Archive for the ‘ATW90’ Category

ATW90 – Thailand Part 2. The rise of Buriram United

Thursday, 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

Wednesday, 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

Thursday, 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

Wednesday, 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.