th, 2018

There are major changes to qualification for European Competition from next season. UEFA are selling this as evolution, not revolution – but for the clubs who have hopes of reaching the Champions League group stages, the odds have become longer. So, they may not see it that way

The big change is in the number of teams that have direct qualification to group stages in both competitions. This is particularly true of teams who have not won their leagues, playing in the Champions League. In 2017-18, there were 18 clubs who had won the major prizes in the Champions League. Twelve countries got their champions into the competition as of right, five more through the qualification process. The 18th winner was Manchester United who won the Europa League. On this occasion, the Champions League winner were also a League champion.

The champions that managed to come up through qualification were well distributed in the rankings. So while Champions 1 through 12 were automatically included, the others were ranked 14 (Greece), 19 (Cyprus), 25 (Scotland), 26 (Azerbaijan) and 30 (Slovenia).

For 2018-19, only the top ten Champions get an automatic place, and they are joined by just four other champions. With places for the winners of the Champions League and Europa League already guaranteed, this means that the number of teams with a major trophy will be reduced to 16 – or 15 if the Europa League winners are one of the top ten domestic title winners, (a scenario that is unlikely in 2018, the only Europa League semi-finalists likely to win a domestic title are the Austrians, Salzburg – who would have to fight through qualifying rounds to get into the Champions League groups).

For the non-Champions, in the 2017/18 season, nine had direct entry to the groups, from six countries while five more won through from qualification. Although countries down to 15th rank were allowed into this phase, four of the five came from the top five. The exception being the fourth German team, Hoffenheim, who were beaten by Liverpool. The Russian team, CSKA Moscow (Country rank 7) completed the line up.

In 2018/19, there will be no less than 14 non-Champion clubs with direct access, no qualifying match. They still come from six countries, but now the top four all get three non-Champion clubs. The third clubs from France and Russia (ranked 5/6) compete with the runners-up in countries ranked 7-15 for just two further places.

There was logic to changing from three to four countries with the top numbers. The recent evolution of ranking point has seen two big gaps emerging. Rounding to the nearest who number, Spain had 105 points at the end of 2016/7, followed by Germany (79), England (76) and Italy (73). France, ranked 5th had only 57 points. While it may have appeared that another season would see Italy overtake England, what has actually happened is that German clubs have performed poorly, while the English have done well. Hence, England will probably rise to 2nd on the five-year aggregate, while Germany fall behind Italy. Giving the fourth placed teams a direct place without qualification seems a more contentious point. The only reason I can see for this is that UEFA feels it needs these teams in contention to build up the TV audience.

Where the changes will be felt most of all is in the qualification procedure. More teams will have to play more matches in order to reach the group stage. For example, to get to the group stage this season, Celtic had to play six matches over seven mid-weeks. A fairly hefty early season programme with four of the games taking place before the first league game. If they are to repeat the feat in the new season, they will have to play eight matches on successive weeks.

The pushing back of matches has added a preliminary round to the qualifying competition – and it is a strange and new idea. Four teams play the Preliminary round, for just one place in the First Qualifying Round. These teams will be the Champions of Gibraltar, Andorra, San Marino and Kosovo. There will be only three games in this, and this season they will all be played at the Victoria Stadium in Gibraltar. The “semi-finals” will be on Tuesday 26th June, with the final game on the following Friday.

The other twist is that every Champions League team, knocked out in the qualification games will get a second chance in the Europa League. Also, in the Europa League, teams who have won their Championship but have been knocked out play in a section distinct from those who have qualified by cups or league position. This means that 12 of the 48 teams in the group stage will be National Champions. There will be 17 places given directly in the group stage to teams from the top 12 countries in the rankings. In all cases, these include the cup-winners (if not otherwise qualified for higher competition) and for five countries, Spain, England, Germany, Italy and France, it also includes the next best league side. This number is just one higher than in 2017-18 with the club that finishes fourth place in France being the one that gets the advantage here. Again, this comes at a cost in matches for the others. In 2017, 25 clubs had entry at the third qualification round stage, meaning two rounds, or four games to reach the groups. Only 12 teams get this in 2018 – and they are not from the top countries, but only from those which do not get two automatic spots in the groups. England’s seventh European club, will have to play three rounds, six matches to reach the group – they will start in the final week of July. For Scotland, only the Cup Winners get to start that late, with the other two teams starting in the First Qualification round, two weeks earlier. Countries such as both Northern Ireland, and the Republic of Ireland will have all three of their clubs starting in the First Qualification Round, while for Wales it is even worse as their three combatants will start in a Preliminary Round at the end of June.

UEFA does not have to sell this much to the smaller nations. For most, they will find it is a take it or leave it situation alleviated by the rewards their clubs get just for taking part. Working from UEFA published figures, Welsh Champions, The New Saints will have received €800,000 for scraping through the first qualification round and getting hammered by a Croatian team in the next. This sum of money means that they can run a professional team in what is otherwise a semi-professional league without losing money year on year. It goes a long way to explain their dominance of the Welsh Premier League. The chairman, Mike Harris put in a lot of money to get them where they are today but does not have to keep spending to keep them there. What I find more surprising is that other Champions League do not all dominate their leagues to the same extent.

The other clubs in Wales also benefit from UEFA’s munificence. Not one of their other three clubs won their First tie in Europe, but all benefited to the tune of €215,000. A further €403,000 is given to the FA Wales to distribute to the clubs in the division. While the FA Wales also collects money from other TV and sponsorship deals for distribution to the clubs, one can see that this is likely to be a major part quite probably the lion’s share of the source of this distribution. [It is worth noting though that Wales only received the base payment from UEFA, the English FA had over €13 million from this source (in 2016/17), Scotland had €4.6 million. Northern Ireland received the same amount as Wales, but the Republic got just over twice that]

When I spoke to Mike Harris at The New Saints’ first game of the season, I had asked him about the fact that there are only 12 teams in the top league in Wales, despite a general wish amongst fans to increase the numbers. He said he would quite like to see the number increased, but that funding would be a problem. Sums of money such as the €403,000 I have mentioned would be significantly diluted if there were more clubs.

UEFA have promised with the new system that more money will be given to the smaller clubs – so those sums I have mentioned are all due to be increased in 2018/19. Even though the distribution through market pool is being reduced, (meaning the English teams do not benefit so much from the English TV deals), I cannot imagine any of the Premier clubs being worse off than under the current system.

UEFA still consider it necessary to keep the structure in favour of the big clubs. There is a point to this. At least with this system, the clubs are tied into this money generation machine, and this is sending money down to the leagues in the smaller countries. Most of the 55 European associations run at least one division of professional football, but only 12 of them can claim an average attendance of over 10,000 per game. There isn’t a threat of big clubs pulling out of National Leagues and playing closed competitions amongst themselves. This will not happen as long as they can fill the stadiums and sell the TV rights for their domestic competitions, even when these are not very competitive. However, they are secure in the knowledge that each of the domestic leagues needs its best teams at least as much as the teams need the league. Hence the leagues would not be quick to respond to any UEFA edict to kick them out should they ever decide to remodel the Champions League without UEFA involvement. And while so many of the World’s best players are concentrated at the few clubs at the top of the few leagues, UEFA and FIFA need them to sell their own international tournaments.

So, the small clubs in the small countries have to allow the sale of their football, and they have to accept the largesse as UEFA offer it, as for them there are no alternative tables to feed from. UEFA will continue to “evolve” the competitions every three years, as it keeps them in the headlines. The big clubs will again find the competitive bias switching their way, but the others will accept it because frankly they need the amounts that UEFA pass down from the €1.4 billion money pool.

CONIFA – A World Cup for the Common Man

April 23rd, 2018

The Champions League final is on 26th May, and the World Cup starts nearly three weeks later. So how do ordinary mortals survive if starved of competitive football for so long.

Fortunately, there is an answer, the CONIFA World Football Club will start on the final day of May and run for 10 days, bringing live football to stadiums around London, and streamed football to everyone else via the sponsor, Paddy Power’s website.

CONI-who? I hear you ask, and how do they get to organise a World Football Cup?

So, starting with CONIFA, it is the Confederation of Independent Football Associations. It is an umbrella organisation for a number of associations which for one reason or another cannot gain admittance to FIFA. It currently has 49 members, and these members claim a population of over 300 million people. CONIFA itself was formed in 2013, bringing together associations that had already competed in competitions organised by the NF Board, and attracting new members into the fold

The World Football Cup (so named as to avoid any trade mark confusion with FIFA’s event soon afterwards) is the major tournament. This is the third running of the tournament, which is held every second year. Prior to CONIFA, there were five VIVA World Cup’s organised by the NF Board, and the FIFI World Cup organised by St. Pauli FC. These were played with varying number of teams but overall the number of teams and competitiveness of the matches has increased each tournament.

So, the next question is who are the Non-FIFA nations?

FIFA itself has more members than any other international body, including the United Nations. One reason for this is that in the past, it has included many small territories that the UN does not recognise as Nations. Hence the United Kingdom is not a single member of FIFA, not even the four obvious ones, but also includes a number of British Overseas Territories that joined FIFA some time back – such as Montserrat, the British Virgin Islands and the Caymans. With Gibraltar recently joining, the British contingent stands at 11 teams. Britain has more than anyone else, but we are not alone. The USA, Denmark, and even China are amongst those with multiple representation. The recent addition to FIFA rank of Kosovo and Gibraltar came against opposition, and FIFA have tightened up the rules for new entrants. This leaves a number of countries and territories disappointed, as they cannot get the FIFA recognition even though others in similar situations have already joined.

CONIkFA ties up these with a number of other categories that where the people can be thought to have a “national identity” but are not countries by any definition.

According to CONIFA general secretary, Sascha Düerkop, CONIFA has ten different categories of membership. I cannot list them all, but these are the main ones based on the clubs playing in this year’s World Football Cup.

  • Generally accepted independent nations, members of the UN – but not yet in FIFA, (Tuvalu)
  • Effectively independent states, that are not globally recognised – and have at least one country that does recognise them (N. Cyprus, Abkhazia)
  • Autonomous regions, that may have been able to apply to FIFA in the past, but not under current rules (Ellan Vannin, aka Isle of Man)
  • Ethnic groups – a minority within the country they are in (Felvidek, Szekely Land, United Koreans in Japan, Western Armenia)
  • Diaspora groups (Tamil Eelan, Panjab, Barawa, Tibet)
  • Groups representing minority languages (Matabeleland, Kabylie)
  • Regional teams (Padania, Cascadia)

Some of these groupings may be questionable. I am not going into the politics of Tibet for example. In my mind a diaspora group means that the majority of the members of the group moved from the country of origin in the 20th or 21st centuries. While I know the United Koreans are an ethnic group, a mixture of those who migrated (in many cases forcibly) during Japanese occupation and more recent migrants, they could be called a diaspora or a minority language group as well. I cannot say whether the Western Armenians are people who actually live in eastern Turkey (which is the area they originate from), or have migrated elsewhere, and I certainly cannot give the full degrees of separation of Matabeleland and Kabylie from Zimbabwe and Algeria.

Sascha Düerkop told me that the pure regional teams such as Padania (Northern Italy) and Cascadia (North West USA /South West Canada) would not be able to apply in future. Despite this, CONIFA have recently accepted Yorkshire in membership (based on other criteria), but this does mean that an application from Surrey will be turned down, and there is no point in me trying to start a Cheltenhamshire team.

Tuvalu will be unique amongst the teams in London for this tournament as they have taken part in FIFA World Cup qualifying games. The 2007 Pacific Games were used as part of the qualification tournament for the 2010 World Cup and although Tuvalu would not have been allowed to progress, they played four games, including a draw with Tahiti before finishing bottom of their group.

Likely to offer much stronger teams than Tuvalu, are those teams representing the unrecognised nations. These are areas where there is an effective government in control, but another nation still claims the territory and a majority of countries do not support their independence. There tends to be a state that is powerful enough in defence of the current status quo preventing a violent reversion of status.

The Caucasus area of the former Soviet Union is about the most disputed series of territories around the world, with Russian support giving Abkhazia a level of independence while most of the world sees it as a breakaway from Georgia. Abkhazia both staged and won the 2016 CONIFA World Cup and are expected to field a strong side again. A similar long running dispute sees Cyprus divided with North Cyprus not being generally recognised, but Turkish support keeping them independent. Northern Cyprus staged a CONIFA European tournament last summer and finished second (to Padania).

CONIFA works hard at being a non-political organisation, but by including some of the most political of countries as members, they cannot help but be political. Ideally, they would bring together diametrically opposite groupings, but in practice this does not happen. UEFA makes sure that Azerbaijan and Armenian sides do not meet in qualification groups, or European club games due to the various conflicts between these former soviet republics. CONIFA includes Nagorno Karabakh as a member. This is a self-governed state, with a majority Armenian population, but in an area generally recognised as being part of Azerbaijan. Hence when CONIFA had an application from a team with an Azeri majority population, their first comment was “You know Nagorno Karabakh is a member – is this a problem for you”. They then took this all the way through the application process without problem, until someone in the Azeri government said they could not join an organisation that has Nagorno Karabakh in it.

Turkey is the main supporter of Northern Cyprus, and has enquired about TV feeds for earlier cups, but then not gone through with this because Iraqi Kurdistan was involved. Now while Iraqi Kurdistan only covers an area within Iraq, the idea of Kurdistan in general includes part of Turkey, so any promotion of Kurdish independence within Turkey would not be allowed – even when the area the team represents does not impinge on Turkish territory. This year, Iraqi Kurdistan have not qualified so the matches can be shown on Turkish TV. The existence of Northern Cyprus is opposed by Cyprus itself and their ambassador put in a protest about them having a team playing in the UK. I feel the protest was only made because it had to be made, and there was no real belief that they would be drummed out. CONIFA have actually used Northern Cypriot involvement to their advantage, staging their matches in Enfield close to the main centre of Turkish and Northern Cypriot communities in London. Similarly, the Panjab team play in Slough – close to the heart of a large Panjab diaspora.

The most controversial of the teams included is Tibet. In the past the Chinese has always raised it hackles whenever there is any action that comes close to recognising the Dalai Lama’s government in exile.

Already this year, the Tibetan situation has created problems in the footballing relationship between China and Germany. The Chinese had agreed to send a youth team to play teams in the South West Regionalliga in Germany – the free team each week in a 19-team league. At the first of these games (in Mainz), pro-Tibet protesters unfurled flags, and there was a scuffle with Chinese spectators, the game was held up, but eventually completed. The DFB said they had no powers to stop protestors from showing up at the games, and the rest of the series of games was not played. I imagine many of the clubs were disappointed, as they were to be paid €15,000 Euros each to play. The incident generated far more publicity than if the protests had been allowed to go ahead with the flags ignored.

In the light of this, an offer from a smaller German club FV Lörrach-Brombach to play the Tibetan team in a friendly prior to the tournament in London was vetoed. The match was originally sanctioned by the local area FA, but later they changed their mind while refusing to state if pressure was brought to bear on the decision. It does appear that the pressure came from the German FA, and not from China itself, and as yet, the Chinese have ignored the CONIFA tournament.

While initially trying to block CONIFA’s predecessors, it appears FIFA and UEFA are now content to ignore the organisation and leave any administration to local football administrations. With the football organisation here in England being what it is, this is guaranteed to cause confusion and a lack of decision. Players for the recently formed Yorkshire Independent FA have been going through a process of deregistering from their clubs before matches, and then signing on again afterwards, so as they are not members of affiliated clubs when the matches take place – and hence not subject to sanction. It is well within the power for any one of the County FA’s within Yorkshire, (the County has four) to register the team.

The Manx team had a similar problem, but after lengthy process this has been solved. Initially, they went head to head with FIFA – but in turn FIFA, UEFA and the FA washed their hands and left it too the Isle of Man FA to deliberate on. Despite the Isle of Man not being an English County, it is treated as one by the FA. For that matter, so was Gibraltar for a long time until they decided to apply for an independent status. Gibraltar never entered FA Competition, but Man does, giving the locals a plethora of “national” teams to support.

In the FA County Youth Cup, the Isle of Man reached the quarter finals this year, beating Cumberland, Lancashire and Middlesex before losing to Norfolk. This, I believe is limited to youth players at Island clubs, while as far as I know, their opponents do not use players from the professional clubs. The Isle of Man also played in this season’s FA Inter League competition. For this, players must be with a club in the league, and must never have held a professional contract. They do not have to be Manx, though – allowing amateur footballers who settle on the Island to play for this team immediately. In this, the Isle of Man beat the eterborough & District League and the Liverpool League before losing to the North Riding league. In 2006, they won this competition and went on the play in the UEFA Regions Cup – representing England. They took the field wearing England colours, not those of Man, so three lions, rather than three legs on the badge. The Isle of Man also play in the Island games competition, which plays in the odd numbered years, (while CONIFA use the even numbers). The Island games team would apply a residential qualification (as minimum) for incomers, while the CONIFA team can choose its own parameters, making it the only one likely to include Manxman who have moved off the Island. Despite the various rules, the majority of all three men’s representative teams are the same.

CONIFA is popular with ethnic Hungarians living in neighbouring states. The borders in this area of Europe were drawn leaving areas with a Hungarian speaking majority that were not Hungary. Two have qualified for this tournament, Felvidek and Szekely Land (in Romania). Felvidek is the area on the Slovak borders, centred at Dunajska Streda. At various time, Slovak authorities have had different policies about the use of the Hungarian language and the showing of flags. There is still a general rule prohibiting any national flag except the Slovak one at football grounds. DAC Dunajska Streda gets the biggest crowds in Slovakia, thanks mainly to its position as a flagship for the Hungarian community. Sascha commented on the use of flags bearing the words, Red, White and Green to get past the Hungarian flag ban. When I went four years ago, they said it with balloons – as can be seen here. Supporters at the front are holding balloons in club colours, while behind that, the Red, White and Green of the Hungarian flag can be seen

Talking to Sascha, I got an idea of the amount of enthusiasm those running the tournament have for their cause. Even with the headaches this must create. As tournaments approach, running CONIFA is a full-time job, but they do not pay their officials. They do not even always get expenses. During his week in London, Sascha not only gets to drink with people like me, but also has to finalise details for venues, transport and accommodation – and hope that they can get enough sponsors and ticket sales to make the numbers add up. While the sponsorship from Paddy Power is generous and essential, it does not completely cover transport and accommodation.

The games are being played at grounds right across London, with the full fixture list and a link to buy tickets on the official page, www.conifa.org. I have mentioned the connection with the bookmaker, Paddy Power – who have been running campaigns to support the competition, but I particularly commend this one, which explains more about the philosophy behind CONIFA, https://news.paddypower.com/conifa/2018/03/21/conifa-president-per-anders-blind/

For those wanting to see the best teams, the obvious place to start would be the semi-finals in Carshalton the final games in Enfield. I feel that the rest needs to be seen, so on the final day, I will head to Enfield for the final (6 pm) after seeing the 15th/16th placement game at Bedfont (12 noon). The tournament uses six dates over ten days, and every team plays on every match day. Food for thought for professional managers who complain about their schedules.

I have seen comments from people who made it to Abkhazia for the last tournament that some teams were no more than Sunday league kickers, but with a more organised qualification structure, the weakest are not being represented this time around, so we may not get any double figure scores. The strongest teams are likely to be those that have home countries and can get support there, with the probably exception of Tuvalu, where the player pool is too small. Hence we may expect good performances from Abkhazia and Northern Cyprus, and also strong teams from the two Hungarian ethnic sides (Felvidek and Szekely Land). Padania gets support from the smaller cities in the region and may well be able to field some good semi-professional players. I’ll be interested to gauge the strength of the United Koreans in Japan, and Cascadia – as both have their domestic seasons running at the same time.

The preliminary squads will be announced in the next week, and while one cannot expect many famous players, the United Koreans team will include An Yong Hak, who has 38 caps for North Korea, including starting all three group games in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, (and incidentally in the qualifying game I saw in Pyongyang).

If you are only interested in the highest quality of football, and over hyped TV coverage, then ignore all this and wait for the World Cup to come to our screens. If you want your football to be more fun, then the CONIFA World Football Cup is the place to be.

 

ATW90 – Thailand Part 2. The rise of Buriram United

March 1st, 2018

I thought my journey from Myanmar to Buriram might be a problem. Although it was two flights with a single airline, I would still have to pick up my luggage while changing, check it into the connecting flight and go through immigration in Bangkok. Fortunately, my morning flight from Yangon was on-time and two hours was easily sufficient to arrange the change.

On the Bangkok to Buriram flight, I saw something which I must say it is unusual generally, but especially so in Asian football. There were a small number of passengers wearing football shirts and these were not the shirts of a club from thousands of miles away. These are the shirts of Buriram United, the club I intended to see that evening.

It is a sign of the remarkable story of Buriram United, who are already the most successful club in Thailand, and by some metrics, could be considered the best on the continent. To try and unravel this, I need to look back into the development of the Thai Football League, which is one of the best demonstrations in Asia of what can be achieved.

My first football games in Thailand were in 1990, part of a few trips for work that I made to the region at this time. I was based close to Rayong, and my first game was on nothing more than an open field with a tent. This was the final of a local provincial tournament. The scale of development is such that the field is now under a sports hall, while close by, a new stadium has been developed.

All football in Thailand at the time was tournament based. Inter-provincial tournaments played between different areas of the country, while club competitions were played by clubs within a smaller area. One only ever heard about the Bangkok area club, with the Kor Royal Cup being recognised as the Thai Championship. I saw the final of this in Bangkok in June 1990. The crowd was sparse, not into four figures. All the clubs in the tournament were associated with companies or government department around Bangkok. My final saw Port Authority of Thailand beat Thai Farmers Bank 2-1 a.e.t.

In 1996, a league was started, but this was still an all Bangkok institution. A second parallel league was started for provincial teams in 1999.

Outside the I-mobile or Thunder Castle stadium pre-match.

Changes really started in 2005, when the top two provincial teams, Chonburi and Suphanburi were added to the Thai League. This did not create a national league, as neither was that far removed from Bangkok, but at least they were outside the metropolitan area. Chonburi finished mid-table, while Supanburi fared poorly and would have been relegated in further reorganisation had not taken place.

Technically, the two leagues merged, but this did not mean a great deal. There were now four clubs from outside the Bangkok area, thanks to the promotion of Royal Thai Police and Royal Thai Navy, who both used stadiums in neighbouring provinces.

A year later, the club of the Provincial Electricity Authority, PEA decided to head away from the capital moving north to the ancient city of Ayutthaya. With increased crowds, they won the title, but their stay in Ayutthaya was to only be for two seasons. After a second, less successful season the club was bought out by politician Newin Chidchob.

Chidchob had been a minister in Thaksin Shinawatra’s government, but had avoided the fall out when Shinawatra fell from grace. He went on to be critical of his former leader when groups that wanted him returned to political life were protesting early in 2009.

Chidchob moved his new club to the city of Buriram, which was where his political power base was. Buriram is a fairly nondescript city in North Eastern Thailand. By bus, it takes around 5 hours to get to the capital, (when I tried, it was nearer to six, but the last hour was all within metropolitan Bangkok as the weather and traffic combined to delay all).

Bangkok Glass FC – proud to wear my name, (or that of a very poor lager beer)

There was an added confusion to football in Buriram, as also in 2009, Buriram FC were founded and took a place in the regional league, playing at the Buriram Rajabhat University Stadium. Not that Chidchob was going to see this as a rival, the owner of the other club being none other than his wife, Mrs Karuna Chidchob.

A photo from the public display at Thunder Castle – Mrs Chidcomb holding the trophy after Buriram FC were promoted. Probably at one of the last games before they merged with her husband’s team

The stadium that Newin’s club had to use when moving to the city was the provincial stadium, and is 7km from the centre of town, but with promotion, Buriram FC soon had to move there as well.

Since moving to Buriram, Newin Chidchob’s club have won 5 out of 7 Thai League titles, four Thai FA Cups, Five League Cups, four Kor Royal Cups (now the Thai Supercup) and two Mekong Club championships. The Mekong championship is competed for by four or five South East Asian Champions. It has ran for four seasons, with Binh Duong (Vietnam) winning the inaugural cup (no Thai entrant, all games in Vietnam), and Thai teams winning the rest. Buriram’s biggest rivals, Muang Thong United being the current holders. Buriram have also reached the knock out rounds of the AFC Champions League once, when they reached the quarter-finals.

Game over – so its time to greet the fans.

Meanwhile, Buriram FC were also going from success to success. Two promotions had placed them one level behind Buriram PEA in 2011. The 2011 season was remarkable for the city, as both teams won their divisions. This presented the potential for the city to have two teams in the top division, with a husband and wife partnership as the two club presidents.

I cannot see many club owners doing this, but in Buriram you can buy dolls of Newin and Karuna Chidcomb, wearing the colours of their two teams prior to the 2011 merger

Also, during 2011, they opened the new stadium, known as the Buriram Stadium, the Thunder Castle Stadium, or the (insert sponsors name*) Stadium. (*I-mobile in 2017, Chang in 2018). The Stadium was built in 256 days, which is proudly proclaimed as a record for building a stadium (certified by FIFA, no less, as FIFA love to accredit a record that cannot be proved or disproved).

Of course, it would not be acceptable for his and hers football teams to play in the same league, so for 2012, a new name, Buriram United appeared in the top division. In Thailand, the moving of rights for a club in a division is allowed. After all, that is how PEA moved to Buriram in the first place.

The Chidcomb’s managed to sell the club rights to the furthest point they could find from Buriram, while remaining in Thailand, and so Wuachon United were created, sharing a ground and at least partial ownership with Songkhla FC, a team one division lower. Newin Chidcomb said at the time that this was to help football in Southern Thailand, a region that had never been represented at the top level. One can be certain that if this is the case, then he also had something to gain in literally selling the club south. I just cannot specify if this was for political advantage, economic advantage or a mixture of the two.

The name Wauchon existed for one season only, as Songkhla FC were relegated and the club owners decided to merge the two as Songkhla United. Songkhla United managed a further two seasons in the top division, and then three at the second level. They lost 1-0 in the match I saw at Trat, which helped both in securing their relegation, and making sure Trat just escaped. For 2018, they have failed to gain a license for the third level, and hence drop an extra step.

Meanwhile Chidcomb’s development of the site around the new stadium has increased. There is a small retail area, a modern hotel, the club superstore and a motor racetrack. The oddest of the features is a small castle, which is a replica of the ancient Hindu stone castle at Phanom Rung. The castle features on the club badge, along with two lightning bolts, a remembrance of the club’s origin as PEA.

I went back the day after the match to talk to Bubet Suppipat about the club, and was surprised to see a steady stream of tourists coming into the ground to take a look around, and see the entrance to the dressing rooms and take a selfie in front of the stand. I talked to a few of these and many were up on a trip that took in just the one game, as they came from towns in other parts of Thailand.

Coming to get you? The passage leading to the away dressing rooms!

Not quite the tours on offer at Old Trafford or the Bernabeu, but one can see that the club is selling itself as a destination. The club name is highly prominent around the town, with posters and a banner selling the fixtures.

If the objective is to use the sporting facilities to put the city’s name on the map, then it appears to be working. If you look on travel sites, such as Wikivoyage, then Buriram is listed as a “fairly nondescript town”, best utilised by tourists as a base for visiting ancient sites (such as Phanom Rung) in the area around it. These are well spread out, so time and transport would be required. I can confirm that there is not a great deal to see in the town itself, although it is appears to be neat, clean and relatively prosperous. What no visitor to the town cannot miss is that this is the home of Chidcomb’s ventures – the football club and the racetrack. You cannot avoid seeing posters advertising these.

While in the town during the day, I spotted a European couple who had been on the bus from the airport with me. While they had no thoughts of football before arriving, they were now considering going to the game, (they may well have been put off by the 4 km to the stadium and lack of public transport).

Bubet Suppipat, who also goes by the name Golf met me at the stadium after the match. For a while, I thought the meeting would not take place. It was originally scheduled for 10.00, but actually happened after lunch. Fortunately for me, as I have mentioned, the site has a few cafes where I could find some lunch. The delay was caused by an impromptu meeting requested by Newin Chidcomb. Clearly a request that cannot be ignored. Golf had football administration experience before coming to Buriram, and had been chief operating officer of Lao Toyota, the leading club in neighbouring Laos. He confirmed to me that Laotian football is far behind most of the South East Asian countries, (but of course, it is still somewhere I would like to visit).

After discussing the history of the club with me, we went on to the current financial situation. He did not know the exact budget, but thought it to be around 200 million baht. This is equivalent to about £4.5 million, and was ten times the figure mentioned by Rayong in the next division down. What is remarkable though is not the size of the budget, but the fact that the club is claiming to be breaking even. The basis of this is the merchandising operation, which apparently raises 40% of the clubs income. The city of Buriram has a population of around 30,000 – but the football club has sold around 700,000 football shirts in one season, and they were at pains to points out that this is only part of the operation, the figure does not include other parts of the kit, T-shirts, and other souvenirs. A similar portion of the budget comes from sponsorship, with the brewers Chang being named on the shirts and taking over the naming rights at the stadium for 2018.

With the rest of the budget covered by matchday income and the central allocation, (from the FA of Thailand, covering income from the TV contract, and league sponsors Toyota), it appears that Mr. Chidcomb no longer has to put money into his club to keep them at the top of the league.

Golf also mentioned plans to float on the stock market. When I expressed a need for caution, based on the poor record of stock market floats for football clubs in Europe, he corrected himself. It is not the football club itself that may be capitalised on the stock market, but the merchandising arm.

The stadium is straight forward, a single tier of seats running up to an even height all around, albeit that the lowest seat level being much too close to ground level. There is no track, so you are reasonably close to the pitch. Roofs on both sides, open behind the goals, sight lines are good except when too low. Unusually, the major side of the ground, with executive boxes, etc is on the East of the stadium, not the West. They do not tend to start matches before sundown, so this is less important.

A near square 32-page programme was sold for 20 Baht. It is a glossy affair, well produced but would still be short on information even if I could read Thai.

As far as the match was concerned, I found it dispiriting. Buriram won with a goal in the 90th minute, a header from a Brazilian player Coelho getting his head to a free kick sent on by Suchao. The free kick was won by their other Brazilian, Diogo who spotted the place where he would clearly get fouled if he ran through. Throughout the game the home side relied too much on these two players, who were generally poor until the final ten minutes, when they were clearly trying to set each other up for the goal.

It was the rest of the cynical play that I found worse though. Bangkok Glass have a talented young Thai player called Apisit, who simply attracted fouls until he went off injured. The injury was caused after he had won a corner. The Buriram player who had knocked the ball out then simply pushed Apisit into the advertising hoardings as hard as he could. At this point Apisit had has knee bandaged, but carried on. It took at least three more hacking fouls before he went off.

On a number of occasions Glass tried to run the ball through the midfield in counter attacking moves. As there was a risk of getting clear, the player would generally be fouled or pulled back by the Buriram captain Jakkaphan – I counted at least four occasions where this would earn a yellow card in Europe before he finally got a booking late in injury time.

There were about 10,300 people watching. This is down on the average attendance for the season by around 3,000, but not entirely unexpected for a midweek game

One final thought of thanks to the good people at the football club, as I mentioned, it is difficult for a foreigner with no knowledge of the area to find their way back from the ground – at least without their own transport, but the club arranged to get me into town both after the match (when I shared with one of the journalists), and after my discussions the following day.

The replica temple in the grounds.

Once in town, I had a good wander around, making the most of the last hour before sundown. I found the university stadium by chance, and there was actually football taking place as I passed. Naturally I stopped to inquire what was going on. The match had four match officials, so it was the fourth who tried to update me. The game was clearly competitive and it was described as fifth level. My later investigations showed that it was not part of the end of season fifth level competition – but I know there is a qualifying competition for this, and so these could have been fifth level teams, playing in another competition

The Rajabhat University stadium, once used by Buriram FC

On Friday, I took the bus south, starting in the bright sunshine of the North East, but soon travelling under grey skies before hitting the outskirts of Bangkok where the weather practically brought the suburbs to a halt. It was to be the story of the weekend

The Thammaset University Stadium is set on campus, about 40 km north of Bangkok centre, it is a 25,000 all seat stadium, which looks a little like a small brother to the national Rajamangala stadium, there are only 12 rows of seats in front of the scoreboard at one end while the numbers increase as you move to the centre, with around 50 rows opposite the centre line. There is cover on both sides, but not behind the goals, although the cover does not lean out far enough to protect the front rows on either side.

When I left the hotel, the skies were grey, but it was dry after a short lunchtime storm. As we headed north, the driver pointed out the “heavy rain clouds” ahead. In Bangkok, heavy rain is defined as such that you cannot see out of the car windows, even with the wipers going full pelt.

By the time we came off the elevated tollway, about five miles from the ground, the sideroads are completely flooded. You can see mopeds struggling to pass through water around 6 inches feet, and people who have taken their shoes off gingerly trying to walk through, not being able to see the ground.

I am thinking about what the alternative would be if the game is off, and whether my taxi can be held to take me onwards, but when I arrive, the ground is only mildly waterlogged. You can still see the grass, and the match is on. As it happened, my “second choice game” was postponed

The unlikely named Super Power Samut Prakan are the visitors today, while Bangkok United are the team that plays at Thammaset. It is an uneven contest, as United are near the top of the league and Prakan are rock bottom, with just one point from 28 games.

United had lost to second placed Muang Thong United on Wednesday, which left them six points behind second place, and 12 behind the leaders Buriram. So despite the comment from coach Alexandre Polking at the post-match press conference that he wants to win every match, and that he is not prioritising the cup, seven changes from Wednesday’s game suggests that players are being rested. One could say that this paid off, as they easily progressed through the following week’s cup game, beating mid-table Port by 5-1. United ended up reaching the cup final, before losing to Changrai United.

The combination of the weakened home side and a playing surface where every bounce caused a splash, and where players did not dare to take a dive as they were not provided with breathing equipment gave Samut Prakan some hope in the first half. Even a goal midway through from Dragan Boskovic did not mean they gave up, and just before the break they managed to get the ball into the net, but it was ruled offside

Supporters from both clubs get to show their colours during the break

In the second half, the rain was slowing and playing conditions were improved. The half time period involved much sweeping water off the surface. This allowed Bangkok United to feel a little more assured and to take control. Mario Durovski hit the second on 63 minutes, and then Alexander Sieghart added the third. Sieghart is listed as a Thai, he has a German father and played for Bayern Munchen II and Unterhaching before returning to the land of his birth.

A final goal, two minutes from time was credited to Mika Chunuonsee, (born in Bridgend, and formerly of Bryntirion, Neath and Afan Lido, Welsh mother, Thai father). However, his shot actually hit the bar and came out, hitting the keeper on the back before rolling in, so in my listing it has to be an own goal.

Programme was slightly smaller than A5 in presentation, but then unfolds into a single sheet of paper, nine times the size. One side has text, the other has a player poster.

The crowd was 819. This was to be the lowest turnout at the club for the season, thanks to a combination of weather and the failure last mid-week. After the game, I was fortunate to discover that the club runs a free fan bus from central Bangkok, and I was whisked back into town on this. Talking to a German supporter of the club, while on the bus, I was invited to book a place for Wednesday’s cup game, but had to decline as I was going to be back in England by then.

Having braved the rains, and facing certain relegation, the Samut Prakan fans can still wave their flags. They finished the season just 17 points behind the second bottom team, 30 off the mark required to avoid relegation


The players show their appreciation of the loyal band at the end

While seeing a low crowd at one game is not a problem in itself, the league will be concerned that the attendance for the whole season were 15% down, and that the 2016 season in turn was well below the leagues 2015 figure.

Apparently, the free fan bus also runs to away games, even if they are a nine-hour drive from Bangkok.

I only decided on my Sunday action on the day itself. Even the evening before, when I was doing some of the research, I had not decided whether or not to go to some of Thai Amateur games, and which ones to go to. I knew the Thai League had a 1-1-2-6 pyramid, with the top four divisions being professional, and the next two being semi-professional.

Sunday Morning, too early!!. The Leo Stadium staging fifth level games in the Thai Amateur League

The Thai League website also shows a fifth level, the Thai Amateur League. From this I discovered that there were matches due in some mini-leagues, that had started the previous week. Eventually, I managed to discover that the fixtures were being put out on a facebook page, but in an image format. This meant I could not use any automated translation engine on them.

It was clear that the matches were being played in a single venue each Sunday, with three matches on a day, using 10.00, 13.00 and 16.00 kick off times. The venues were not always the same from week to week, and I had to wait for the fixtures to appear on facebook.

I showed them to some journalists at the Bangkok United game. It was clear none had covered this level of football, but I had already worked out that there 12 leagues in operation, and that two of the areas were Bangkok and Bangkok Perimeter. From here I gathered that the stadiums being used this week for the Perimeter League was the Leo Stadium, home of top division Bangkok Glass, while for the Bangkok League, it was the Thammasat Mini-Stadium. While I could confirm that this was on the university complex with Bangkok United, no one knew exactly where.

 

The good thing was that these two were not far apart, it would be easy to travel from one to the other within the one-hour interval.

I also tried to find out information about one of the other leagues, with the thought it might combine with Chonburi’s league game, but here the information ran out. Even those who could read the language could not point to the location on a map.

As I awoke quite early, I decided to go for it, based on what I knew. So, my first stop was to be the Leo Stadium. I had always been quite eager to get to the stadium bearing my name, and were disappointed that I was in Thailand during a weekend they were away from home.

So at 9 a.m., I was out of the hotel, briefly heading into the metro station to use the ATM, and then asking a taxi for the Leo Stadium

This was quite straight forward, and I arrived at the ground about 15 minutes before kick-off, where no admission charges were being requested, and I managed to obtain the team lists in Thai quite easily.

The teams were Romklao United, a student team based at the Kasem Bundit University, and an Air Force team – google translate puts the name as Department of Air Marshal. The Leo Stadium is an unusual three-sided affair, one of the long sides is not used, with a three tier stand behind one goal, a two tier along the side and a single tier behind the other goal.

The individual players of the two sides were very good on the ball, but very poor off the ball. There is a lack of tactics or vision and the defences reigned. I though the Air Force team had done enough that they may nick it near the end, but then a silly foul in the middle of the field left them down to ten men, (it was a straight red as well), and changed the game dynamics. The students had the better of the last 20 minutes, but could not prevent the game from serving me up with my first draw (and hence first goal less draw) of the season.

On to Thammasat, no problems in getting there and none of the flooded roads of the day before. The advice I had been given was to ask directions from the University gatehouse. Considering that on the day before, my taxi driver had difficulty finding the big stadium, this seemed sensible. Naturally the driver would not do this, drove a while onto site, then asked someone, who said right at the end of the road and then left. In typical taxi driver style, he considered the second turning to be not worth his while, and drove off 400 metres in the wrong direction, turned around and then did it right. We still only got to about 200 yards away when he again decided he was lost, and could not see anyone to ask. I gave up at this point, paid him up and walked over to the building, where I was immediately and accurately directed to the mini stadium

It is a grass pitch with bleachers behind it, the only shade and cover provided by trees overhanging, and by three gazebos – one for each team, and one for the officials. I was invited to share with the officials

The individual players skills in this game were less than that in the earlier one, the lack of vision and movement off the ball was the same. The teams now were Rajdamnern and Tokio Bluearmy. The spelling Tokio is correct, it is a Thai footwear company. There is nothing Japanese about then, although the coach does look like a retired Sumo wrestler, (pot, kettle?). I thought that I was getting my second scoreless draw of the day, especially as while Tokio seemed to be on top. Twice Sarawoot got clear with only the keeper to beat, and beat the keeper both times. The first was wide, the second hit the bar.

Just to show, I am not making this up!

But then with four minutes to go to the added time board, Srichai found himself clear for Rajdamnern, and managed to beat the keeper without missing the target. Three minutes later, the same played passed a defender with a clever flick and made it two.

The attendances for the two games were just 30 and 50 respectively, although this included a drummer at the second game.

I made my way back to the central road, but the first taxi I stopped would not consider taking me to Minburi, despite this being a good fare to claim, it was a fair distance from where I was standing. Some taxi drivers on these trips won’t take you as they don’t want the hassle, but quite often it is because they just do not know where you want to go. Unfortunately, it turned out there were not many free taxis on the road within the university, but as I was waiting, a minibus stopped. It was the Rajdamnern team, on the way back to their base (wherever that is). They took me to a more major road where I could more easily find a taxi. It appears that there are no dressing rooms at the mini-stadium. I saw one of the match officials get on a bike and cycle away still in kit.

It took a couple of goes to find a taxi to take me to Minburi. This is the home of Thai Honda FC, and was close on to a one-hour drive from my position in North Bangkok. He phoned home to ask someone to look up directions to the 72 Anniversary Stadium. It did not really help and he still got lost more than once. I was trying to update him with the map on my PC, which I could not update offline, but could pan around a little, once we had got close enough to spot the stadium from the main road – still over two miles away I think. If you tell a taxi driver not to take a specific road, because my map says it doesn’t go through, he will of course try it, stop when he sees someone, and then head back when they confirm my feeling that we need to take the next turning.

The 72 Anniversary Stadium is quite interesting. The choice of slogan, “Club of tomorrow” is displayed with much aplomb as you enter the ground. Sadly, this is not likely to be true, as they were relegated at the end of the season – and administratively they are still about two days before yesterday. On entry, I was given my accreditation, and a slip of paper allowing me to access internet from the Press Room. So, I asked where the press room was? It was just behind the girl who gave me the card, but I was sent in completely the wrong direction, after which I was told they did not have a press room at all. Still, one gets there in the end. There is no viewing from either end of the ground and one side is just a raised concrete stand with concrete seating. The other side is similar, except that seating has been installed in the central section which Is under cover. There is a track around the pitch, but at least the elevations are good.

From the press room, I have a view onto the pitch and the stands, the weather was good when I arrived, allowing me to take a couple of ground pictures of the empty stadium, as I watch from comfort,

30 minutes before kick-off time, it starts raining. Heavily
20 minutes before kick-off time, the pitch is completely waterlogged
At kick off time, it is put back by one hour
45 minutes into the hour, the rain stops
One hour after kick off time, the referee goes for a paddle, and says we will kick off in 30 minutes
Five minutes later, the game is called off.

At some time during the wait, we were treated to an impromptu display of support from a small group of home fans with the name of the club emblazoned across their chests. Fortunately, it will wash off – and if they went to stand with the majority of the fans, it will have done before the game was called off.

In common with the practice I had seen at other games, even though the match was off, the players still made their way to the support on the uncovered side to make their ritual “thanks for coming”.

The taxi driver who took me to the stadium, said he would come back for me. I was uncertain as to whether this would happen, but not only did he come back, but he made it there around 30 minutes before the agreed time, meaning I did not have to wait long. Anyone else trying to get a taxi here needs to consider asking them to pick up after the game. You are at least a mile from the main road, with little chance of seeing a taxi before you reach it. I did not see many until we reached the centre of Minburi – a distance which would have required more than an hour of extra walking.

We also picked up two Thai supporters who were looked for a Taxi. Apparently, they had tried to stop my cab when he was on the way in, and he asked my permission to pick them up. They knew little English (despite having visited England – apparently London is cold in winter), and travelled on in the cab after I reached the hotel – so they were going a long way, so they spent at least an hour in the taxi. What they would have done, or what I might have done, without the taxi remains a matter of speculation.

Anyway, I was back in town allowing a drink before bed. In the morning, the hotel staff helped me in the unusual task of transliterating the Thai script on the fifth level team lists for my records. I had managed to get a few sorted and some sort of translation is possible using google, particularly when the name does not translate into English words. As I have found a couple of times in the past, in Thailand and Hong Kong, hotel staff are quite happy to help with unusual requests like this so long as you can make yourself understood and you pick a quiet time of day.

After that though, there was nothing to do but to head back to the airport and board my flight back to London. My flight out was my first on the Airbus A380, but the return was my first on an A350. To be honest, there is very little to say about either from economy class. But my last job was working automating the production procedures for A350 wing panels, so one felt a little more connected here.

ATW90: Myanmar

February 21st, 2018

Back into sequence? This is part of the series of articles being written for the book, Around the World in 90 minutes

The Myanmar visit was in September 2017, and came directly after the my visit to Bhutan.

Please send any comments or corrections to atw90@leohoenig.com

Please follow me on facebook (Leo Hoenig), Twitter (@leohoenig) or Instagram (@hoenigleo)

I felt I really should not have gone to Myanmar. I was quite aware that as a country, it has always been frayed around the edges. Unfortunately, much of this was the fault of the British when negotiating independence. The British ruled the country as a single state, or even as a province of India, and ignored the many different small groups of people within the state. (This was not just a problem with British colonialism, look at the mess the Dutch left Indonesia in, partly because they created a single state). The Burmese majority and some of the other groups did sign an agreement, but others were left out, despite an original demand by Britain that this would not happen. The result is that ever since independence (70 years now), the country has been plagued by internal strife as the other groups, Karin, Shan, Rohingya demand their own rights and even independence. The North East of the country is reported as particularly lawless, but I was not going anywhere near there.

Trouble really started to flare in the week I was heading out of the UK. An insurgent group (or freedom fighters or terrorists, depending on your viewpoint), attacked police stations in Rakhine state. The main demand of the Rohingya people appears to be recognition. Although they have lived in the northern part of what is now the Rakhine state of Myanmar for generations, they do not hold Myanmar citizenship. The Myanmar government considers the whole group to be illegal Bengali immigrants. The Bangladesh government does not give them citizenship, as they live in Myanmar. When the British were in charge, they recognised the Rohingya as a tribe, but probably gave little thought to how they were spread across what would become the Burma/East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) border.

The border is porous at best, so no doubt there has been unregulated movement across it since the countries became independent, but the continuing repression in Myanmar means that it is not a great destination for illegal immigrants to head for. By the time I arrived in Myanmar, it appears that at least 250,000 people had been pushed across the border into refugee camps in Bangladesh, which simple cannot deal with the influx. The United Nations security council actually managed to condemn this, with both Russia and China accepting the motion.

Myanmar cannot control information, everyone here has mobile phones and internet connections, and outside news sources are available. The internal news however says that all outside sources are lies. I went to Mandalay and Bagan, two centres which rely on tourism to some extent, (Bagan only exists as a tourist destination). The various taxi drivers and guides I speak too, while managing to speak enough English to take me around, to negotiate fares, or to try and sell me trinkets I do not want or need, somehow do not understand a word when I ask about the situation, or how they are going to cope with the reduction in tourists that this is going to create.

From Bhutan, I had taken a flight back to Bangkok – like the outward one, it stopped in India – but a different airport to the one used in the other direction. My flight to Myanmar was the following morning, but from Bangkok’s older Don Muang Airport. I had booked a small hotel close to the airport, but my taxi driver had no idea where it was. Even after stopping close to the destination and getting directions from other drivers, he still had no idea. In the end, I had to stop at the wrong hotel, and take another taxi to complete the journey.

I landed in Mandalay. While Mandalay has always sounded like an interesting city, it does lack something. It is said that you are never far from a rat in any major city, but in most places they stay relatively well hidden. In Mandalay, you will see them if you take any short walk of an evening. It makes the plan of using street vendors for food seem somewhat unappealing.

I was picked up at Mandalay airport by the hotel’s transport. This was a good idea as the airport is a long way from the city centre, and no one likes to haggle with the local drivers before they have a true idea of costs. Indeed, I did not even hold currency until after I reached the hotel.

While we were heading to the city, I discovered we would pass close to the city’s impressive and modern football stadium. I could not get access inside, so had to content myself with a few outside pictures

I now had two and a half days of sightseeing planned. First, I would walk look around Mandalay, then take a trip between Mandalay and Bagan, stopping at the most impressive temple on the route, and then I would spend a whole day travelling around Bagan, before taking a morning flight down to Yangon. It would be down in the commercial centre of the country where the football would take place.

I managed, of course to see many sights on my first three days, more than can be possibly be shown here, but here are small number of highlights. The first two are in Mandalay, the second pair at Mount Popa, which is en route between Mandalay and Bagan, (or if you are staying in Bagan, the place most taxi touts want to overcharge to take you to), and the rest are in Bagan itself.

 

 

 

 

 

Being as this is a Football Blog, I could not resist this football pitch in Bagan, with a couple of small stupas behind. No sign to say when the next game would be.








 

 

 

 



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The Myanmar government makes a charge to visit the antiquities in Bagan, and please do not think for a moment that this goes mainly into maintenance, even if there are some signs that maintenance may be ongoing. The figure is 25,000 Kyat – which is in fact around £14. While this fee is well worth it, no one bothers to check if you have a ticket or not at most places. It was only at the last temple I visited, Shwesandaw that I was forced to hand over my money.

Still, it had to be paid as this is one tall temple, and you can climb up the sides (in relative safety). The views over the 360o panorama are magnificent, and naturally this is a favourite (and recommended) sunset hangout.

Of course, the next morning is Saturday, and I need to get to football. I am staying at a hotel near the airport, so it is a straightforward matter of getting their airport shuttle to the terminal – well they told me it was a bus!

In common with about 99% of the road traffic in Myanmar, this “bus” is right hand drive, and hence intended for a market where one drives on the left. In Myanmar, they drive on the right. I asked more than once about this and the answer I got was consistent. It is apparently because the cars are all made in Japan. The Japanese drive on the left (that much is true), and hence do not make cars for with the steering wheel on the other side, (such as China, USA and most of Europe).

This is repeated enough that I think the locals believe it. The true reason is that most vehicles in Myanmar were not intended for the local market, but were sent to neighbouring countries, (India mainly, but also Bangladesh and Thailand) where they do use the left hand side of the road.

And then onto the plane, which starts off in the wrong direction and makes two other stops before getting to Yangon

 

Some good aerial views, even if I did not spot the Shan United home ground


There were no delays in my flight, fortunately, which meant I had no difficulty in getting down to Yangon and into my hotel in good time.

After a short while in the hotel, I am on my way again, to see a Rakhine United “home” game. This is where football in Myanmar starts to get confusing. Rakhine is the state where the problems with the Rohingya was happening. When I started my trip, I assumed the game would be played within the state – I had even gone as far as looking to see if I could get there and the down to Yangon for a game on the Sunday. I do not think I had noticed that the Magwe do not have a home stadium, and therefore were due to play in Yangon as well that day, (Wikipedia lists a stadium for every club, but then notes that some are not in use). I had planned my timing with the thought I could travel to Hpa-an (about six hours on the bus) for Monday’s match and back on the Tuesday. This was in fact the main reason I had booked to leave the country on Wednesday, rather than the day before.

While the Myanmar National League web site confirmed the fixtures and kick off times well in advance, so as I was not just dealing with sites such as soccerway, it was only in the week before the match that they release the confirmed fixtures, with venues!

It turns out that Zwekapin’s matches were not in Hpa-an, but also in Yangon. Two other teams, Chin United and GFA, both of which hail from Chin also play their home matches in Yangon. Meanwhile, the number of matches for the weekend was reduced from six to five as the team from Nay Pyi Taw was thrown out of the league for not paying players’ wages.

All in all, therefore, six of the 12 clubs in the league play their home matches in Yangon, even though there is only one Yangon team in the league. It goes a step further than this, as all of the 12 (reduced to 11 by Nay Pyi Taw’s problems) actually train at the same place – the two artificial pitches next to the offices of the Myanmar Football Association offices, and across the road from the National stadium.

Even Yadanarbon, the team from Mandalay use the facilities in Yangon, which is rather sad considering that when I saw the outside of the stadium, the driver pointed out the academy pitches outside, and these present superior facilities to those in Yangon.

Another thing I discovered after I started planning was the existence of the ASEAN federation’s under-19 tournament, which would reach it’s final on the Sunday of my visit to Yangon. When this first came to my notice, I wondered if I could get from Yangon United’s ground after their Sunday match to the national stadium for the final. Google maps said yes, but I think the traffic would have made it close to impossible.

However, once I discovered that Rakhine were to use the Yangon United ground, it seemed that life would be simpler, as I could go there on Saturday, the National stadium for two U-19 games on Sunday and the Aung San stadium on the Monday.

It started hammering down with rain when the taxi was half way to the stadium, and on arrival the driver took my straight through the gates and then signalled to someone close by to come and hold an umbrella as I exited the door and walked to the stand. I’m not used to this. Normally, it rains, I get wet.

As a result, I do not even know if avoided paying to get in or not! I paid to get into the game on Monday, so I am guessing I missed paying (maybe almost 60p) here.

Anyway, despite being a modern artificial surface, it appeared the game would be in doubt. There was standing water right across the pitch, and despite people trying to sweep it clear, nothing could change until the rain stopped. But those of you that know South East Asia know that it rains hard, but rarely for long.


 

So, they announced a 30-minute delay to kick off. By that time the rain had stopped and the sweepers had returned the playing surface to something close to normal. There was no obvious water, but the surface was slippery, and this showed as the game went on. When a new rainstorm hit on the hour mark, the puddles soon appeared again, but the referee played through and all was back to normal by the end.

The Yangon United Sports Centre acts is the home ground for Yangon United, and also stages games for other teams as and when necessary. It has a track, but not full size. It has one long stand which goes all the way along the pitch, and another smaller one on the other side of the pitch. The only floodlights are attached to the top of the stands, so I do not think they are for match play (explaining the 3.30 kick off time), but as we did not start until 4.00, they were on at the end.



Shan United, are top of the league, and it was soon clear why. Playing in a 4-1-4-1 formation, they made good use of the wings, and utilised the power of their Nigerian forward Christopher Chizoba. It was two goals by Chizoba that gave them a half time lead. The first a powerful shot, after another player had sent a shot from distance onto the crossbar, and the second a tap in after good work from Han Kyungin. Han himself pounced on the loose ball following a corner on 65 minutes to complete the scoring.


Rakhine’s best period of play came at the start of the second half, but they too frequently failed to find the man in the area with undirected crosses, or ended up with powder-puff shots. They kept trying to play, as fresh rain created puddles on the pitch in the second half, the best chance coming after a save by Thiha Sithu leaving Sunday Mathew with an open goal which he fluffed. The Nigerian players’ union matched this a minute later when Chizoba headed over.

The smallish crowd included people supporting both sides, including a fair group wearing Rakhine colours. It appears these are all Yangon residents who may have once lived in the state.


Chizoba, I noticed ended the season as joint leading goalscorer, I spoke to him briefly after the game, when he mentioned a desire to move higher, maybe to the Indian Super League, as he had already played in India. However, he has been stayed at Shan for the 2018 season




After the game, I had a quick drink (coffee!) in the café just outside the ground. All eyes are on the TV, showing the lunchtime game in England, just as night falls here. Leicester City are 2-0 down to Crystal Palace at half time. (final 3-0)

As a prelude to heading to the ASEAN Football Federation Under-19 finals on the Sunday, I first had to visit the Myanmar Association’s offices in the morning. The offices are just across the road from the main stadium and stand next to two artificial pitches.

Although it was not apparent, looking on, these pitches were sodden with water, and if you walked across them you get the splish-splosh that you might normally associate with walking on a carpet which has been flooded and not dried out.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The match when I wandered past was South Korea v Japan, or to be more accurate, a match between ex-pats working in Yangon from the two East Asian nations.

The fibres of the surface were all lying flat, which probably damages the drainage. One got the impression that there is a lack locally when it comes to translating the words, “regular maintenance”.


The sign on the building at the back reads “National Football Academy”, the corner flags are set in concrete within a can marked “Gloss Enamel” I’m sure the FA uses the same techniques at St. George’s Park.


There is a lot of rivalry amongst the nations of South East Asia, and the ASEAN Football Federation organises at many levels. The tournament for U-19 players is held annually. Australia have been admitted to this region, even though they do not fit naturally into any Asian region, and may be better placed in the East, against South Korea, Japan and China. Although the Australians are the holders at this level, they have declined to enter this time around. New Zealand were originally invited to fill the gap, but then pulled out when the fixture schedule was given, (this was before the Rohingya business flared up). Hence, we had two groups one of six teams, the other of five.

Group A, the six team group was dominated by Thailand and Malaysia, who both won four games before drawing with each other. The biggest surprise was when Timor-Leste (East Timor to you) beat Singapore in their final game to finish third. Malaysia were group winners on goal difference

Group B was tighter, the Phillipines lost all four games, and Brunei only beat the Phillipines. Vietnam won their first three, including a 3-0 win over Indonesia, while Indonesia and Myanmar both had two wins before the final games. Indonesia had beaten Myanmar 2-1 thanks to a late injury time goal. Hence Vietnam had a +15 goal difference, plus they knew a draw made them group winners. However, Indonesia needed to make themselves safe in case Myanmar did win, which meant beating Brunei by 8-0. As it happened, the final score was Indonesia 8, Brunei 0.

For the final game, this meant that Vietnam would win the group if they did not lose the game, but with a defeat, they would drop to third place, as the goal differences and goals scored would be identical with Myanmar (assuming a single goal defeat) and hence head to head for their match against Myanmar would be decisive. Vietnam were a goal to the good in the first minute, but Myanmar pulled it back and won with a goal four minutes from time.

Both semi-finals finished scoreless. No extra time with only two days before the finals, and it was the group A teams, Malaysia and Thailand that went through. I was in a restaurant in Bagan for the semi-final, and it ground to a halt as the penalties came on. Even a group of French people stopped and cheered for the home team. Myanmar had an early penalty saved, but drew level when Malaysia’s fifth hit the post. But then another save stopped Myanmar on the first sudden death penalty, and Malaysia progressed by 5-4.

Although less central than the Aung San stadium, Thuwunna is the chosen national stadium for most international games. It was built in the mid-80s, Four curved stands, each two tiered surround an 8 lane running track. The two sides are roofed, while the ends are open. It is built mainly in concrete with large entrances to the seats between the tiers. The base row of seats are not more than 3 meters above pitch level, and while no one chooses to sit this low, quite a few of the home support do stand on the path that runs in front of these seats, forcing the sitting spectators further up.

For some reason, quite high mesh fences are erected on both sides of the ground, but not behind the goals. The mesh itself is too fine to interfere with the views, but the scaffolding poles that support it are a very annoying feature.

The pitch is grass, and the surface is clearly soft, with patches where the grass has worn thin, but despite the heavy rain and the high load on the surfaces, the surface actually appears better than the artificial surfaces at Yangon United and the training centre across the road.

Myanmar v Indonesia. Indonesia are on top from the start, forcing one good save and threatening the home defence well before a ball from the right is slipped through to an unmarked Mursalim who scores the first goal. As can happen, this results in a more positive play from Myanmar, and they should have levelled when Tun got into the area and found LW Aung in space, practically on the penalty spot, but he directed his shot straight at Savik in the Indonesian goal.

The pressure does not last, and on 27 minutes Sulaeman is released by a counter attack, picking up the ball in the centre circle and passing it into the net when the keeper advances for 2-0

Again, Myanmar push forward but without effect, the Indonesian keeper parries a couple of cross balls, but no one can finish them, while PS Naing fails to make contact with a cross from Tun.

This is the story of the game in a nutshell, Myanmar rushing to try and create chances which by and large come to nothing, their opponents being just that bit more clinical as they approach the goal. Indonesia are three goals to the good at the break, and extend this to six with a few minutes to go. Myanmar finally get a reward for their efforts in injury time, but there is still time for Indonesia to score again, and the final result is 7-1.

Close to the end, the announcer informs us that 16,000 are watching. I don’t know why he says this. There cannot be more than 1000 in the ground. The figure does not appear in the official records of the game, and I don’t think even the local press would report it.

By the time of the final, it is raining again and the pitch surrounds are looking very wet, but there is no standing water. Thailand get the first chance, a free kick from Noomchansakool is met on the far post by Kamingthong, but he puts the ball just over, then Rashid breaks forward for Malaysia, and hits the post when he should have scored.

The crowd has thinned out greatly, less than half of the figure from the first game, but there are two groups of noisy Thai supporters, each about 30 people and on opposite sides of the ground. For once, the rain is merely gentle, but less than a dozen people remain in the open seats, one of which has both an umbrella and a TV camera.

Thailand can just about muster enough fans to raise the giant flag before kick off.

The game is cagier than the first match, both sides will pass the ball right across the back line before choosing their position to push a forward ball. After the chances in the opening minutes, these are not finding the attacking players in space, as the defenders clearly have the upper hand. Malaysia have the most possession, but that is because they play more tippy-tappy at the back. Thailand are quicker to push the ball forward, and quicker to lose possession.

However, almost imperceptibly, Malaysia push their back line up and this moves the game into the other half of the field given Thailand some problems. Thailand have a player injured, but make two substitutions, so at least one is tactical. It is not changing the 4-1-4-1 formation used by both teams though. The new forward, Lertlum manages to get a shot close to the keeper which is blocked for a corner. Goalless at half time, I cannot see there being many added after the break, and a penalty shoot-out may well be the end result

The first goal comes from nowhere, a cross to one of the Thai substitutes, Panya, who is given a little space in the area, and a looping header which you could tell from the first moment was beating the Malay keeper. Within minutes it is two, a free kick from the right and Kamen meets it with a powerful header. A typical centre half coming up for the set piece.

Thailand continue to look the more dangerous, getting another three free kicks that all cause problems to Malaysia in the next fifteen minutes, but following the third of these, something happens off the ball, and Thai full back Kumkean is dismissed. Pulling a winger back, Thailand look to have moved to a 4-1-4-0 formation. Malaysia make the obvious change, bringing on Azeman, a forward in place of a midfielder, Thailand bring on a defender, which at least allows the winger back to his position, especially as Malaysia had created a chance in that space between the two substitutions. With this they revert to 4-1-3-1 and almost get a third when a header from Lertlum bounces off the crossbar

Thailand are happy to try time wasting tactics, such as having a player carried off on a stretcher, and then standing up fit enough to return. Malaysia have switched to 4-3-3 which is creating a few chances, with Razan hitting the ball over the bar in the 82nd minute and then beating the ground in frustration as he knows he should have got closer.

As we move on, it becomes clearer that Malaysia do not have the right moves to turn it around, as they keep pumping long balls into the area which are easily cleared. The call for four minutes of injury time is generous to Thailand, who immediately manage another injured player, and another minute lost.

Malaysia finally get their chance, two minutes into injury time when Khirudin is tripped in the box, but even this is to no avail as Manpati saves Azeman’s penalty. It was their last chance, the referee manages only to add 30 seconds to the four minutes, when two have been wasted (one for the injury, and one for the time between penalty award and it being taken). Still, for all their late gamesmanship, Thailand have bossed the second half and deserve their cup.


Viewed through the mesh – Malaysia’s late penalty is saved

As I had seen in Thailand, the first action of the Thai team after the whistle is to go over and cheer their fan group. About five minutes later the Malay team acknowledge (very briefly) a small group of their own fans, who were on my side of the ground, but had been quiet during the game.

The rain, which had kept off during the second half of play suddenly becomes torrential again as we wait for the presentations.

After this, I make my way back to the hotel, pleased with the days entertainment.

I take a little time to look around my locality, which is the old centre of Yangon on the Monday morning. The city is typical of this area of Asia, with its busy streets and crowded paving. There are a few sights to see, but the real joy here is not any specific item, but the kaleidoscope of noise and colour that makes up life in an Asian city.

A Buddhist temple within a roundabout, and surrounded by shops


And to prove harmony is not impossible, the mosque across the road!

One unusual feature here, which sets the city apart from other cities in Myanmar, and Asia generally is the lack of motor scooters. In most cities, they are a popular form of travel, and it is a common site to see whole families riding on one scooter, but here they are banned.

The Aung San Satdium in Yangon is not far beyond where I was walking in the morning and I actually considered walking from the hotel, but the heavens opened at about 1.45. I started the walk 30 minutes later when there was a brief respite in the rain, and hailed a taxi five minutes later when the respite ended.

I ducked out of the taxi immediately outside the ticket stall, so I quickly paid my 1000 kyets (about 60p to you). It was still pissing down with rain as I walked into the ground, did not stop until well into the second half.


This is the old national stadium, it is not really bigger than the new one, even though the capacity quoted is. I asked one of the journalists covering the game (there were two to choose from) whether it might be better to kick off the Monday games later than 3.30.

He replied that the floodlights do not actually work, so it is not possible.

Open concrete stands on three sides, a newer covered stand where I came in to the West.

The “visiting team” is Gospel for Asia comes from Chin State, which seems plausible as the state has a majority Christian population according to wiki. GFA are bottom of the division, with Chin United one place higher. The state of Chin is one of the most impoverished in the country. Like its neighbour, Rakhine, it is in a continuous state of conflict, with the army trying to assert their authority by methods that to put it mildly, international groups such as Human Rights Watch find distasteful.



Zwekapin took the lead on 22 minutes. A free kick was parried by the visiting keeper. KS Lin got the loose ball on the right side of the field and crossed to the far post for YK Hywe to score.

Slightly to my surprise, GFA equalised soon afterwards, a ball was played into SM Aung on the edge of the six-yard box, where either the keeper or the centre half should have taken it off him. Instead he was allowed to bring the ball down, turn and softly tap it in. Luis Carlos Martins restored the home sides lead, a diving header to a cross from SM Tun.

I thought that Zwekapin would be able to step up a gear after the break, but actually GFA had the better of the play. Still the home side should have made certain when Martins missed open chances in both the 80th and 81st minutes, (the first was easier). His manager decided he had seen enough, and replaced him with a defender, seeing out the game in a 5-2-3-0 formation.

No official crowd for this one, but my estimate was around 150. The impression I get is that bigger crowds can be seen outside Yangon, depending on the amount of success a team is having and the importance of the game – but this is not going to balance the costs the team incurs in travelling to the game. The national football association has only a little cash to distribute to the teams, so basically the 12 teams in the National League are all dependent on the amount of money their owners and sponsors can put in. Still, the division is a professional league, and even the second division has enough money that many teams have recruited foreign players, (which must therefore be full professional).


I had a brief chat with an agent who was meeting some of the players outside the ground, most of the foreigners in Myanmar football are from Africa, and they benefit from the centralised nature of the league, as they appear to group together between matches.

The chances of at least one of the Chin sides staying in the division has been enhanced with Nay Pyi Taw having been banned from the league with five games to play. All matches will be awarded 3-0 to their opponents. They still sit one point ahead of Chin, two ahead of GFA, but will not be allowed to stay up even if they were to stay in their current (non-relegation) position.

In the 2017 season, United of Thanlyin were removed from the second division after 10 games, (half way through the original season). Their results were expunged.
Also missing this season are Manaw Myay (last season’s second division champions), Zeyar Shwe Myay (mid-table top division last season). By the end of the season, GFA had done enough to be clear of the relegation zone, but Chin United finished bottom. Chin United did not continue running following their relegation, while the other relegated club, Nay Pyi Taw have also folded. For the second season in succession, the champions of the second division have dropped out of the league, rather than taking promotion.


A view of the Shwedagon Pagoda. Not certain what the golden ball is for,

The demise of Chin United in particular is disappointing, as they were an interesting case. Their owner James Lian Sai started the side after running football competitions between players in orphanages in Yangon. He himself is running several orphanages. It appears that not all of the children are actually orphans, as with the poverty and conflicts in states such as Chin, many parents will send their children to the relative safety of the south. Still, the Chin are an ethnic minority within Myanmar, and as well as problems in their home area, they face discrimination and abuse in the larger city.

Despite that, Chin United have managed to develop players, and at least one has made it into the national team

The second division becomes more confusing with three of the teams changing names! It runs in 2018 as a seven-team league. In both 2017 and 2018, the second division is a Yangon only league, using the two main stadiums in the city, and the Padonmar Stadium, just north of the Shwedagon Pagoda (which is one of Yangon’s major attractions).

The top division continues much as before, with five of the clubs not being able to use grounds outside Yangon, so six of the 12 will play there again.


After the match I managed to find my way to Yangon’s only microbrewery. Finding it is typical of a taxi drive in the city. First you show him the address in writing and on a map on your phone. He then quotes you a price, (in this case, one that I thought was very low). He then heads off in completely the wrong direction to a place which he thinks you are going to. You then point out the real address, and the phone number attached, (which you had also suggested in the first place). Eventually he makes his way in the right direction, hitting the traffic at every corner. The brewery is slightly hidden in an industrial area, and the driver has to ask three times close by to find it. This is not helped of course by the fact he does not follow his directions as given.


Let is be known that I like a good beer!

 

In this case, I paid more than the original quote, in line with the cost I thought I should pay. Fortunately, the return journey was easier, the pub called the taxi for me, and his price was reasonable. He even knew where my hotel was.

The week before my visit, Kyrgyzstan called off their home Asian Cup match with Myanmar due to the threat of protests by their Muslim population against the visitor’s treatment of the Rohingya. The situation is worse, not better with this match now re-arranged for March. Meanwhile, the subject has faded from the world’s TV screens, but like many of the other conflicts in Myanmar still goes on. Even the pope managed to fail to mention it while in the country. In Myanmar, the official version is still believed in almost all quarters and any alternative view is down to foreign dislike of Myanmar and its leaders. Something of a mistaken assumption as Aung Sun Suu Kyi is still someone seen as a heroic leader by most of the world, and until this crisis, she was almost the “Asian Nelson Mandela”. Carefully burying the rest of the administration’s human rights abuses in the sand.


In such a country, the problems of the Football organisations appear to be small potatoes. Still, I cannot help but think that devolving the development of the game away from Yangon would not only be good for the game, but could act for the good of the country. Half the teams play home games in front of miniscule crowds in one city, while the other half travel from this city to play in front of much better crowds elsewhere. If the government could help provide facilities for football in Rakhine (Rohingya), Chin (Chin) and Hpa-an (Karen), this might be a move in the right direction for bringing communities together, rather than the conflicts that plague the country.

Still, I leave with the thought that the country’s chosen name is so close to the that of the Muppet song, Manah Manah, Myanmar? And the lyrics are so appropriate to the way home and foreign governments seem to view the problems

Myanmar? (ba dee bedebe), Myanmar, (ba debe dee)
Maynmar! (ba dee bedebe badebe badebe dee dee de-de de-de-de)

ATW90 – Hong Kong

February 8th, 2018

Once again out of sequence, this is part of the series of articles being written for the book, Around the World in 90 minutes

Please send any comments or corrections to atw90@leohoenig.com

Please follow me on facebook (Leo Hoenig), Twitter (@leohoenig) or Instagram (@hoenigleo)

I am indebted to Christopher KL Lau, Editor and Photographer for www.offside.hk and https://wildeastfootball.net/ for providing invaluable background assistance to this article. The two web sites that Chris writes for provide an invaluable source of information in English for Hong Kong and Chinese Football respectively, (with Macau football also appearing on offside).

Following from India, I head back to China to meet the wife and boy again. They have booked into the holiday resort of Sanya, on Hainan Island for Chinese New Year. My flight times are not ideal, I have to change planes in Hong Kong. A flight from Mumbai, leaving at 2 a.m. gets there at 10.00, but the departure is not until 08.45 the next morning

On the other hand, there are Hong Kong League fixtures at 2.30 and 5.30 in the afternoon. I had visited Mong Kok Stadium, where the late match was being played before, but that was 26 years ago and the stadium was completely rebuilt in 2011. The other change in Hong Kong football was that on my earlier visits, only the Mong Kok and National Stadiums were used for the top level league, while now each team has its designated ground. There are still two clubs, Kitchee and Eastern sharing at the Mong Kok, while R&F play their games in mainland China. R&F are affiliated to Guangzhou R&F of the Chinese Super League

My flight is delayed before it starts, and then gets held in a holding pattern before landing in Hong Kong, so it is after 12 noon before I clear the airport. My hold luggage is checked through, so I save time in not having to wait for it, but this is, as I will discover only part blessing, and partly a curse.

The trouble is, that I have placed my coat in the bag. It has been 30o plus at the end of the India trip, and it will be around 25 in Sanya. I have been to Hong Kong several times in the past, including this time of year and the temperature has always been hot and humid.

It is 11o Centigrade when I arrive, and the temperature will barely rise (or fall) during my stay. Every local is wearing coats, while all I have is a double layer of short sleeved T-shirts.

My hotel has been chosen around my destination. I use the airport express train to Kowloon station, then one stop on the local metro and a short walk. I check in around one. After a little rigmarole with the room, I am out again within 30 minutes and arrive at the Sham Shui Po Sports ground just after two.


The ground is simple. It has an athletics track, and one covered stand with all concrete seats. The admission charge is HK$80, about £7. The capacity is shown as 2,194 and I guess it is that precise, as there is no route to go around the sides of the track and watch from outside the stand. It is a sports ground, with some other facilities outside the fences of the main stadium. The best feature is a small gate that marks the entrance from the road.

The home club here is Rangers, also known as Hong Kong Rangers, or thanks to the sponsorship as Biu Chun Rangers. They are currently bottom of ten in the league, not far enough adrift though that they cannot escape the single relegation spot. The visitors, Pegasus are also sometimes prefixed Hong Kong. They have had sponsors initials (JSW) or name (Sun) preceding the name in the past, but at the moment they are simply Pegasus.


Pegasus are second in the league at the moment, but with an eight-point deficit and less than half the season to play, they are not likely to be able to stop Kitchee winning another title. Kitchee are the dominant force in Hong Kong football. This is the fourth season of the Hong Kong Premier League, and they have two titles and on runners-up prize to date. They also won the first division in three of the last four years that this was the top competition, again being runners-up for the other season. With participation in the Asian Champions League groups stages about to start, they have just signed Diego Forlan. The 38 year old Uruguayan had not had a club since playing for Mumbai City in the 2016 Indian Super League, but has scored five times in his first four matches in Hong Kong.

Pegasus start the game showing a little arrogance. It appeared that they believed that by turning up, they had already secured all three points. The leader of this opinion appears to be Awal Mahama. I have him down as right back, but he seems to be wandering all over the field, leaving his team very exposed at the back, with two very good chances to open the scoring mid-way through the half. First Chuck Yiu Kwok goes past the right back as if he isn’t there. (Well, actually, he wasn’t there) and beats another defender before forcing a save, and then a long shot hits the crossbar.

At the other end, it is the antics of Pegasus’ Ukrainian goalkeeper Oleski Shliakotin that grabs the attention. He appears to punch every ball that comes close, but not always in the right direction. At times, he looks comical, and an accident waiting to happen, but when a shot strikes a defender’s hand and the referee awards a very dubious penalty, he dives to his left to punch the ball away.

 

 

 


In the second half we have more of the same, but the Pegasus players have clearly been told during the break that to stop messing around. The formation is changed slightly, so as the right back slot is covered and Mahama can play his free reigning preference. The effect is almost immediate, as in the 47th minute Pegasus have two or three shots blocked, until the ball falls to the feet of Niko Komazec just outside the area, who strikes it back in the open the scoring.


It is almost inevitable that Shliakotin would gift a chance at some point, and in the 66th minute he practically drops the ball at Mahama’s feet and it is 2-0. Five minutes later, Major receives a cross and makes up for his missed penalty. 3-0.

Rangers, who are not that bad a side and have contributed well to an entertaining game finally get a little reward for their efforts in the 78th minute when Marco Krasic converts a penalty.


During the second half, I get to talk to a Hong Kong FA official who is acting as a match observer. I ask him about players such as Eugene Petit Mbende Mbone, who is not listed as a foreigner, but does not sound like a typical Hong Kong name. It turns out that he has been playing in Hong Kong since 2008, and that any player can apply for residence status after seven years, meaning they no longer count as a foreign player. They can then go on to apply for Hong Kong passport if they wish, making them eligible for the national team. When I look closer, it turns out that only three of the national team players starting their last Asian Cup qualifier were actually born in Hong Kong.

I know that in some countries, improved rankings by playing players that are not natives of the country has caused resulted in supporters feeling the team does not represent them, but Chris Lau tells me the opposite is the case in Hong Kong. “I believe quite a few fans support players who give up their own nation’s passports, which is a large sacrifice, to play for the national team. Former Hong Kong coach Kim Pan-Gon liked to select many of the naturalised players so it will be interesting to see what the new coach (unknown at this time) will do in the future.” Chris also says that it has not been these players that created a lack of opportunities for youngsters to come through the system in Hong Kong, but the attitude of families in Hong Kong, to always pressure their children to do well academically. “this means the number of local players coming through to be professional players is not as high as before. Given Hong Kong only has a few professional clubs then the opportunities to play are not very high either. Recently, with the rise in greater professionalism in Asian football and a shift in attitude, players see more chances to play across Asia and many youngsters are coming up the ranks so I believe we will see many more youngsters in the national team soon.”


The high use of naturalised players goes some way to explaining why the Hong Kong team has moved up the rankings from a no-hoper to a team who could qualify for a major tournament, but does it also explain the drop in crowd figures. The HKFA officer drew a deep breath when the crowd was announced as 279.

When I looked up my previous visits to Hong Kong, in 1991 and 1995, the crowds were in excess of 5000 – and checking with a player who played during that era, it was confirmed that these crowds were typical, with league averages being at least 3000 per game over the season. Over the last decade, one can trace the league averages on the internet, and they have tended to be around the 1000 mark every season. The Chinese club, R&F do not draw much of a crowd, but tend to be excluded from the official figures. The numbers are always up slightly when Hong Kong FC are not in the top division, and down again when they are.


Hong Kong FC are a bit of an anachronism – despite the low crowds, the Premier League is a professional league, relying mainly on their owners to provide subsidies to pay the players. HKFC entered last season as a non-professional club, with players contracts worth just HK$1 (about 9p). While they could not compete, they are top of the lower division this season.

Even back in the 90s, they could not pull much of a crowd. The day before I saw a match at the Mongkok stadium with a crowd of at least 5000, I saw the club play at home in front of 142 in the same league. It appeared as the last bastion of white rule. While on the field the rules meant they had to play a minimum number of local players of Chinese descent, in the clubhouse the only Chinese faces were serving the drinks. I didn’t stay long.


Drawing back to memories of my earlier visits, both involved a team known as Sing Tao who appeared to have a penchant for English keepers. The first time I saw them, they had Peter Guthrie in goal, and their opponent’s manager was quoted in the South China Morning Post as saying he was like giving his side a goal start, (they won 1-0). Oddly, I also remember the quote from a Spurs fan when Guthrie signed for them from Weymouth. At the time, Weymouth had six keepers on their books. “One for every day of the week except Saturday”.

When I went to the Hong Kong stadium in 1995, Maurice Munden was in goal, and kept a clean sheet. It had been the third time I saw him play that season. The other matches were for Ashford Town (Kent) in two different high scoring games. A 5-3 (after extra time) defeat at Fulham in an FA Cup First Round replay, and a 5-4 win in an away game against Wealdstone. I know I managed to speak to him briefly at the end of the game, and mentioned the contrast between Craven Cottage and the Hong Kong Stadium.

It seems Hong Kong has suffered a similar malaise in local club support to many other areas, as the world has become smaller and the television has taken control. Chris Lau again “Back in the fifties through to the early nineties, Hong Kong football games used to attract thousands of people regardless if it was a local league game or if teams came from overseas to play in friendlies. In that time period, Hong Kong football was considered as one of the best leagues in Asia if not the best [Editor’s note – results in the Asian Club Championship never supported this consideration, but then the AFC competitions were much less regarded at this time]. The league drew well-known overseas players such as Alan Ball (Eastern) and Arie Haan (Seiko) to the city which generated large crowds. Through those boom years, there were also many talented local born players like Leslie Santos, Ku Kam-Fai and Wu Kwok-Hung who remain household names and whom also drew in fans. Teams like Seiko, South China, Eastern were seen as the dominate teams in Hong Kong and any clashes between them would see full-houses.”

“The crowds began to dwindle and decline from the mid-nineties onwards with the advent of cable TV when games from England began to be screened live to Hong Kong (and the Asia-Pacific). This soon grew to include Serie A, Bundesliga’s, La Liga, etc and soon football fans could watch quality football at a touch of a button. Instead of going down to a stadium to watch a game, fans could see the best players in the world in the comfort of their own home.”

Another factor in the drop in attendances may be the disappearance of some teams. Sing Tao folded in 1999, while no less than five top division clubs decided against making the transition when the Hong Kong Premier League was founded four years ago. At the end of last season, South China FC took voluntary relegation for financial reasons. As one of the most successful clubs in Hong Kong history, this must have come as a shock to the establishment. With many of the teams still being part of commercial companies, and some coming and going without notice, it can be difficult for support to mobilise behind a team. Still, the recent moves where the teams now play across the territory may help in giving them a core group of fans.

There are still occasional big name signings that bring at least temporary boosts to the support of their club. The most prominent have signed in mid-season, making them available for Asian Club competitions and given a mid-season headline. This year it is Diego Forlan that has made the headline. In the past players such as Nicky Butt have featured. Butt finished his career with 13 games for South China in 2010-11. Five of the games were in the AFC Cup.

It should not have done. Hong Kong is running a professional league with very little marketing, no TV deal and very little identity. In the 1980s, the territory could hold its own – famously winning away to China in a 1985 World Cup qualifier. As I discovered in the 90s, the league could draw good crowds.


At about the time of the handover of the territory to China, Football was excluded from the Hong Kong Sports Institute, and the facilities to train young players was lost. It appears that the decline in the local sport can be dated back to this event. Although national team results have improved again recently, this may not be due to improved coaching of Hong Kong players, but the assimilation of a growing number of foreigners into the national team.

Even in Hong Kong, a territory that has always been a very welcoming to the incomer, this may well be a step too far. Both at club and national level, the teams provide little for the local to identify with. The World Cup home match against China was played at the Mongkok stadium, not the far larger Hong Kong Stadium, and yet was still a little short of capacity. Reports say the Hong Kong FA made it difficult for their regular fans to cross the border for the away match, (which the Chinese FA staged in the border town of Shenzhen). Instead of making tickets available to regular supporters, they were mainly allocated to corporate sponsors


There are small fan groups wearing colours and waving flags at both stadiums I went to. Areas are allocated in the stand for these supporters, although neither Rangers (despite being the home club) or Yuen Long had any in evidence.


After the game had finished, I made my way to the Mongkok Stadium. The journey is quite simple, three stops on the metro with a short walk at each end. The stadium has been completely remodelled since I was last there, and while it actually cannot seat as many people, it does look better.

Unlike Sham Shui Po, which had practically no mention of the club from outside the ground, the Mongkok has been well clothed, inside and out as the stadium of Eastern Long Lions. The club name is just Eastern, with the sponsors title added on. It was even possible to buy a limited amount of merchandise outside the stadium. All of this must be removable, as the ground is shared with another Premier League club, and will be used for other events between match days.


The renovation was done in 2011. The stadium has four sides, all built in a similar style. The two ends are uncovered stands, while there is a membrane cove stretched above the two sides. The stand on the northern side of the ground is significantly smaller than the south stand and the diamond shape of the cover must mean it would rarely protect the fans from rain or sun.

As for the game, it was not as entertaining as the first match of the day. Both of the teams involved are in the bottom half of the table, and neither seemed capable of really breaking through. The home side, Eastern (with branding, Eastern Long Lions) started well and a good individual move by Michel Antunes Lugo meant they took an early lead.



Despite their lower position in the table, the visitors Yuen Long (with branding, Sun Bus Yuen Long) had a much greater share of possession, but they tended to rely too much on their foreign contingent of four Brazilian players. The Brazilians in turn did not appear to trust the locals so much and hence were more predictable and it was easier to dispossess them before they became a danger. Still they managed more (mainly off-target) shots than the home side, and eventually got a player in the right place, at the right time to draw a foul (exaggerated off course by a dive). Everton Camargo scored from the spot to equalise, and the final result was 1-1. Meaning that there was no Hong Kong player, (true or assimilated) on the scoresheet of either game I saw

 


ATW90 – Bangladesh

January 24th, 2018

This is the fifth in a series of posts I am making, which will be extended to create a book, Around the World in 90 Minutes.

[It is out of sequence, as there are two delayed posts to write up]

Please send any comments or inaccuracies to atw90@leohoenig.com

For future posts, where I am going, follow me on facebook.com, twitter @leohoenig and Instagram @hoenigleo

They don’t make it easy to get into Bangladesh. Visa on arrival should be straight forward, but here it is anything but. First you have to fill in two forms – no specific reason for this as far as I could see as the same general information was on both. Then you have to queue to pay. The sign says that it is US$20 for a transit visa, and US$50 for a normal visa. Many of those queuing (including myself) ask about the transit visa, but they are told they cannot get it here. So, it is US$50 to enter, plus another dollar as tax. The point of this is unclear, as surely the whole sum is a tax.

I then queue again to pick up my visa, where I meet with an official who is determined to make things difficult, both my onward reservation and hotel booking are on my phone, rather than paper – and worse still, I do not have an invitation to enter the country. After taking time to tell me I needed this, and then going back on his original acceptance of my electronic reservations, I had the visa added to my passport and was allowed to enter.

I then just had to get past the various touts and find the car that was taking me to the hotel. This is not easy as there are three places where people wait with name cards for transport. Once in the car, we waited about 20 minutes to turn right at the first junction, and I did not get to the hotel for two and a half hours after landing.

Dhaka is cycle rickshaw central, with more of the beasts here clogging the roads than anywhere else. I tried a ride which took around 20 minutes. Cheap, but I recommend them for shorter trips only. It can be scary as they negotiate traffic, and the suspension leaves a lot to be desired.

With it taking near enough three hours from the plane landing to being in the hotel, and as I was suffering from some type of “man and boy-flu”, (my son had it when I left China, my wife did not get it), I was straight to bed and did not show myself to the outside world until after lunchtime the next day, when I made the relatively short walk from my hotel to the national football stadium

The Bangabandhu stadium is a big bowl, which in its time has staged the first ever home cricket test matches for both Pakistan and Bangladesh. It has been refurbished on several occasions, and since 2005 it has been a football and athletics stadium only

I did not see anyone selling tickets, and just walked straight in. The first thing I noticed was that almost every seat in the west stand where I entered was broken. Looking around, it appeared that some areas were better, but that the maintenance has been left for many years. The stadium was used for the opening ceremony of the cricket world cup, but it is difficult to believe that the ground has fallen into this mush disrepair in as little as seven years

To the south east were a number of corporate boxes while at the southern end was a curious structure, which looks a bit like a prototype for the media centre at Lord’s

All matches in the Bangladesh League, and for the matter for the independence cup which starts next week are played at this stadium

I am watching each the current top three teams, and Farashgonj, bottom of the table.

Farashgonj need a win to have a chance of escaping relegation, while Sheikh Jamal have nothing to play for as the results over the last couple of weeks means they must finish in second place.

It is therefore not really a surprise that Farashgonj are more eager in the early part of the game, with their Nigerian forward, Chinedu Matthew having the power and pace to practically win the game on his own. Midway through the first half, he ran onto a through ball by Liton and placed his team one up. Not long after, the Sheikh Jamal goalkeeper and a defender got into a right muddle and Matthew was again on hand. This time he was brought down by the goalkeeper, and slotted in the penalty. Five minutes later it was Matthew again who beat the defence, this time laying the ball across for Alamgir to make it 3-0

With the game apparently won, the second half was somewhat lacking. Sheikh Jamal now had more of the ball, but we go halfway through the period without a single effort worthy of the name. When two chances presented themselves, both were hit wide of the target.

They did finally pull one back, in the 89th minute, Anisur Alam got fouled very gently in the box, (still getting a yellow card), and Sheikh Jamal’s Gambian forward, Solomon scored from the penalty spot

The second game got going about ten minutes late, and it is fair to say that nothing at all happened in the first half. One might have thought the Chittagong version of Abahani woud try to get one over on their Dhaka namesakes, but there was little evidence that either side was concerned about the result.

The second half was no better, with the most notable happening being that Abahani (Dhaka) switched from played in a grey strip to yellow, and one player changed his number, (he was wearing a wrong number before the break). Abahani (Dhaka) managed to knock the ball against the post with around 10 minutes to play, but generally this was poor football with no enthusiasm at all

With the League finishing this week, the national independence cup starts a few days later. For the league, the teams were allowed to have three foreigners signed on and to play two of them at anyone time. When it comes to the cup, they will have to make do with local players only. Supposedly, this will help the local players to get more of a chance. What the contracted but idle foreigners do at this juncture is anyone’s guess.

The Asian Football Confederation runs two tiers of international club competition. The Champions League and the AFC Cup. There are basically four levels of country participation.

  1. The top countries, like Japan, China, Saudi Arabia and Iran get direct slots in the Champions League. They may also have a team playing qualification for remaining places. Any of these that lose are finished with continental competition for the season
  2. For the next level of country, such as India, the Champions play in qualification for the Champions League, but are also allocated a place in the group stage of the AFC Cup. Should they qualify for the Champions League, then they have a designated replacement club who will take the group place. These countries may have another team playing in the AFC Cup, either with direct entry, or qualification to the group stage
  3. The third level only have teams in the AFC Cup. Bangladesh and the Maldives both have one directly qualified for the group and one in qualification knock out. India has the same, but their main entry also plays for the Champions League. Bhutan had a team in AFC Qualifying only.
  4. Finally, there are the country with no entries. The AFC does not specify any countries as not suited to competition, but would have to re-arrange something without this group. Most of these countries have failed to comply with AFC Licencing rules, (hence no Sri Lanka), a couple are under FIFA suspension (no Pakistan), while although listed as not complying with licensing rules, one country has no league to qualify from at the moment (so, no Nepal).

Bangladesh, as mentioned have one place in the group stage of the AFC Cup. There is just one “South Asian” group, and Abahani as champions will take their place with Aizawl (or designated replacement, Mohun Bagan), the Maldivian champions and a play off winner who can come from Bangladesh, Maldives, India or Bhutan.

Neither runners-up Sheikh Jamal, or Abahani Chittagong had managed to get through the licensing procedure, so they play off team will be Saif. Oddly, the league’s main sponsor is also Saif! Saif are the team coached by former Weston-super-Mare goalkeeper Ryan Northcote, and who feature former Woking player, Charlie Sheringham in attack. [It means Charlie is not far from his Dad, Terry Sheringham, currently coaching at ATK, the Kolkata club in the Indian Super League]

As the key city to Bangladesh, Dhaka struggles to present an attractive prospect. The people you meet tend to be friendly, and polite, and you frequently get asked where you are from. I did not get hassled by beggars, although one of the cycle rickshaws followed me for half a mile before taking the hint that I meant what I said, that I would be walking for at least an hour.

The abiding sound of the city is the cacophony of car hooters and cycle bells (from the rickshaws). You cannot help but notice the state of the local buses, many hundreds of which can pass you. Almost without exception, they are dented and scratched on every single panel. I did ask, but could not get an explanation of how they got into this state. They appeared as if they may have been running in a demolition derby between shifts carrying the population of Dhaka around. The sights are few and far between, unless you count the massive jumble of human activity. It did appear the streets, and particularly the pavements got busier after dark. As I had been struggling health wise through the trip, I did not go out. Even had I been feeling healthier, there are no bars to go to, plenty of chances to eat though. Exiting the country turned out to be easier than entering, although slower than I had hoped as the flight was rescheduled as one hour late and was actually much later.

On the Saturday after I left, Rahmatgonj, who had dropped to bottom following Farashgonj’s win, surprised Saif – who could have risen from fourth to third. Rahmatgonj’s win returned Farashgonj to the relegation position. Three of the six matches in the last round of fixtures (one each day) finished scoreless. Over 13% of the matches in the league for the season finished scoreless, making it one of the best places in the world for the game without goals.

My appearance at the game caused a lot of interest in the press box, and gave me a chance to discuss the prospects of Bangladesh football. Curiously, they tell me there are several other stadiums that could be used for League football, both in the Dhaka area and further afield. The major ground in Chittagong has been known to stage games in the past. While all are agreed that more interest could be created in the games by staging some teams games elsewhere, it appears there is no interest within the Bangladesh Football Federation in changing anything.

ATW90. Bhutan Part 2. Thimpu

January 17th, 2018

This is the fourth in a series of posts I am making, which will be extended to create a book, Around the World in 90 Minutes.

Please send any comments or inaccuracies to atw90@leohoenig.com

For future posts, where I am going, follow me on facebook.com, twitter @leohoenig and Instagram @hoenigleo

 

Sunday morning and I am heading north again, for most of the way to Thimpu, we follow the roads we had used to come down from Paro, with just a little diversion near the end. The scenery as you run back through the hills is just as spectacular as going the other way, and I certainly have not tired of it.

The fact that the journey takes over four hours, for a distance that we could easily cover on a good European motorway (i.e. not the M25) in 90 minutes in not lost on me. There is one official stop on route, at a restaurant overlooking a power project, and a couple of extras, so as I can take photos while the driver and guide enjoy cigarettes.

A large portion of the population of Bhutan are smokers, despite the fact that there are no shops that buy and sell tobacco. I would have been allowed to bring cigarettes in with me, but a high duty is payable. Yeshi (my guide) implied that in fact cigarettes are quite easy to obtain, but did not go into detail.

It is a chance to reflect on the other things that the road traveller enjoys in Bhutan. Prayer flags are everywhere, fluttering in the wind, which supposedly releases the prayers. Also prevalent are the small stupas (known as Tsa-tsa, or chortens) that look like stone fairy cakes. These gather in groups, sometimes in their hundreds as a spiritual offering. Each one is must be hand made and contains a prayer. You do not buy these in shops, but craft them yourself, chanting prayers as you mould them from the mud or clay.

 

 

But if there is one thing that distinguishes the roadside in Bhutan, it is the road safety signs. Mainly pained on wooden, boards, but occasional painted direct onto cliff faces, the signs give safe driving advice, almost always in English, and often with a little humour in their rhyming couplets

These amused me enough that I started recording them as I went

“For safe arriving, No liquor in driving”

“Speed is a knife, that cut’s life”

“Faster, will create disaster”

“Be Mr Late, Not Late Mr”

“After Whisky, Driving Risky”

 

 

Arriving in the capital, I am taken to a hotel that is practically opposite the stadium. This allows me to worry as I relax as I can see the occasion movement of football down below me. Is the kick off time wrong? Have they started without me? Of course, the answer is no – it is explained to me the following day that since the artificial surface has replaced the rutted grass, there is no end of people trying to book the pitch, and it could easily be played on 24 hours a day, at least over the weekend if the Bhutan Football Federation would allow it.

Changlimithang Stadium View from the hotel, with a Buddha standing behind, hopefully blessing the sportsmen and women of Bhutan

I do most of my sightseeing in the town the following day, and to be honest, it is not the most exciting of towns. There are a couple of interesting and colourful displays, and a very large Buddha overlooking it all. Not for the first time, I am told that I am looking at the world’s biggest, although as the Bhutanese are never one to overstress themselves, this statement is qualified that it was when created, and therefore there may be bigger, newer images.

And so, to the Changlimithang stadium and the match, an evening kick-off, but with a little day light left when I enter the ground.

Most of the seating is on the side where you are entering, where vast banks of plastic bucket seats line the side. At one end, the seats curve round until they reach a line behind the goal. At the other end, there is a more unusual situation, where the line continues straight, although with less fitted seats on the concrete steps. It is possible for there to be a second (grass) pitch end to end with the main pitch, and before you reach the archery grounds further down this end. At the moment, this is not marked out. There is just a path behind the goal

Opposite the main seating area is the grandstand, and this must go down as one of the most impressive stands in world football.

The seats in the main stand tend not to be fitted, and when I went over to this side for the second half, I got to sit on a “comfy” seat, with cushions. There are two large steps behind me, where I would imagine more seats could be brought out when the occasion demands. I sat on the right had side of the stand, with the left side being somewhat similar. The central section is the royal box, and hence was out of bounds, even with no VIPs at the game.

I estimated the crowd as just under 400, most of which stayed on the main side. At least a quarter of which were in monk’s robes. The monks however, in common with most of the crowd spent a large portion of their time consulting their smart phones.

A group of monks watching intently, (unless they get a message on their phone)

At one stage, I recall the British press reporting on Bhutan allowing a limited amount of TV into the country. In fact, the first TV broadcast in the country, which was just to a screen in the main square of Thimpu was the 1998 World Cup Final. It was the success of this venture that prompted the allowance of TV the following year.

Despite fears that TV would impinge on the general way of life in the kingdom, and a review five years after it was started, the availability of TV has increased dramatically. There are now two national TV stations, but citizens also have access to Indian cable and satellite channels and can watch a smorgasbord of European football for just a few pounds a month.

The fears that this would change the way of life seem not to be realised, but the new revolution, the smart phone is having far more effect than TV ever will

Thimpu City, second placed in the league but needing Transport United to slip up twice in two games if they are to win the league, thanks to a rule that if points are equal, the league is settled by head to head, not goal difference. A club official said to me before the game that they regretted voting for that rule and might try to change it for 2018

The first half was expected, with City ending the session 2-0 in front. The first came after 15 minutes, when a long ball left the U-17 national player Nima Tshering in space to score with confidence. On 39 minutes, Longtok Dawa took a shot that squirmed under the visiting keeper for 2-0.

I was predicting more of the same for the second half and maybe a four goal difference at the end. I was wrong.

Chencho Gyeltschen had been pointed out to me as the star player, but his first half performance did not justify this. Still, just two minutes into the second period, he succeeded in getting behind the visiting defence and although his ball went straight to the keeper, it then bounced out so as Longtok Dawa could score again.

The door was now unlocked, especially as immediately after CG7 had scored the fourth in the 52nd minute (a simple header from a corner), Damash replaced the tiring Nima Tshering.
58 mins 5-0 (CG7).
63 mins 6-0 (Damish)
66 mins 7-0 (CG7)
71 mins 8-0 (Damish)
74 mins 9-0 (CG7)
75 mins 10-0 (Damish)
79 mins 11-0 (Damish)
80 mins 12-0 (CG7)
85 mins 13-0 (Longtok Dawa)

So five for Chercho Gyeltshen, four for Damish, three for Dawa and one for Nima.

I commented to Yeshi that the difference was that in the first half, Thimpu City were employing a very direct approach to the game, and attacking in the middle of the park. After the break, the sought the spaces that were always available on the wings and got behind the defence.

Thimpu City had an Englishman, Vincent Deacon as player-coach. He was an unused substitute in this game. I spoke to him briefly at the end of the game. Asking him first how he came be a football coach in Bhutan, he gave me a brief synopsis.

“I played semi-professional football in England for a long time, I played for a professional club, Rushden and Diamonds – not starting – just trained in my youth” Which semi-professional team?

“Rushden and Higham, in the United Counties League. I played for University teams when I was at University. I had an injury, damaged knee ligaments and I gave up playing after that”

“So I hadn’t played for six or seven years, never thought football would come up again. One of my brothers had trials at Wigan and Peterborough. He still has his dream in America, but I thought mine was over”

Deacon is apparently one of three brothers, all of which were taken on by different football league teams, but all discarded at the line between youth football and professional contracts.

“I came to Bhutan as a teacher, I asked if there were any football leagues where I could just kick around, you know, nothing serious. I managed to get in touch with Yeshi*, who is, I guess the philanthropist in charge of all things football in Bhutan. I played for them last year in the National League and apparently, I did very well. So much so I was asked to stay on and become coach, and the rest is history. I was helping out as coach/player, then the first team coach went to Australia, and I was left in charge – and that’s the journey”

What do you think of Bhutan football overall? “Its good, there are some good technical players”

It seems there is a big gap between the better teams and the others, “Yes, there is a massive gulf, you have two teams competing and that’s it. But the first XI, Bhutan’s football is improving, just look at how the national team is moving up the rankings” “They are now beating teams like Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, which they could not do five years ago”

“If you look at the Under-15s traun, you’ll see even more progress. There are some good players coming through. So Bhutanese football is heading in the right direction. All coaches that come here will tell you the same thing though. They need to stop just listening and doing as they’re told and actually do some thinking. All the coaches, the German coach for the National tea, the Japanese one for the Under-17s and myself have all said “question the coaches, question what you are doing, be more inquisitive”. I think that is the biggest change in Bhutanese football, they are starting to think, what are we doing, where is the space, and looking over your shoulder.

“If you take ten looks before you receive the ball, you know where everyone is, you know where to pass the ball, and all of a sudden you have more time”

I ask about the league fixture structure. Despite having only ten rounds of the league season, it has been rather strung out. Seven games were played together, than we had the week I was there with round 8 at the weekend, round 9 in the following midweek – and finally round 10 is two weeks later

“Yes its strange, we play two games in a couple of days, and then have to wait two weeks for the next one” I ask if there is a reason as I didn’t understand this. “I don’t understand either, its something the coaches need to sort out at the meetings with the FA, its very hard for a coach to maintain continuity”

“The fixture list is something we should improve, and this should in turn help the players”

I said I thought they needed more matches overall

“I agree, maybe we can play each team three or four times. There is a Thimpu league, and then there is a national league, so the Thimpu teams have twice as many fixtures. This (the National League) is meant to be the showcase of Bhutanese football. This may not be true as the Thimpu league is more competitive”

“There is talk of putting Pheuntsholing into the B league in Thimpu” to give them more fixtures, which could be beneficial to them”

“There is another team in Punakha called Uygen Academy. All their games are very tight, they are still losing, but they lost by 1-0 to Transport, by one goal to us”

“When we played against Transport, it was a strange one. As a team we were unbeaten in quite a long while”. (City had finished ahead to Transport to win the Thimpu League), “We scored two early goals and everyone thought we were going to steamroller them, but we stopped playing, and then we lost that game. The problem we are seeing with the National League is we lose one game, and we’ve lost the league”. (The two had drawn in the opening game of the season, but the second meeting finished 6-3 to Transport – Transport finished with nine wins and a draw, City lost and drew with Transport and also dropped a point in the final game, when they were held by Uygen Academy).

“You have to say the team that won deserved it, but one game and losing the title, it’s hard to take”

For the record, Thimpu City only lost twice in 2017, playing 26 games. They won the Thimpu League with a record of 13 wins and a draw, they were second in the National League, 7 wins, two draws, one defeat and a two legged tie against Valencia (Maldives) in qualifying for the AFC Cup. They lost that 3-0, all goals in the second (away) leg.

After that, I took time to go to a microbrewery, fortuitously located in the next block to my hotel. The bar was not particularly busy, and I could watch something from the Premier League on TV. The beers were well worth it though.

The following day we went around the museum, which was quite interesting, if a little small. I got to fire an arrow using an old-style bow, rather than the modern behemoth. I managed to fly it over the compound wall, but fortunately did not cause injury

From there, it was onto a craft museum and then a visit to the Bhutan Football Federation, where I met with the general secretary, Ugyen Wangchuk and had a lengthy discussion about the game in Bhutan. Some of his comments have been used to inform the two blog articles, while the rest of the interview will add to the Bhutan section when “Around the World in 90 minutes” is published. It will be interesting to compare this with what is seen to happen over the next year or two.

The federation headquarters are at a training ground. Although this has an artificial surface, in common with the Changlimithang Stadium, it does not appear to get so much use. The ground appears good enough to stage some low level competitive football, but apparently this is rare

The ground has nicely raised spectator accommodation on one side, with the best above the changing room block

After that, we did return to Paro, once again following the scenic valleys, and stopping at the more interesting places for viewing and cigarettes

 

 

 

We also stopped at the ground Paro United use, some 5km out of town. One can see why they are desperate to build a new venue, (with artificial surface) closer to the town

It is an impossible, rutted surface – yet two days after I took the photo, Paro played at home there. If I had one disappointment from the whole trip, it was that the Bhutan tourist taxes made it impossible for me to make a longer trip and possibly include Paro, or even Uygen.

With all the meals included in the price, they made sure I ate well during the trip. Bhutan has its own distinctive cuisine, which is neither quite Indian, nor quite Chinese, but certainly quite worth trying


My guide and driver saying farewell at the airport. The traditional clothing that they wore throughout is seen throughout the country. It also appears to be compulsory as school uniforms.

 

 

ATW 90. Bhutan Part 1. Phuentsholing

January 5th, 2018

This is the third in a series of posts I am making, which will be extended to create a book, Around the World in 90 Minutes.

Please send any comments or inaccuracies to atw90@leohoenig.com

For future posts, where I am going, follow me on facebook.com, twitter @leohoenig and Instagram @hoenigleo

When thinking of the trip to Bhutan, the first question is one of logistics. You cannot go direct to the country from the UK, so one has to go somewhere else and then change. Bhutan is one of two small countries, sandwiched in the Himalayas between India and China, and my first thoughts were to fly to Kathmandu, and then use the flights between the two capitals.

However, Nepalese football is a mess. Some of my friends spent a week there when there was a tournament, and said I should try to also go for a week. There was an international match in the Asian Cup qualification, but this was on the second stadium in the capital. The primary stadium appears to be out of use. There are no signs that a Nepalese League has restarted, since suspended due to the earthquake in 2015. Local websites show that there appeared to be an intention to restart this season, but it appears they never go around to it.

I would still like to go to Nepal, and I am looking out to see if they resume league fixtures next year.

I considered a short jaunt to India, although my mind says that this is the least sensible place to visit on a short trip. Anyway, for this season there was a FIFA Under-17 season being played there, with the result that the league season was delayed in starting. My trip was to start during an international weekend, so I checked Singapore, which also has a direct flight into Bhutan – but the new National stadium was not being used for their Asian Cup qualification game. Probably on the grounds that hardly anyone was going to watch it anyway. (They got 3,712 at Jelan Besar for the game against Turkmenistan, and surprisingly they then chose to play at the National stadium against Bahrain, with less than 3,000 turning out).

And so, it had to be Thailand – a place I am quite familiar with, but where I have not seen fixtures since they installed a proper national league structure.

The next question for anyone travelling the Bhutan is getting in and around. You cannot simply apply for a visa, book flights and hotels and arrive at the airport. Bhutan travel is dependent on booking through a tour agency, and paying in advance for all transport, hotels, meals and visa fees.

The agents must be approved by the government of Bhutan, and a full list is given on a government website. There is little information as to how to select a tour agent

Most tours take the visitors up from the capital into the mountains, and then onto a trek, while I wanted to take in football matches in the other direction. Also, I wanted to be sure the fixtures were as published on the soccerway international website.

I sent e-mails to three tour agents, chosen at random from the list. I am still awaiting a reply from two of them. The third proposed a tour, and confirmed the fixtures for the remainder of the season with the Bhutanese Football Federation. In this case, Soccerway was accurate.

The Bhutan government demands a minimum spend for everyday spent in the country. This is reduced for larger tour groups, but I was on my own at the full price. There was a delay in getting the money through the international banking system, so I ended up arriving in Cambodia on my side trip before I finally got my visa through.

For the record, a tour starting on a Friday, finishing on a Tuesday and including four nights in local hotels, and including flights to and from Bangkok cost £1655. Within Bhutan, my only expense was beer! I might have been expected to pay to enter the football grounds, but they did not make a charge. My tour guide did take me to a few places where no doubt he would have got commission if I had bought some arts or crafts, but no luck for him there.

After my trip to Cambodia, I got back to Bangkok airport around 10.30 at night, six hours before the flight to Bhutan was due to leave. I was disappointed that Thai Airways would not book my luggage through, so I had no choice but to go through customs, pick up my bags, wait until two, go through check in and security and finally board the flight to Bhutan.

This means filling in the arrival form for Thai immigration, and queuing to enter the country. I did not please the official here as I had not stated where I was staying – so I had to explain I was not staying.

The flight was in two stages, firstly to a small city in North East India, and then after a short break onwards to Paro. On the first stage, it was the fight between airlines and sleep. One is close to nodding off when they come around with the meal, and after this has one again is close to sleeping when the plane lands.

On the second leg, the pilot points out one of the world’s highest peaks to our left at over 29,000 feet. This is immediately after announcing we were cruising at 19,000! They even warned us not to be alarmed by the landing pathway, where the plane dives into the valley, with hills both sides, and then banks right to the airport.

It reminds you of the 1,762 (estimated figure) feature films where the hero is flying the plane, being pursued by the bad henchmen, and then swings violently to one side, while the other plane crashes into the mountain side.

 

I can tell you there was no pursuing aircraft, and although Paro is listed as one of the world’s most dangerous airports, the Aviation Safety Network reports “no incidents”.

I was met at the airport by my tour guide, Yeshi, and by a guide whose name I took to be Jimmy (in my mind, to be spoken with a Glaswegian accent). I think it was really Chime. I was whisked off to the local hotel, which was in the hill above the airport. One could hear every take-off and landing, but as Bhutan does not have many air flights, and only in daylight, this was not going to stop me getting a good night’s sleep

On the first day, we took just a short look around Paro, the town posts a large Zhong (which is a local fortress) and the national museum, and two main streets, one of which appeared to be for the local shopping, and the other filled with tourist tat.

The Zhong in Paro


One of the features of the tourist tat on offer, is the amount of phallic art. Phalluses pictures are common sites in Bhutan, and can often be seen on the sides of houses and other buildings. This is put down to the “divine madman” the Lama Drukpa Kunley, who preached some 600 years ago, and apparently succeeded in shocking the conservative morals of the religious state of the time.

The cynic in me says that the shops in town are selling to uptight people who would tut-tut at a crude graffiti representation in the west, and who probably then hide them away. These are not souvenirs that many would place on their mantlepiece

At one end of the street were the archery grounds. Archery is publicised as the national sport of Bhutan. They actually have more people involved in football, (according at least to the Bhutan Football Federation), but I think they like to show something different.

On arriving at the grounds, a match had just been completed, but we stayed for a while to watch other players practicing, and to give me a first try at Bhutanese beer, (a not unpleasant, but unremarkable lager).

Bhutanese archery is not the same as the sport you may imagine. The archers have to fire their arrows at a small target over 100 yards from their standpoint, a group of archers will fire from one end of the range to the other, and then all move down to the other end and repeat the exercise in the opposite direction.

In order to deliver the projectile with any degree of accuracy over that distance, the bows used have to be very sophisticated

.

The arrows on the other hand are as simple as they come – a straight shaft, with small flights at one end, and a pointy bit at the other.

It was the next day that the adventure really started, and I got my view of Bhutan. Paro is in a valley, some 7,200 feet above sea level, (for comparison Ben Nevis is 4,400 feet). The road I would take rose about 1,500 feet from the valley floors as we found the pass between valleys, while the mountains each side of us were generally around 14-15,000 feet, about as high as the highest in Europe.

The really high mountains in Bhutan are further north than my journey would take me, but I was still surprised to pass peaks this high with not a sign of snow anywhere around, just trees all the way up to the summits. There are many ways in which Bhutan is a remarkable and unique country. The trees are the secret to one of these. Bhutan is the only country in the world that is carbon negative, that is it absorbs more Carbon Dioxide than it produces.

In Bhutan, they drive on the left. Some of the time. The driver explains his routing in keeping to the better road surface and avoiding pot holes. It also involves approaching corners where you cannot see whether or not there is oncoming traffic on the wrong side of the road. More than once, as you turn the corner, vehicles in both directions are swerving from the right-hand side of the road to the left and somehow avoiding meeting in the middle.

When we get to the narrower roads in the mountain passes, there is often hardly room to pass, without one vehicle coming dangerously close to the precipice. The potential drops make Michael Caine’s position at the end of “The Italian Job” seem like one small step. Still, all drivers assume that if you cannot see another vehicle, there is not one, and that stopping or slowing down is only considered while actually making the passing manoeuvre.

There is one thing that will persuade a vehicle to slow down. Cattle. It appears that they rule the road, and can stand or walk wherever they like. Even close to the towns it is not unusual to see a few cows wandering down the road or just taking a nap. You can blow your horn to warn a dog, a monkey, a car or a human that you are coming – but for a cow, one will quietly manoeuvre around the obstacle. You may even find someone coming the other way will slow or stop for you.

The state of the roads in places is a reminder that even the mountains are no more than a fleeting phenomenon in the history of the world. The potholes have been created by subsidence, ice, rain and rockfalls. It may take millennia to complete the process, but slowly and surely the weather, snow and ice, wind and rain is winning the war against the forces that create the mountains, and one day what are now the highest points of the earth will be reduced to gentle rolling hills.

In the meantime, the roads are being eroded on a weekly basis, and it takes constant work to keep them open. As part of the curious relationship between Bhutan and it’s southern neighbour, much of the road maintenance is undertaken by the Indian Army!

The road to Phuentsholing is one of the busiest in Bhutan, and the journey of 170 km will take four hours of driving. Bhutan depend on imports for most manufactured goods, for oil, and for some of their food. Almost all of this comes over the border from India through Phuentsholing, and then up the road we are travelling. There is therefore a constant movement of trucks, buses and cars on what is the country’s most important highway.

By contrast, Bhutan’s largest export is electricity, generated 100% from hydro-electric power stations. Especially as we started the descent to the border, the road was frequently crossed by the power lines conducting this out of the country.

The second biggest source of foreign currency is tourism, despite the price structure that keeps the independent back packer at bay. Naturally, I asked about this, and was told that about 25% of my money went straight into the exchequer as tax, while everything the tour company paid for would also be subject to a tax (around 10%). Bhutan does not raise much tax by personal taxation. It is a country with hardly any middle class, and as anyone knows the poor do not have money to pay taxes, and the rich have lawyers to avoid them.

Bhutan provides free education and health care to all, so my tax dollars were being put to use somewhere.

As this being the land where the measure of Gross National Happiness was invented, I asked about whether this was real, or just a gimmick. I had been disappointed that the links on the airline’s web page did not work, so I could not join their frequent flyer programme and get a “Happiness Card”. Sadly, the national anthem is a bit of a dirge telling everyone how wonderful the king is. It really ought to be Ken Dodd. The answer on the happiness question was not clear, but seemed to be about happiness coming from not desiring things you cannot have. The person who told me this, though, also said he really wanted a nice car. Meanwhile, the couple behind me in the queue at Bangkok airport for the flight checked in with two televisions, while I saw another person with a television in the line. (Apparently all electronic goods are cheaper in Bangkok, and one person can bring one TV through customs).

A small building like this contains a prayer wheel, allowing the illiterate to deliver their prayers. In some places the wheel is turned by hand, others can be water driven

There is a sudden change as you approach Phuentsholing, the altitude you are dropping at quickly, and you can see a bright and wide river in the distance, with the sun shining across it, it looks almost like a bank of gold shimmering in the haze.

The haze is of course, a reminder that the clean air that is a feature of most of Bhutan will not be so prevalent when one gets down to this city. By the time you arrive at the town you have dropped down, so as you are less than 1000 feet above sea level. There is a heat and humidity that one did not feel while higher up.

In addition, there are traffic jams, as lorries on both directions are trying to manoeuvre around the crowded streets, making their way in and out of the customs station. The final point is the Bhutan gate, which marks the border between India and Bhutan

We pull off the road just to the left of the monument, I am less than a Sunil Gavaskar drive from the Indian border, but I do not have a visa to pass through the gate.

I rest up at the hotel for a while. They were supposed to provide a meal, but somehow this got forgotten. I almost misjudge the timings, as I am so close to the Indian border that my computer has switched to Indian time.

Fortunately, I do manage to stir myself in good enough time, and on my guide’s advice, we walk back up to the ground, which we had managed to spot when coming into town. The walk is less than 10 minutes, the weather is warm and humid, with a threat of rain in the air.

We enter through the gate, there is no admission charge. I like the ground, the stone wall and archway entrance gives it gravitas before you even enter.

Around most of the ground, there are about five steps of stone terracing. There is a building on one side with two floors, and providing the only cover from the weather. During the second half, I take some shelter there as it starts to rain. I quickly obtain a view of the visiting team list, they are the league leaders and have six substitutes named. The home side are a little more reticent. It turns out this is because they are still waiting on players to turn up.

I had a clear idea of who was going to win the game before it started. It is a league with six teams, (and hence only ten matches), seven rounds had been completed before I arrived, Phuentsholing had lost all seven and conceded 57 goals to date. The visitors, Transport United had drawn the opening game of the season with Thimpu United 0-0, and then won all six of their games since.

The second goal, scored by Kencho Tobgay, (who also got the first)

I eventually get to talk to Hishey Tshering, who is both sponsor and coach of Phuentsholing City. Apparently, some of the players had got stuck by an accident on the road from Thimpu (he said they were five short). I am given a list of 12 names, but when the game started, there was only ten on the field. Except the coach, there was never anyone else on the bench, so all of the players stayed on field for 90 minutes, playing in a 5-2-2 formation, and somewhat inadequate.

I got more information when I visited the FA offices. In areas such as Phuentsholing there is no preliminary competition, although they do organise some local competitions. In the main city, the Thimpu league is played earlier in the year with the top three going into the National League. I suspect that if all eight (including Tertons who had lost all 14 games) joined the National League, they would all finish ahead of Phuentsholing. Anyway, players from the five city teams that do not make it to the National League are only allowed to register for the teams outside the city. The three who qualify cannot increase their strength by signing the best of the rest.

Wangdi scored Transport United’s second penalty of the game, bringing the scoreline to double figures

While most of the City League players therefore do not play in the National League, Paro and Phuentsholing each have a few. I am not sure about Uygen Academy, which is also the most competitive of the non-Thimpu sides.

 

It would appear to be the players from Thimpu who had not arrived for the game. Whether this was really by design or accident is something I cannot say, and I guess now is a moot point.

It took 14 minutes for Transport United to score the first goal, and with that, the floodgates were opened. By half time it was 7-0 with Kencho Tobgay scoring a hat-trick. Tobgay completed a second hat-trick in the second half, while Dawa Tschering also scored three. Half time substitutes Sontosh and Wangdi both got onto the scoresheet, while Kingal Gyeltschen and an own goal added in to give a total of 13 away goals.

I did an estimated head count, and came up with 270. Naturally the numbers ebbed and flowed a little with it being free admission, and many did not stay until the end, more because it started to rain than because of the football on offer.

Hishey Tshering mentioned that his business was a karaoke bar in town, and I suggested to my guide that maybe I would find it for a drink later. He was very quick to advise me against this. In Paro, there was no where I could head to from the hotel, and in Thimpu he was happy to let me wander out on my own, but clearly here he felt that I was best off not doing so. How much this was to do with actual safety, and how much to do with the reputation of the bars in question is open to interpretation. The impression I get is that the much of the business done here is not selling beer.

As it happened, I never found out which bar was run by the club manager, and stayed in my hotel anyway. My guide and the driver did not stay in the hotel with me, but went to cheaper digs across the road, and later told me that they spent the evening on the Indian side of the gate.

ATW90. Cambodia

September 12th, 2017

This is the second in a series of posts I am making, which will be extended to create a book, Around the World in 90 Minutes.

Please send any comments or inaccuracies to atw90@leohoenig.com

For future posts, where I am going, follow me on facebook.com, twitter @leohoenig and Instagram @hoenigleo

Bangkok may be frenetic, but it is an oasis of calm compared to the first visions that a visitor to Phnom Penh receives. I have had the sense to be met at the airport, by a reasonably priced hotel car. It gives me a final hour of air-conditioned comfort as it waits, stuck in traffic.

My hotel room is small, but not bad, I would have appreciated it if the air conditioner there was a little more effective. It is about a 30-minute walk to the stadium, so once I have freshened up, I decide to make my way there. I quickly lose count of the number of tuk-tuks and moto taxis that ask for my custom, but it must have exceeded 100. All the way along the road, even the major roads, the pavements were blocked by shops spreading their wares out, or by parking the mopeds that are the preferred form of transport for all that can afford them. Hence any pedestrian is forced out onto the road.


Close to the stadium, there is a rush of tuk-tuks, mopeds and cars as the lights change

It takes a while to realise why no one cares, there are almost no pedestrians at all here. There is hardly anyone who cannot travel using the transport available. Moto taxis, by the way actually mean riding pillion on the back of a moped, without a helmet, and with a good chance of a (low speed) collision at every junction, so tuk-tuks are my preference.

Over the few days in Phnom Penh, I find some of the rules of the road, such as at traffic junctions with crossing signals, the green man means that generally vehicles will only come at you from one direction, and even they will try to miss you. Still, you never get to the point where a tuk-tuk driver believes that a foreigner should be walking. The normally approach you in the few yards between exiting the previous tuk-tuk and entering the building that was your destination. And naturally if they have just seen you walk past and refuse the approach of one driver, they have no reason to suspect that you might say the same to them.

Finding the offices of the Football Federation at the stadium, they tell me to come back later in the afternoon to collect accreditation. I use the time wisely, walking again as far as a craft brewery that has a good location between stadium and hotel. After trying their beers, which both good and varied, the smoky porter being the best of the batch, I continued my walk and got back to the hotel.

I can never be sure of press accreditation, and I notice as I pass the window that all category one tickets have been sold out. Category 2 tickets are on sale for 5000 Riels. Most transactions in Cambodia take place in US dollars, but they use the local currency for small change. While there is a variable rate of exchange, the “on the street” value is always the convenient 4000 Riels = 1 US Dollar. Hence I handed over $2 and was given 3000 Riels change, plus this


I reckon that’s 97p in English money, and as it turns out, I get the accreditation anyway, and tickets were available on the day.

The match is played at the Olympic Stadium, which despite the name was built for the 1963 South East Asian games. These games were never held due to the political situation at the time.

The stadium is a fine old bowl in true communist style.


One major side, and a giant sweeping curve of concrete seats around almost the whole of the rest.


Officially, the stadium can hold 55,000 – with no handrail or crush barrier in sight, it would not hold 5,000 in line with safety standards in Europe.


One enters from a low level, and getting in on matchday involves entering through narrow pathways caused by temporary wheeled fencing tied into place. You then have to jump over the joins between the fences. I saw no way for someone who was not relatively capable to get in, and no wheelchair access.


Way in?

From this point, you climb a steep staircase, which leaves you at the top level above all the seats. You can walk around the stadium at this height, and there is a level patio area running back from the seats opposite the main stand, with many food stalls open.


While most of the other large countries within South East Asia have held the games on multiple occasions, Cambodia, having missed out in 1963 still have not staged the event. They have now been given the rights to stage in 2023.


However, this old stadium will not be used then, as the building of a new facility to the north of the city has already started. Parts of the edges of the site, (not the stadium itself) have been developed as condominiums in order to fund a refurbishment about ten years ago. No one knows how much of the stadium will survive once the new facilities are open, but it is popular locally, as a quiet space in the centre of the city.


It does not take long for the game to spring to life, in the fourth minute, Vietnam score a goal of stunning simplicity, that makes you wonder if Cambodia are going to suffer a very heavy defeat. It was a chested knock down, and then a straight low shot by Nguyen van Quyet from outside the box. Most of the visiting support if just below me to the right, and they light up red flares and smoke bombs as they celebrate the opening goal.


It appears that Vietnam have three centre halves and no full or wing backs. This gives Cambodia an invitation to attack, they push at the three defenders and force a corner. The corner is cleared following a long punch from the keeper, Vietnam race in to attack, four against three, but lose possession and the non-existent defender is easily passed, the ball moved to Chan Vathanaka on the other side, and Cambodia level at 1-1. Now it is the Cambodian supporters that are standing, waving the clappers that have been given away free on the gates as they go.

For Vathanaka, it is a relief to be properly on the pitch. Earlier on the season, he transferred on loan to Fujieda in the Japanese 3rd Division, but since has not started a game.

It transpires that Vietnam are playing 4-4-2, but that not all the players are aware of this. It only takes 17 minutes for Vietnam to decide to change the right back for someone who might actually play right back. The player going off develops a limp as he exits the field but had showed no earlier sign of distress.


The early play, when both on and off the field, the action was as frenetic as the local traffic settles down a bit, and Vietnam look the more comfortable on the worryingly unevenly coloured synthetic surface. On 19 minutes, a free kick from square position by Vietnam’s Vu Minh Tuan bounces off the bar. Cambodia can still cause problems, even if the decision to actually have someone at right-back has settled the visiting defence. Just before half time, Vathanaka gets a clear header which he places over the bar, and as a result we reach the half way mark at 1-1.

The stadium is much fuller than I would have expected. I was aware that all the category 1 seats in the main stand had been sold, but I am surprised by the numbers sitting opposite, the crowd is thinner behind the goals, but clearly, there is support for the live game here. I can see a phalanx of insect life attracted by the lighting at the top of the stand, and also a few small bats taking delight in the free meal so provided.


The second half was much quieter, interrupted as they all are by substitutions and injuries. Still, Vietnam were gradually taking control, Cambodia were finding it difficult to get across the half way line without losing possession, while Vietnam could get close to the penalty area. An annoying penchant to fire the ball into the area from distance meant most attacks were cleared with ease.

Maybe this was a deliberate ploy, Cambodia were getting used to long balls being fired in, and being able to clear them with ease, but with about ten minutes to play, the ball was crossed from closer to the bye line, and Vietnam’s substitute attacker Nguyen Quang Hai was left unmarked to put them ahead.

Cambodia did get back on the attack now, but a dive in the box, ignored by the ref, and a clear offside were their closest options. Still there was enough hope that the board for six minutes injury time was greeted with a cheer. It turned out to be a vain hope as Vietnam had the only clear chance in the period.


A Vietnam attack late in the game

I turn up at the press conference, mainly because I wanted to try and corner the home officials. While I do this, they do not deliver on their promises to e-mail me in the morning. It was interesting to hear the home coach, Leonardo Vitorino bemoan that he just does not have good enough players to deliver results.

Vitorino is one of the legion of coaches that seems to traipse across the world, taking two year contracts with clubs or countries, and normally getting sacked after one or less. Looking at his list of clubs on Wikipedia, it seems shorter than some, with more coaching jobs rather than the top managerial position. He seems to be resigned to the fact he will get his marching orders either as a result of Cambodia’s non-qualification for the 2019 Asian Cup, or due to poor results in the 2018 AFF (ASEAN Football Federation) Cup.


The central market provides a cool oasis of calm in Phnom Penh

Before I go to the FFC offices again on the Wednesday, I take the walk up to the Army stadium, which appears to be one of the major venues in the Cambodian League at the moment, four or five teams regularly playing there. It is a walk that takes me through the central market and past one of the best temples (Wats) in the city. These provide a respite from the blaring horns and tuk tuks. I also stop at a small local café for an iced coffee and to see some of the previous night’s Uzbekistan v South Korea World Cup qualifier. It appears that any time of day or night in Cambodia, you can pass a café with a TV showing some type of game. The cable channels replay the last series of live games over and over again until there is something new to show



The lack of grass across the centre of the pitch testifies to its over use. There are four people in the office, when the only apparent task is selling replica Army FC kit. I am there for about 20 minutes, and they sell four, which I thought was a good throughput. The largest size was L, so I did not buy my own.

They had a list of fixtures to be played for the rest of the season at the stadium, but no reference to the full list of matches and venues in the league.

When I return to the National Stadium, and the FFC offices, this list is now available. As far as official comments were concerned, it was clear the staff in the offices would not say anything but refer to their chiefs, who were somewhere outside the country.


On a roundabout close to the Army stadium is the “Tied Gun” monument. A slightly odd demand for peace? As a response it appears that while the government still considers it OK to lock up the opposition, they are not subject of arbitrary death sentences.



 

However, once you start talking football to people, they soon want to tell you what is going on. So, I managed to ascertain that the Cambodian Football League is semi-professional at the moment – the players may be paid for football, but many have other jobs as well.

The FFC is trying to persuade some clubs to nominate venues away from Phnom Penh for their matches. This has actually been quite successful, even if only about three venues are currently in use. These are in Svay Rieng and Kirivong for teams which include the location in their name, and Siam Reap for Cambodia Tiger. In Phnom Penh itself, there are four stadiums in use, National, Army, Western and RSN.

The matches played outside the capital are reported to attract relatively large crowds, in the thousands, as opposed to hundreds.

However, apparently all the teams are still Phnom Penh based and train in the capital. They then bus out to the designated city for matches. This is where the FFC sees its next priority, it wants the clubs to not just adopt a “home stadium” as they have now done, but to set up bases outside the city. They can take on youth development work in the areas. Currently, there is no localised coaching schemes outside the capital, and players only have whatever coaching is taught in the schools.

My final thought from the capital, while wandering back to the hotel, is three policewomen sharing a motorbike. I assume they were on the look-out for motorcyclists breaking the law by riding without a crash helmet. After I took the picture, they did a u-turn and headed the wrong way down a one-way street