Archive for the ‘ATW90’ Category

Caribbean 5 – The ABC Islands (B is for Bonaire)

Sunday, December 9th, 2018

 

The map shows an approximate locations for my journeys around the Caribbean, with markers for each place that I have seen, or intend to see football on. Most are on the line of small islands, mainly formed by volcanoes, that make up the Eastern edge of the Caribbean. The last three are very different. These are the ABC islands, Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao, which are closer to Venezuela than any of the others

I immediately noticed a number of differences, these must to some extent follow each other.

Firstly, the climate is different, it is far more humid – but apparently, they also get less rainfall than the other islands. One advantage they have because of this is they are not in “hurricane alley”. The dryness of the islands means that the ground is comparatively arid. Once you arrive, you cannot help but notice the number of Cacti around. I would think the next bit is a consequence of this. On the other islands I have visited, the vast majority of the population are black, the descendants of slaves brought to the area to work the sugar plantations. In Aruba, only about 15% of the population are black, with the majority being “mixed race”, that means their ancestry harks back to many groups. The local population that were before the Europeans arrived, people who have moved at some stage from the South American continent, Africans and Europeans.

Beyond this, the difference is in the soundtrack of the nations. Everywhere in the Eastern Caribbean, Reggae is king and Bob Marley appears to be the patron saint of the whole area. When the president of the Bonaire FA took me to a local bar, the music playing was Spanish language pop music. In Aruba, they pipe music over speakers in the main street and as far as I can tell, it is a mixture of Spanish, plus Christmas music in English. Not heard Wham yet, but I do think there is something strange about hearing “let is snow”, when the temperature reaches 30°C

My journey from Saint Kitts to Bonaire was convoluted, to say the least. I started simply enough with a taxi to the airport and a flight back to Sint Maarten. Here I had a long wait in the temporary terminal while waiting for my connecting flight to Curacao. There is something to be said for a cramped airport terminal without air conditioning as you talk to those sitting next to you. The beer choices include the two Sint Maarten brewed craft beers that I had sampled before, (its just that in the airport, the price is double that on the boardwalk). I ignored the price and was in a good place when boarding the plane.

I got to Curacao without incident and checked into the hotel. It was further from the town than I had envisaged, and there was a failure of communication over the airport pick up, meaning I had to wait for transport. I managed the walk to town and back. It was further than I thought. In the morning, I walked to the SUBT stadion, which is the secondary stadium for the local league. I took a few photos and noticing the office at the far side of the field was open, I walked across to have a chat.

As my fixture list, confirmed by a phone call to the FA gave me Sunday fixtures in the top division at the National stadium, and Monday night on the FFK (Federashon Futbol Korsou) pitch next door. I was not expecting to see a game here. So, after asking about the ground – it is owned by one of the clubs, Sport Unie Brion Trappers. It is run as a club, and the name Brion is not a reference to the beer of the same name available on the island. I asked if there were any games there soon. The reply was that they did not think so, but we’ll just check with the FFK. It turned out that on the Tuesday, they had not been told as yet that all five top division games for the weekend had been switched to their ground. They were pleased to discover this, as it means more income.

After that, its back to the accommodation, and on to Bonaire. I had booked with a local airline that gave a good price for my routes, which in basic terms were two return trips from Curacao, first to Bonaire and then to Aruba. However, I had a through booking Bonaire to Aruba and knew I would not miss the short connection time, as the flights would be on the same aircraft.

At the airport, it is standard airline business, so all checked in and waiting at the gate with no mention of any delay until after departure time had passed. I later discovered that all this airline’s flights for the day had been cancelled, as had those for the next morning. I was told this was due to crew illness, but let’s face it – that does not add up. The most likely cause was a mechanical problem with the plane, which did not fly at all on the Tuesday, or before 16.00 on the next day.

After a long wait, we were finally told that a plane would be found to fly us across to Bonaire just after 9 p.m., about five hours late. It turned out that this was a smaller plane, (the 19 seat de Havilland Dash 6). This basically spent its day running shuttle services between the three islands, and was now contracted to make an extra flight after its standard operations were finished. Fortunately, there were less than 19 passengers waiting (the Fokker F-50 scheduled to run the flight can carry about 60). After a long wait, I eventually arrived at my destination. My taxi driver told me that the staff at the accommodation would not be there on my arrival, and actually went as far as starting to phone them after my arrival, but actually there was someone waiting, who had received my new estimated arrival time sent in by e-mail once I had been appraised of the delay.

 

The next morning, I had a short walk into town, the road around my accommodation was poor – slightly muddy gravel after rain in the morning. Once you got close to the centre though, it was a different matter with very tidy paving. Tourism on the island can be split into two groups. The cruise ships provide the high-end tours, and they demand the pristine city, with mainly taxi tours to other parts of the island. There is also a much more basic level. The island is well known for its dive spots, and also has several nature reserves away from main town. This results in many tourists looking for a somewhat cheaper experience and longer stays.

A small distance out of town in the other direction is a football stadium. I went to have a look, but it was completely locked up with high walls so as I could not get a view. It is not currently in use, except for kids matches. Apparently, its artificial surface is 11 years old and can no longer meet FIFA standards. The local association is waiting on the local government to renew this.

This means that at the moment, all league matches take place in Rincon, the island’s second biggest town. No where else is big enough to be a town, I think. I was not sure how best to get there. I made enquiries over a one-day car hire, but this was not a comfortable price. I then had what I thought was a stroke of luck, Ludwig Balentin, the president of the FFB said he would pick me up and sometime between 6.30 and 7.00 for the 8 p.m. kick off. By ten past seven, I was getting nervous, especially as trying to phone Ludwig got me nowhere. So, I gave in and called a taxi. As the taxi pulled up to pick me up, I actually received a call from Ludwig, asking where I was and suggesting I tried to find him. I explained I had booked a taxi, and would see him at the stadium.

I think in retrospect, that although this added $25 to my costs, it was a wise move. Ludwig was also meeting a friend who had been working off the island and was still not at the stadium when I asked at half time. They actually made it before the second half started, which meant that I at least had a trip back.

The stadium, Stadion Antonia Trinidad is quite simple. The pitch was artificial but in excellent condition, the floodlights were good enough to get a clear view. There is one main stand, erected on scaffolding with a roof, and several small structures with two or three rows of seats each. In one corner is the shortest corner flag pole I have ever seen. The other three were a little taller (but not much). Admission was US$3. I counted the crowd at 100, but more than half of them missed the start. People were still drifting in to the stadium up until half time.

This meant that for many, the game was over as a contest before they had even arrived. SV Juventus, the “home” team were two goals to the good within 14 minutes. They were both fortuitous goals as well. A penalty in the fourth minute was for a hand ball which was not intended. Still, I can imagine the arguments in the match of the day studio, and feel that after filling enough air time to meet contractual commitments, they would conclude the referee was right. The second saw a defender send a looping header over his own goalkeeper.

Generally, it was an entertaining game, with both sides playing attacking football, but both lacking a clarity of vision in the last quarter of the field. A common fault with football out here is the lack of running off the ball, and also that many players want to be the hero and hang onto the ball when there are passing opportunities. SV Uruguay pulled a goal back 18 minutes for time. It was a typical centre halves goal scored with a header following a corner.

Ludwig Balentin ferried me back to the accommodation, after a drinking session at a bar in Rincon, so it was close to midnight when I got to bed. Still, who cares – you are only old once!! I asked about the application for FIFA membership, which he says will go through, but then when pushed, it seems to be on an indefinite time line. It is clear that the Dutch applications of Bonaire and Sint Maarten have more chance of getting through FIFA, as KNVB supports them. The FFF are not supporting the applications from the French associations in the area which means they are on permanent hold unless they can change the federation’s mind.

Although, with the exception of Rincon place names are not included in the club names, I am told the clubs do represent individual areas on the island. I am quite surprised to note how large the island is. It is larger than Aruba, my next destination even though the latter has five times the population.

 

 

Caribbean 4 – Saint Kitts

Thursday, December 6th, 2018


Getting to Saint Kitts from Sint Maarten is quite easy. It is a short flight, and the most notable aspect is the temporary accommodation at the airport. This is not quite the last reminder of the Hurricane, as I have a stopover at the same airport on the way out of Saint Kitts as well. One of the first things you notice on St. Kitts is that while it may only be a short flight, it is a long distance in hurricane terms, and this island was not a sufferer from Irma.

 

I am booked into the Bird Rock hotel, a fairly simple accommodation, chosen mainly on price. Its disadvantage being that it is a fair distance from any other facilities.

I am travelling to a game the same night, and as I do not even know the exact location, I have no choice but to accept the taxi fares, and the quotes seem to be high. I am to discover that the quotes were fairly standard, and is just that taxi fares are high wherever you go here. Indeed, throughout my Caribbean trip so far, I have found that taxi fares cost more than most European cities.

 

In Saint Kitts, the taxis are not the only things where cost is over the top compared to those I am used to in the UK. There are a number of touristy options available here, with the hotel being next to two of them. In the end, I decided against trying any of these due to price and in some case other factors.

Some of these costs seem to be due to the fact that most of the tourists here are travelling on cruise ships and have actually paid for their side trips on board. It appears that the cruise ship passenger is willing to shell out fortunes in extras.

 

Other factors also put me off, such as seeing the enclosures they keep the dolphins in for the Swimming with Dolphins trip. The dolphin area was adjacent to my hotel, and judging by the numbers there whenever a cruise ship is in, my feelings did not damage their business or help the dolphins themselves much. I have a brother who has cruised the area more than once, and he says I am probably right about the dolphins, and he says that while the price for Scuba diving is not extortionate, full Scuba diving should not be on offer to untrained customer who do not have a PADI certificate. I know someone who does dive training and I and I am sure he would agree.

 

The trip I would have taken for a lesser price, which was also over US$100, although they do not advertise other figures is a three hour round trip using the only railway (its narrow gauge and was built to move sugar around the island in the old days). Again, my brother thinks it is overpriced. Apparently, the companies may well be contracted with the cruise companies not to offer at a discount. It may have been worth asking on Sunday, when no cruise ships were on the island, but most likely the tour did not run that day

 

Anyway, back to the football. The Saint Kitts and Nevis League has two divisions, with all the Premier division league matches being staged at the Warner Park Football Stadium at the weekend. The division one games are staged across the islands, and there are matches most Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. The mid-week games are scheduled for 6 p.m., and the Saturday games are at 3 p.m. Two of the teams in Division One are based on Nevis, the smaller island of the couplet that make up this country. Both of these share a ground. All of their games take place at 3 p.m. on Saturday, as it is difficult to travel between the isles for evening games. A couple of seasons ago, Bath United were in the Premier League, meaning all the games that season were at Warner Park.

 

So, my first match on Saint Kitts involved a taxi ride, and started a couple of hours after arrival at the hotel. With the exception of the island’s tail, a narrow strip of land to the south and close to Nevis, all of the island’s villages are close to a single road that makes a circuit of the island. The centre being a series of three mountain peaks, that are old volcanoes. Many of the Caribbean islands have been formed in this way, with mountainous volcanic peaks in the centre.

 

The villages are roughly the locations of residential areas that date back to the slavery era, when each would be a plantation with a different owner exploiting the imported work force as labour. As with most of the islands that depended on this economy, there was a collapse after the emancipation of the slave labour force, as the sugar plantations were not economical once it became necessary to pay the workforce. The new economy of islands such as Saint Kitts now depends on fleecing the tourists. If you put it another way, the descendants of former slaves are now overcharging the descendants of former countrymen of slavers.



I was heading to Ottley’s. A village on the north side of the island. I had to pay the taxi fares here, and although there was some negotiation, I still felt I was overpaying. In fact, it appears I was not overpaying by local standards, it is just that the pricing here is high. I paid EC$150 for a return journey of no more then 10 km each way. That is about £40. At least as the driver was happy for me to pay only on the return run, I knew he was going to arrive and take me back.

 

The comment from the FA was “there is only one field in each village”, when I asked about addresses and directions. This was true, as when we arrived in Ottley’s, we could see the floodlights and it was easy for the driver to drop me and arrange a time to pick me up again. He did at least give me a quick opportunity to ask whether I was in the right place, as we were around 20 minutes before kick-off, and apart from the fact it was a football ground and the floodlights were on, there was no sign of the game. I thought I would try and find my way to the dressing rooms – at which point one discovers that this grassed area close to the road was in fact the home dressing room. At one end of the field, there was an area where a grass bank gave way to a series of concrete steps. About ten minutes after my arrival, this became the away team dressing room! About the same time, the referee arrived and changed next to his car and not far from the home area.

 

The pitch itself was a somewhat bumpy grass surface, but not in bad condition. The floodlights were on the top of wooden telegraph poles, two on each of six poles, except one light was out. Even if all twelve were working, the lighting level would be poor and very patchy. We eventually got away thirty minutes after the scheduled kick off time.

 

Even at this point, we were not fully ready – the home side were short of one player. Worse still, from their point of view the missing player was the goalkeeper. When he took the field, ten minutes after the scheduled kick off time, his side were 1-0 up. It did not stay that way.



The home side was Lodge Patriots, with Lodge being the next village further down the road further than my journey. The away side was Trinity/Challengers United. Both sides have a sponsor’s name tagged in front of the name. It was easy to work out that Davis Construction, with the name plastered all over the shirts were the sponsors for Lodge, but less easy to decide on the opposition. The full name was given as KFC Trinity/Challengers United. The sponsorship does not go as far as getting names on shirts, as I was to find out over the week, only a minority of sponsors go to the extent of putting the names on shirts. Hence, I needed to check further to find that Trinity and Challengers are adjacent villages on the south side of the island, and the sponsor is indeed the fast food company.

 

With eleven men on the field, Lodge Patriots soon surrendered their lead, and then regained it before two goals in a few minutes before the break meant they went in a goal behind. Again, the scores were level at three each, three minutes into the second half, but fifteen minutes later when Clyde Herbert scored a penalty for Trinity/Challengers United, it put his side 7-3 up. For Herbert this was a great individual achievement as well, as this was his fourth in the match. There were no further goals for ten minutes, and then another short burst of two goals in four minutes brought the patriots back to 7-5. This may give them some hope, but in fact the final quarter of an hour went by without further score. This was the first game I had ever seen to end with a 5-7 score line. With over 6,000 matches in my records, first time score lines are rare and now mean a minimum of ten goals in a game. This was only the fourth occasion have I seen both teams score five (or more) in a match.


 

For much of the second half, I was talking too Lornette Byron who was insisting that the linesman should have disallowed two of the goals for offside. From time to time she berated the linesman for his incorrect decisions. The linesman himself took time to tell her all the goals were good, but she was not disheartened. We were joined by her granddaughter, Tonjelle (age 7). Tonjelle is a bright young thing he took a great interest in the stop watch and camera hanging around my neck. I allowed her to borrow the camera and she spent some time chasing the linesman up and down and taking pictures of his back. She also proved that you can take a selfie with a camera of this type


I went into the FA offices before the next game. The contrast between the office of an association such as St Kitts and Nevis and Sint Maarten are pronounced, and shows the benefits of having FIFA membership. While Sint Maarten’s main officials are all amateur, with jobs of their own between matches, and the FA has an administrative staff of one, who deals with all the league matches and registrations as well as the e-mails from people like me, the Saint Kitts and Nevis FA had five people in the office when I arrived.

 

Most of the information I needed to see the games was easily obtained from the receptionist, Makeda. I then had a chat with Dexter Tyrell and Lenny Lake who were in the office. Everyone repeated the advice given to me at the game on Tuesday – that going to Nevis would be pointless in football terms as the away team would not turn up. It is clear that the league is struggling to run its lower division. It started the season with 14 teams, but is now down to 12. As far as I can see, teams will not be fined or disciplined if they do not turn up for games, but will simply have a default result recorded against them. The main island is quite small – the main road that creates a circuit around the coast is about 30 km long, but it can still be difficult to get from one village to another. There are bus services along this road, but no timetables and probably little or no evening service. Taxi prices have been set with tourists in mind, and even though I expect the locals can get a lower rate, it is clear that they are not within the scope for the average citizen.


At the end of the season, the top four in each division has a play-off. For the Premier division, this is after everyone has played each other three times. It is a ten-team league, so that is 27 games each (all at the one stadium). In the First division, the clubs play the standard home and away sequence, so 22 games each now the league is down to 12 members. The top four competitions are all played at Warner Park over the course of a week. For the first division, the top two in this series (with no benefit from the earlier 22 games) gets promotion. For the Premier, again there is no advantage from the earlier games, they are just to get you there. The top two then play a final – which is basically a best of three series. The clubs play two games, (decided on penalties if drawn). If the two winners are not the same, then a third deciding game takes place.

 

Last season was not typical, Village Superstars lived up to their name and won the original series, all three of the “top four” games and the two games in the final. Looking back further, it seems the regular season champion rarely wins the play-off series. In 2017, Saint Pauls were top of the regular season, four points ahead, but then missed out on the finals on goal difference. Cayon won all three games at that stage and also both games in the final. In 2016, Newtown were top, by four points. They beat Cayon 3-1 in the final game, meaning Cayon scraped into the final four on goal difference. As this was the final game, Cayon knew all they had to do in that game was avoid a seven-goal defeat. If Garden Hotspurs (who just missed out) had not been held 0-0 in their preceding game, one wonders if the last one would have been different. One of the catches of a single stadium league is you cannot even have the final day matches played at the same time.

 

Newtown picked up just one point in the next three games, and finished bottom of the group of four, while Cayon were second to Conaree. The same pairing as I was to see as my last game. In the final, Conaree won 2-0 at the first attempt, but Cayon won the second game 1-0. This was the only year the final has gone to three matches, although it should be pointed out that is a recently added option. The third game was 0-0, so despite finishing below Conaree in the main season and the final three games, and even being 2-1 down on aggregate over three games, Cayon were allowed to take the title on a penalty shoot-out!

 

Not surprisingly, a few of the people I spoke to disagree with the format. I can understand their frustrations, as they play all season and then the prizes are delivered in a few games in the last week or two. I think I know the main reason why the FA wishes to keep the format though.

 

When I was at the office, I asked why all the top division matches and most ladies’ games are at the same stadium, despite the fact that several of the clubs have decent stadiums of their own. The answer I was told was in the financing. The SKNFA pay a fixed lease fee for the stadium each season, regardless of the number of matches played on it. They then charge 15 East Caribbean Dollars for each person that enters. My estimates were that there were around 350 in the stadium on Saturday and 450 on Sunday.



There will surely have been many that did not pay to get in, (the FA promised me a free ticket, but did not actually deliver), but I would still expect that over EC$10,000 would be taken. This may only equate to around £3,000 per week but probably this is essential income to the FA. It tends to be the better supported clubs that have the better grounds and so moving the matches elsewhere may be good for the clubs, but not for the SKNFA.

 

Similarly, the play-offs and finals at the end of the season are liable to draw even larger crowds to the stadium, and as we all know, income trumps competitive fairness at almost every step. I can easily think of a couple of ideas that makes a small step in improving things. The most obvious is to use the positions in the regular season table as a tie breaker rather than goal difference. Other possibilities would be to give a points advantage before the play-offs start and certainly not to allow the final match to end 0-0 and be decided by a shoot-out.

 

I would also consider changing the promotion play-off from Division One to the Premier, so as only three Division one sides competed along with the second bottom team from the Premier.

 

Anyway, after my visit to the FA, I went into the centre to look around and have a small meal before moving on. When you drop down the road from the FA offices to the town you start by passing through an area which I would consider normal. A bit untidy, various shops and businesses, and then onto the few notable remaining colonial era buildings. If you head to the right, you can find the ferry terminal for boats to Nevis and the local bus station. If you do not take the turn, but head past the colonial building that is now the national museum, you enter another world.

 

For a start, the area is pedestrianised, and the paving is even. The shops here are either selling high value products, (a lot of gold and jewellery on sale), or tourist tat. I was going to say cheap, but the price here for a T-Shirt with a St. Kitts slogan on it, (made in Honduras) will not allow that description.


Large signs pointing the way “back to ship” allow the cruise passengers to safely find their way back out of this sanitised area. There were two cruise ships in port that day, and as I started to wander away from that area, both could be seen sailing away. It is apparently unusual for cruise ships to stay in port here overnight and as such the facilities and tours are all based on visitors not spending more than around 8 hours on the visit.


 

I only had to walk twenty minutes from the centre before I reached the village of Lime Kiln. This is the location of the brewery in Saint Kitts, and also the hospital. To some extent this ground was similar to the one already visited. Depending on your view, it could be better or worse. The land slopes down gently from the brewery to the see, and the pitch has been levelled out from this slope. The intention is to allow cricket to be played here as well as football and this means one of the floodlight pylons is located around 30 yards further beyond the touchline than the others, with an unsurprising knock on effect on the lighting.

 

In one corner, the vegetation that comes close to pitch has not been cut back – so not only is there no run up for the corner, but the quarter circle in the corner is also overgrown. Some areas of the pitch have lost all sign of grass, while others are need of a cut back as strands of longer grass reach well above the rest. Because the pitch has been levelled, the ground drops away quickly behind one end’s goal.

 

The advantage this one has over Tuesday night is at the top of an embankment between the goal and the brewery. Here the land has again been levelled, with the section closest to the road used as a car park, and that furthest from the road being a hard court with basketball nets. Between the two is a wooden shack with seats outside and a small veranda in case of rain.

 

Yes – the ground has a bar. This is independent from the football club and very well used.



The match was not as exciting as the game on Tuesday. The home side, Trafalgar Southstars, had won seven out of eight and were second in the league behind Hardtimes United, (one of the two clubs on Nevis). I am not certain here whether or not Trafalgar is a sponsor’s name. The visitors from Sandy Point certainly have a sponsor, and are listed as Electrofab Sandy Point. They were actually listed under a different sponsor’s name on the original fixture list I was sent.

Trafalgar completely dominated the first half and really should have had more than the two goals scored – one at each end of the period. In particular, I could not explain the one disallowed for offside.

 

Sandy Point were better organised in the second half, and gave their opponents a game, but generally they got the ball forward and then failed to find their own players. By comparison, the Southstars were far better at coming forward, but had run out of steam in the second period and while threatening to increase the score, the threat was without never realised.

 

We had a lot of added time, this appears mainly the time taken looking for the ball after it had been kicked down the hill behind the goal. This reminds me of playing as a kid, with only one ball available, so that you always have to go and find it when it runs away, or lands in a neighbour’s garden. At one point, midway through the half, a family of three goats invaded the pitch and ran around a little. Although it took about two minutes to clear them away, this did not add to the time as the ball was missing behind the goal for the whole period.


The Sandy Point goal was scored in the last minute of injury time, a close range tap in after a corner. Had Sandy Point won, they would have been level on points with Trafalgar, but this result moved Trafalgar within sight of the top position two points behind Hardtimes, and with a game in hand. The attendance figure for this one, which I estimated at 40 was about twice that for the game two days earlier. I tried to estimate how many of those in the bar area were watching the game. Clearly the bar was helpful in bringing locals to the ground, while the game probably also helps in bringing people to the bar.

 

The next football was Saturday. I had accepted the advice not to go to Nevis, so it was disappointing to see a result for the game when Monday came. The alternative was at Dieppe Bay. This is considered to be the furthest point from the capital, which is roughly true. In the capital, one of the few signposts is to Dieppe Bay – but it is signed to the same place both to the left (14 km) and the right (12 km). I made my way to the bus terminal (on foot, about a 40-minute walk from the hotel), stopping at the only coffee shop I had spotted. Its in the cruise tour zone, so priced in US$. I stayed there long enough to have a clear indication that Cheltenham were not playing in the third round of the FA Cup.


I then got the bus to Sandy Point, but I did not fancy the walk up to the fort which was one of the main defences when Britain, Spain and France were competing for which of the islands each would control. Instead I had a look at the sports ground there. This is one of the better facilities although the field is shared by three sports, Cricket, Football and Athletics.

 

There is a small stand which would be behind one corner flag in a football game. A running track had been marked out, running around the boundary lines of the cricket pitch – so certainly more than 400 metres. I spoke to the couple who run the bar, situated just outside the gate. They were also doing some of the caretaker work on the field. Business is brisk whenever sport is being played, but I was the only visitor around on a Saturday lunchtime with no events. They had a Mackeson beer, so I did partake.

 


 

I then walked further down the road, finding another stopping place to have my lunch before taking another bus around to the northern tip of the island. The buses are probably not travelling that fast, but on the narrow roads, they certainly seem to be fast. It reminds me of the lines in the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy where speed is described as relative to your perceptions, but that regardless of this, Arthur Dent was travelling too fast.

 

When I got there, Dieppe Bay reminded me most of all of the other villages I had seen on Saint Kitts. Small, mainly residential with a scattering of shops, bars or what they call eateries. It was a short walk from the bus stop to the beach. The beach itself had a small area with the black sands that seems to be the feature of most beaches here. I am guessing the sand comes from volcanic rock, but it looks far less appealing then the white sands of the other islands.

 


 

From here, you could see the next two islands to the north, which were the Dutch municipalities of Sint Eustatius and Saba. I wandered back into town and found the field without a problem. There were a small number of home players around, but it was still well before scheduled kick off time

 

When kick off time arrived, I was getting a little worried. The home team were there, but had not done a team sheet as the referee had not handed them the blank form. There was not much sign of opposition. The referee and one assistant turned up at about kick off time. I was told the away team had at least thirty minutes before the game could be awarded against them, but also that the home side,

 

Dieppe Bay Eagles, (preceded by the initials TGE, a local engineering firm) would want to get the game played as they would gain a greater advantage by playing and winning well, then if the match did not start and was forfeited. The referee, who was telling me this knew that a forfeit gave the points away, but not how many goals were added to the goal difference. He thought it might be three.


The away team was Molineux Pitbulls. No sponsors name attached and from a village just off the main road. At around 3.30, I could count six players hanging around at their end of the field. I walked over to see whether they were expecting more, and was asked if I could play in goal. I excused myself on grounds of age, although the player who asked me then said he was 55. In fact, their keeper was already there, while the 55-year-old would play at full back. Two more players arrived around about 3.30. They walked in, and my suspicion was they were waiting just out of sight so as the referee could not force a quick start. We actually only kicked off a few minutes before four o’clock – but which time they could submit a team list with fourteen names on it. Twelve were actually at the field, while the last two turned up around 30 minutes later.

 


 

Saint Kitts is four hours of time difference from the UK, and actually sits on the meridian for this time zone. At this time of year, the sun is above the horizon for 11 hours of the day, which means Sunrise around 6.30 and sunset around 5.30 p.m. The ground at Dieppe Bay does not have floodlights, although six wooden poles have been erected and the disturbed ground says this is recent – so I would expect the field to get floodlit within the next few months.

 

One consequence of not being lit is the pitch was the best of those I had seen for Division one games. It appeared well tended and as it cannot be used in the evenings, it does not get as much use as other grounds. Still, the home coach told me that he will be pleased when the lights are up and his team can train on the pitch. A kick off as late as 4 means the light is fading by the end of the game.

 

Dieppe Bay were relegated at the end of last season and have spent only one season in the top division. I do not have all the tables for the lower division, but I know that Dieppe Bay finished top in the regular season 2015/16, only to lose out in the final four with Sandy Bay and United Old Road Jets gaining promotion.

 

In 2016/17, both Sandy Bay and Old Road Jets were relegated, while Dieppe Bay and St Thomas Trinity went up. Last season, St Thomas Trinity and Dieppe Bay went down, (although Saddlers actually finished below St. Thomas in the final table. It appears St. Thomas are now merged into the team I saw as Trinity/Challengers). This season, the new promoted teams United Old Road Jets (again) and Mantab (representing the villages of Mansion and Tabernacle) are currently the bottom two.

 

 

 

Onto the game, and I think I was expecting Dieppe Bay to impress from the start, having seen the disorganised arrival of their opposition, but the first half was a closely matched affair. The Eagles were always more in control, but Pitbulls also shared much of the possession. At half time, the score was just 1-0, and just before the break, Dieppe Bay Eagles had a man sent off. If this was meant to give hope to the visitors, the first few minutes of the second period took it way again. A long-range shot surprised the visiting keeper and flew in for 2-0 and the Pitbulls collapsed, with Shawn Dorsette adding a second half hat-trick and Dieppe Bay Eagles rolling on to win by 6-0. Dieppe Bay are still in fifth place, but only a point behind Sandy Point and with a game in hand. Molineux Pitbulls have lost ten games out of ten. Still only behind the St Pauls Youth & Experience team on goal difference, but the Y&E have played only seven.

 

Even without a bar on site, the match brought out a number of local families and kids to watch, and I estimated the attendance at around 50. At the end of the game, I headed back down to the road. In the main centre and its neighbourhood, all the bus stops are clearly marked, with little shelters. All of them appear to have girls’ names. They also have the useful feature of a USB charge point. Out in the villages it is much less formal. There was someone else apparently waiting for the bus, so I went and stood with him. I said I wanted to go back to Basseterre. After about five minutes, we hailed a bus down on the opposite side of the road, and my companion asked if he was “going through”. The driver said yes. This meant he was going to complete the loop and head to town via the North side, I crossed the road and got into the front seat. My temporary companion had to wait a little longer on the other side, as he was not heading all the way back.

 


 

This bus ride meant I had travelled the complete ring using the buses. With a stop on the way up, it cost only 10 EC$. It would have been less without the stop. I could not see much as it was now dark, but the driver pointed out a few highlights, including his mother’s house in Saddlers, where he stopped briefly to speak to a family member. He also mentioned Molineux, about half a mile off the road, so just lights in the distance, and I managed to spot the Ottley’s ground again as we went past. The terminus was conveniently a side street close to the Warner Park Stadium.

 

Things were in full swing as I arrived at the main stadium, as the second half had just started in the first of two games for the evening. It was not actually the game I was expecting to be on. When I was at the SKNFA offices on the Thursday, I had thought to confirm the times of fixtures as shown on sites such as soccerway, 6 and 8 p.m. on Saturday, 3, 5, and 7 p.m. Sunday. I did not think to question the running order. Soccerway still has the games in the wrong order. The game I could not count saw a surprise 3-1 defeat for second placed Newtown United at the hands of Saddlers.

 

The Warner Park complex now consists of two major stadiums, one for football, and one for cricket with a raised grass bank between them. On the football side, there is a bit of concrete terracing on this bank. It looks as if it has been there for a long while, but that is deceptive. The bank was not there at the beginning of the century. The football ground also boasts a very good main stand and a few rows of concrete seats behind one goal. The far end is open, with just a wire fence, while that end of the grass bank is not concreted.

 

The cricket grounds have large and modern stands on the South side, and a smaller pavilion opposite. All of these are recent additions, basically for the 2007 Cricket World Cup. This would have seen the cricket pitch moved eastward. To date, Warner Park has staged 3 test matches and a number of one day and T20 internationals. England have not played in these games. Prior to that, the football facilities would have been used for cricket as well. The concrete steps behind the goal continue along to curve behind the main stand, leaving a small area of grass to one side of the stand with no apparent use.

 

This, I feel is a sign of an earlier reconfiguration before the stand was built. The stand still appears to be a relatively older feature. It concrete features date it back around 50 years. It is basic, but easily fit for purpose. With individual plastic seats for most of its area, it now seats less than 1000, but probably could have held twice this in the past. The entrance ways are at the top, where there is space to stand behind the seats and two serveries for food and drink, one on each side.

 

A couple of media boxes and a open plan area which could be used for hospitality sit centrally at the top. The public area below is utilitarian and featureless, with nothing except toilets and a gangway. Even lower levels are accessed from outside or the grass area to the side, and certainly include the dressing rooms, plus I assume other facilities as required for international football. There is another bar and eatery at the far end of the terrace behind the goal. Like the stand, this has its pathway above the steps and seats, and this is the favoured location for those that do not want to sit. A couple of mobile concessions sell popcorn, sweets and drinks here as well.

 

The pitch was in fairly good condition. It is a grass pitch which appears to get regular maintenance along with the cricket pitches next door. The grass had been cut so short that it appeared to have been manicured rather than mowed. There were worn patches, but considering that in a typical week it can stage five league games at the weekend and three or four midweek games in the Ladies’ League, and that there were heavy (but short) showers on a daily basis, it really did look good.

 

The Saturday night game was between current league champions and leaders Village Superstars and third placed Saint Pauls United. The earlier result meant that Village had not dropped a place temporarily. I was pleasantly surprised in the first half. The game was played at a good pace and was a fair degree of skill. Saint Pauls took and early lead, but a penalty goal had led to the scores being level at the break. The second half was a disappointment by comparison. It appeared that the players did not all have enough fitness to keep up the pace over the full ninety minutes.

 

I talked a little to a member of the national team coaching selection, and managed to blag a lift back to the hotel. The Saint Kitts national team merges together local players and some from England, including Omari Sterling-James, a former Cheltenham player who is currently warming a bench for Mansfield. The starting XI for the last game also included Lois Maynard (Salford), Romaines Sawyers (Brentford), Raheem Hanley (Halifax), Theo Wharton and Harry Panayiotou (both Nuneaton), as well as two who play in Trinidad and one in the lower levels in the USA. This means they have very limited time training together. The English based players are generally born in the UK as well. They lost the last game to Canada, which damages their chances of reaching the top level when the Nations League starts for CONCACAF next autumn, but with two wins earlier including a 10-0 thrashing of Saint Martin, (French side), they have an excellent chance of reaching the Gold Cup in the summer. The draw is not so kind however, and they face a difficult trip to Suriname in order to pick up the points.

 


 

The next day, I have no less than three matches at the stadium. First up is St Peters and Mantab. Both teams sit one point above United Old Road Jets who are bottom. The locals are not turning up in their droves and just before kick-off, I can count only around 15 people in the stadium. The number quickly doubles, as a few more come in early in the game. I think it had doubled again before half time (around 60), and more than double that at the end. Again, the best football is in the first half and it is 1-1 at the break, but a late penalty gives all the points to Mantab.

 

Second up is Garden Hotspurs, against United Old Road Jets. This time I think it may be a thrashing as Hotspurs are two up in eight minutes. The first goal is a penalty, and the second passed in by national team player Kennedy Isles. Good to see a player called Steve Archibald player for Hotspurs, although he did not look anything like the Scotsman, I had seen playing in the FA Cup final for Hotspur many years ago.

 

The two-goal lead was gradually whittled back, Old Road got one before the break, and another ten minutes before the end. This forced Hotspurs, who had been clearly coasting to what they thought was an easy win to step up a gear. This just managed to do the trick with a winning goal coming in the first minute of injury time

 


 

The final game was Conaree and Cayon, or SOL I.A.S Conaree against Flow 4G Cayon Rockets as the official titles put it. These are neighbouring villages on the North Coast, and of course this was a repeat of the final series I mentioned before. As Cayon have a decent venue of their own, rather than the basic field of the games I had seen, this is the type of game that could be easily moved from Warner Park. The venue was actually in use on the Monday evening for a reserve league game.

 

The crowd had more than doubled since the start of the previous game, and I estimated it at around 450. Unfortunately for all of us, Cayon were not Rockets as their name suggested but damp squibs. Conaree were no better especially close to goal and it was clear even before half time that we would probably finish 0-0. Unlucky, perhaps but the final game was not a great advert for football. At least I managed to blag a lift back to the hotel

Caribbean 3 – SXM (Sint Maarten/Saint Martin)

Thursday, November 29th, 2018

I think the island of Saint Martin, (using the French spelling here) may be the smallest island to have a national border running through it. According to sources such as Wikipedia, the land totals under 100 km2, with the French side (the North) having the larger share.

The current name of the island goes back to Columbus first sighting it on St. Martin’s day, 11th November 1493. Although Columbus did not land, he claimed the island for Spain. It was the Dutch though that were the first to establish a colony. Previous inhabitants of the islands had called it Soualiga, meaning land of salt as the island contains many salt pans.

As with most of the Caribbean, the local inhabitants were mainly wiped out by a mixture of disease and guns, while large numbers of slaves were imported from Africa to operate profitable plantations. The Spanish finally decided they wanted the island and conquered it in 1633, mainly to use as a strategic point in their wars with the Dutch. When the war was concluded, they found it unprofitable and left. Before Spanish occupation, both the Dutch and French had footholds on the Island. As attempts by each to gain full control led to a stalemate, they eventually decided to split it in two. Unlike the judgement of Solomon, in this case splitting in two works, even if over the years there has been conflict over the borders.

Neither side of the island has become an independent state. The remaining French territories in the Caribbean are all integrated into the French state, taking parts in elections for the French president and government. There is some discrepancy between those areas such as Saint Martin that are termed Special Collectivities, and those which are Regions in their own right (the larger areas, Martinique, Guadeloupe and French Guyana).The Netherlands also has two different levels of status for its Caribbean possessions, Sint-Maarten, along with Aruba and Curacao are all countries within the Kingdom of the Netherlands, while smaller islands of Bonaire, St Eustatius and Saba are municipalities with greater direct control from the Netherlands.

The French territories are all part of the European Union and use the Euro as currency. This means their citizens are all citizens of the European Union. The Netherlands side is somewhat different, and there is such a thing as Sint-Maarten’s citizenship, (more on this later). It is still common for young people from Sint-Maarten to travel to Europe, particularly to the Netherlands for further education.

Tourism is now the biggest contributor to the economy, and the Dutch understood it’s coming two decades before the French. As a result, the Dutch side of the island appears to have an advantage, with the larger airport and the terminal for cruise ships. Hence most visitors to the Island will arrive on the Dutch side. I was one of those and this helped me on my opening day as I was watching the Sint Maarten national team, even though the match was being played on neither side of the island, but on neighbouring Anguilla. After one night, I switched to the opposite corner of the island. This was mainly on the basis of economy, but factors such as proximity to the beach and even the fact that I can still use my mobile phone freely help.

SXM is the airport code for the island’s major airport, on the Dutch side. The initials are also used for the island as a whole or for the Dutch side alone. The football association on the Dutch side shows the initials SXMFF for Sint Maarten Football Federation on their shirts.

 

Marigot, with a shopping mall next to the harbour, and the Fort Saint Louis sitting above

Football wise, both Sint Maarten and Saint Martin are members of CONCACAF, but neither has been able to join FIFA. These are two of the six CONCACAF nations with this situation. The larger French territories account for three more, while the final one is Bonaire, the Netherlands municipality. Of the six, it appears that Sint Maarten is the closest to matching all FIFA’s rules for membership and they feel they can achieve this within the next couple of years. Their status is after all, the same as Aruba and Curacao which are both FIFA members. Also, six British Overseas Territories in this region are FIFA members.

There is a difference in the way Saint Martin is portrayed by the French Football Federation to the three regions. When I wanted to check the fixtures and results in Guadeloupe, Martinique and French Guyana, I simply had to go to the French Football Federations website, and all was there for me to see. Saint Martin, and the nearby island (also a collectivity) of Saint Barthelemy are absent. For Saint Martin, with no senior league at the moment and the junior fixtures apparently arranged week by week this is not entirely surprising, but St. Barthelemy was one of the first places to send me the current fixtures. I did investigate crossing there for a game, there are ferries during the day from Saint Martin, but the games were under floodlights meaning an overnight stay and I do not think I found any accommodation under around £400/night!

Anyway, my accommodation on Sint Maarten side was not up to the price paid, so I was pleased to cross the border. Ignoring all local advice (except some of the web sites), I simply made my way to the bus stop. Almost immediately a bus came to take me to Marigot, the capital of the French side. I think I was a bit lucky there as I was expecting to have to go via Philipsburg, the capital on the Dutch side. The bus driver did offer to take me onto my destination for another $20, (which I later discovered is the taxi fare), but I declined, saying I could get another bus. He then operated the route I wanted as a bus, but left before the man at the bus station could explain that bit. Still five minutes later, a bus came and took me to Orient Bay for another $2. (He would also have accepted €2). I had to walk five minutes to find my accommodation, but all went well.

So, for six nights, I was in a good-sized apartment, one of six making up a single block around a small swimming pool. This was a five-minute walk from the centre, which has a beach and a few restaurants, bars and shops. Apart from that, and a couple of high-end hotels, there is not a lot here. I did not travel away until the Saturday, which is of course football day.

The landlady had booked a taxi to take me to Marigot, which was important as I had need of a cashpoint machine. This time I had made certain I had more than one card in case of problem and I still worried a little when the taxi stopped at a machine about half-way there which would not stump up any cash, but when I reached town, I managed to withdraw funds with ease. The town itself I quite small, but as befits the French, it has a mall and several shops selling fashions and perfumes. Once I had confirmed I was not going to get a coffee in the air conditioning of the mall, these were of little interest to me. Instead I made the walk of around 20 minutes to what, before the hurricane was the main stadium, the Stade Albertic Richards. More than a year after the hurricane struck, repairs have not started and it may be years before this venue is reopened.

The artificial surface has been removed, and now lies in heaps at the Marigot stadium. The base layers it was laid on have become overgrown in the meantime. Floodlight pylons lay brought down by the storm have been laid down at one side. It is as graphic reminder as anything of the force of the storm that devastated the island.

From here, I took the bus back into town. It had been only a 20-minute walk out, but in the heat of the midday sun, I was worried that to continue walking might make me feel more of a mad dog than an Englishman. For a short journey, the fare is just one dollar. In town, I wandered around a little before being persuaded to stop and take something to eat and drink at one of the many open fronted restaurants that make up the centre.

Once I had taken my fill, I headed down to the Marigot stadium, where I had a plan to meet up with Steven Tackling, general secretary of the Saint Martin FA.

The stadium has suffered less than the bigger one down the road. Its main stand is intact, except the roof itself is completely missing. This stand provides a few steps of concrete seating, and runs most of the length of the pitch. Opposite this is a relatively recently erected barrel roof, which I am assured was but in before the hurricane and survived intact. It is not part of the stadium, more the sports centre as it covers had courts for basketball, volleyball and hockey.

The pitch is in use from early morning to sundown, starting with the younger age groups playing small sided games across the pitch, and then three matches for under 15 teams playing 35 minutes each way. I do not include such matches on my full log, so none of the rigmarole of trying to get the players names, or checking on substitutions. During the week, the pitch will also get heavy use by schools and by the teams training, so it is no surprise that the playing surface is in such a poor condition. Laying a couple of patches of artificial grass in the goalmouths without the requisite works underneath is only a minor help.

Nethertheless, the kids playing are showing a degree of skill when on the ball. Passes will go astray on such a surface, the remarkable many do not. It seems to me that they have the basic skills of the game right, but there is a lack of vision in the play. The players on the ball are not aware of where their colleagues are, and the players off the ball are not thinking how best to position themselves.

When I talk to Steven Tackling, he explains that they are trying to get Senior football going again, but with only this one pitch this is clearly a problem. They do not expect to get the main stadium pitch, or another one in another part of the island operational at any time next year. Meanwhile, with senior football on the Dutch side having restarted, many players have “defected”.

The association, along with the three other French associations in the Caribbean would like to apply for FIFA membership, but the French Football Federation itself is not in favour. As none of these associations are full members of FIFA, and all of their citizens are French citizens, the French team can call upon Caribbean players even after they have played for the local teams in CONCACAF competition. FIFA membership would also mean far more players in metropolitan France may look at their ancestry and find themselves eligible to play for the Caribbean sides. For example, Raphael Varane of Real Madrid and France could have played for Martinique instead. However, when you consider the number of players in the French national team that could have played for independent countries such as Senegal, you would say this is not really a reason to oppose.

There is still the question as to whether FIFA would accept the autonomous but not fully independent countries of the world into the fold again, after deciding to block them in a failed bid to keep out Gibraltar (and appease Spain). A rule change may not help Jersey, whose recent application was rejected, but for the countries in the Caribbean, and for Greenland, there would then be hope.

Saint Martin is not, however a land that FIFA has forgotten. Simply one that they consider part of another country (France). There was a promise of a grant from FIFA to help with rebuilding immediately after the hurricane, but I was told that not a penny has reached the island yet. Again, it appears the local believe the fault is with the FFF, through which any FIFA funds would have to be re-routed.

I was lucky to get talking to one of the parents supporting his child at the game. Bertrand Peters is a father who is clearly proud of his children’s achievements. Although he did not mention it, from his name and employment, he is Dutch side, but his family is cross border. He had a son on the pitch who had played for an under-13 side earlier in the day, and was now turning out for the under-15s – even scoring a goal in their 4-1 win. His 17-year-old daughter has a problem though. She has been playing in junior football, where the teams are mixed – but there is no progression on the island with a shortage of ladies’ teams to play in. She is hoping to move abroad to continue education and football and he said he was trying to get her into a scheme at FC Groningen.

Anyway, this was a real help to me, as my new friend drove me from Marigot – firstly to the cricket ground on the Dutch side, where his daughter and some of her friends were watching an over-35 inter-island competition. Then having seen only the last couple of overs, we went down to the football stadium and watched my first (of three) game in the SXMFF League.

This was FC Soualiga v United Superstars. It did not live long in the memory, two reasonably matched teams struggling to find a way through each other’s defence. It was settled with two goals from Yannick Bellechasse, one shortly before the break and a second around the hour mark. Soualiga, I was told have quite a lot of national squad players, but these are mainly from the youth squads, and United Superstars greater experience held sway. Three of the Soualiga players had played for Sint Maarten in Anguilla, with one more on the Souaglia squad list but not playing this game. Judging by the players’ names, United are one of the teams with a significant presence from the French side of the island, with the goalscorer being the one I could confirm as he had played for Saint Martin’s international side in their last game. While watching the match, I chatted to my new friend, and drank a bottle of Mackeson stout. (Once an archetypal English brew, now almost forgotten about at home, but still brewed and drank out in the Caribbean). My friend then went around the island to take me back before taking himself and his daughter home.

The next day, the plan was to go back to the Raoul Illidge Sports Centre with two more games scheduled. This time I was on my own, transport wise, and I chose to try out the local bus services in earnest. This is actually quite simple, there is just one route that goes along the main road. Just as I arrived at the road, there was a bus – it was going the away from Marigot, but a quick enquiry with the driver confirmed that when this reached the end of the line, I would be able to get another to Philipsburg, the capital of the Dutch side. This worked perfectly, with just a small wait between buses.

Philipsburg itself consists of a few streets between the sea and “the great salt pond”, which I believe does exactly what it says on the can. It seems the streets are placed in order the Boardwalk or beach front is not surprisingly full of beach bars and restaurants – but on a Sunday with no cruise ship in town, most were closed. The next road, Front Street contains the posher shops and the casinos – walk further from the beach and you get to Back Street (some originality on names here), which has the more basic shops.

Although most of the bars were closed, but when I found one that was open, I was glad to discover that it sold some of the local beers, from the only brewery on the island. This is a craft brewery and I sampled two different unfiltered beers. A very hoppy IPA named “Irma” (as in the hurricane), and a blonde beer by the name of “Souaglia”.

After I had eaten, then it was a simple matter of trying to find my way to the stadium. I did not fancy trying to walk it, even though my phone thought this was well within my capabilities, so I stopped the first bus that came past. Yes, he says, I can take you to the end of the road for the stadium for the princely sum of $1.50. That is good enough for me. Just a five-minute walk then, and I arrived at the stadium that was looking somewhat underwhelmed by the occasion. Through the gate I had used the day before, I could see only about two or three people in the stand. The gate, however was locked. Walking around, there were a couple of people waiting, and they did confirm there was supposed to be football on at 4 p.m. Twenty minutes to kick off normally means someone warming up on the pitch, but none was to be seen.

I find my way in, and the home team, C&D Connection appear to be all present and correct, but I quickly discover that the opposition, Funmakers are somewhat short. Indeed, the official kick off time comes and goes and there are only about six players in the dressing rooms. The referee and his assistants are quite clear that the rules allow 15 minutes after kick-off, and I am relieved that in that time more turn up and we do indeed have a game. With very specific rules demanding that the referee checks players ID before kick-off, the process is slow and when the game starts, we are close to 30 minutes behind schedule.

I check the team lists now, and while C&D show a full squad of 16, including five substitutes, Funmakers have only ten on the field. They do name two substitutes, but these never actually arrive and they play with the same ten for the entire ninety minutes. Both included one player from the Sint Maarten international squad on the Tuesday, although only the Funmakers’ player had played in Anguilla.

The stadium is an artificial pitch within a modern running track. The main floodlight pylons were lost in the storm, with only one upright, but four temporary pylons have been installed in its place. These provide sufficient light for the fixtures. The artificial surface shows signs of repair from damage caused during the hurricane. There are stands on both sides, but the older one can not be used. It has no roof and the supports for the roofing have been lost at one end. Underneath this are the dressing rooms, which must be a factor in what they need – which is to demolish this and build anew.

 

When I asked about the fact that this ground cannot hold the CONCACAF matches, despite it having more spectator accommodation that in Anguila, I was told that it the lack of ancillary facilities. There are no rooms at the stadium for the post-match press conference, nor for match commissioners and delegates.

On the opposite side is a fine stand with concrete steps on a steel framework. It provides seats for all who want them, and is fully covered. Even when it is not raining, cover is important to shade you from the sun. Having said that the sun dropped behind one of the large hills and left the pitch itself in shade after about 5 p.m. One does wonder about the choice of 4/6 o’clock kick offs, what mean half of the first match is played in the glare of the sun, when 5/7 seems more suitable. The Saturday night game itself was a 7 p.m. kick off, after all.

With only ten men, and a squad that I am told is made up of some of the older players on the island, Funmakers have no fun on the field in the early part of the game. Particular credit goes to Lavor Grant, who was the front man in the C&D 4-2-3-1 formation. He opened the scoring and went on complete his hat-trick within sixteen minutes of the start. Two other players got in on the act, and it was 5-0 after just a quarter of the game had been played.

After that, it appeared some of the teamwork went out of the match, with the Connection players all wanting to grab a goal for themselves, but the real change to the match came in the 35th minute. A rare Funmakers attack was stopped by centre half Nikola Radejevic who was booked for the foul. To say he was not happy with the decision would be an understatement. Hence, I do not think he received a second booking, but instead it appeared that the referee added a straight red. He had to be physically ushered off the field by his team mates. Grant was pulled back into the surely unnecessary role of centre half continuing to snuff out the non-existent threat.

As a result, only one further goal is added, mid-way through the second half when a penalty is awarded to C&D Connection and is converted by the goalkeeper, even though his opposite number did get a hand to it.

During the game, I was talking to Sudesh Singh, the president of the local association. He told me that the second game of the day should be more interesting and competitive. He was not wrong there. He may be president of an association, but he still can only sit on the concrete steps with everyone else. The only person who has an actual chair is Michael Dort, the only paid official. He does the administration and sits on the opposite side of the grounds with the team lists, even raising the boards for substitutions in the first game, when we have only three officials. The assistant referees are the same for both games (and for the game the previous night), but they have managed different referees for each game.

Some of the teams have sponsors, but the sponsors names do not appear in any of the club names. For example, the C&D in C&D connection refers to the initials of the two club founders. For the second game, I would see Flames United play 758 Boys. The number 758 is the dialling code for the island of Saint Lucia (which is a further independent state and a full member of FIFA). There is a sizable community from Saint Lucia on the island and the football club is one of the ways they meet up and maintain a cultural identity. This is clear during the game as the crowd will number around 200, as compared to around 50 earlier in the day

At the moment, the Sint Maarten national side relies on players who play locally, and a few who have recently moved away. It is not easy to maintain a side when a large portion of the players leave the islands for further education in their late teens and early twenties. This means, of course that there will always be a pool of eligible players who now feature in European football, mainly the lower divisions in the Netherlands. Similar to my experience with Antigua and Barbuda, who fielded a few players from lower divisions in the Football league, and others from clubs such as Ebbsfleet and Nantwich. If Sint Maarten can gain full FIFA recognition, then it would be easier for them to select from these players.

Sudesh Singh explained that Sint Maarten nationality laws further reduce the numbers of potential players. They have laws that mean that many children who have been born in Sint Maarten and have lived their all of their lives have not become citizens as their parents were not citizens. In some cases, this must cause problems if they cannot prove citizenship of another island. In my understanding, this felt similar to the laws in Germany before they reformed at the beginning of the century – a move that allowed more footballers of Polish or Turk ancestry to qualify for the national team. A year ago, I might have tried to be smug in saying we don’t do this in Britain, but that would have been before the Windrush scandal broke.

According to Sudesh, FIFA are now actively helping get the application right. It does not appear to be a simple matter. He thinks it may get approved in 2020.

Meanwhile the full membership of CONCACAF and the loose connection with the Netherlands association. Experienced coaches come across from the Netherlands, and this has resulted in all the teams having a coach who has passed CONCACAF coaching course.

Onto game two, and with a good crowd now in attendance. In the gangway below the centre of the stand, there is a good business selling beer and food.

The crowd is boisterous, but friendly and the majority appear to support 758. Their team has the upper hand throughout the first half, and the game is played at a much greater pace than the others I have seen here. Both teams can provide much more movement and far fewer passes go astray. The habit of players running into offside positions is still there, and they do need to work better off the ball, but this is a much more exciting and entertaining game.

It takes until the 38th minute to get a goal, and at this point there is a lot of cheering as 758 are leading. They double this is first half injury time, so take a comfortable lead into the break. Both teams are playing just one forward in the first half, but the speed at which the 758 midfielders move in support is a reason for their dominance, Flames change after the break into a formation more akin to 4-4-2 and commit more to attacking, this pays off with a penalty eight minutes after the break and a deflected goal halfway through the half.

With the score at 2-2, the game could easily go either way in the last twenty minutes. To the great glee of the crowd, it is in fact 758 Boys that complete the goalscoring with a goal five minutes from the end.

Getting back to accommodation from here is more of a rigmarole that I had hoped for. The bus driver that dropped me seemed to say I would have little trouble getting a bus to Marigot later, but it was not that simple. As I arrived at the stop, there was a bus there – but this was waiting for assistance as a car had just hit him from the side. It was only a minor dent to the bus, but he was waiting while someone came out to check the damage. In the twenty minutes that followed, no buses went past going up to Marigot, although I did see a couple heading in the opposite direction. I also saw no taxi pass by.

When the first bus disappeared, it went in the wrong direction, but a couple of minutes later it was back (with one other passenger) and took me to Marigot. I am not certain where it went exactly as it did not disappear for long enough to get to the terminal and back. While on the Dutch side of the Island, there appeared to be plenty of life, with a restaurant open near the stop and other bars passed on the route, Marigot was almost a ghost town, considering it was only around 9.30 at night. Clearly no buses were to be had, and as I headed into the centre there was no sign of a taxi either. Most of the restaurants were closed, and the others were waiting for their last guests to leave. Fortunately, one did call a taxi for me, for which I had to pay the late evening rate, I could not argue as there were no alternatives, and if I had called for a different cab, then late evening would have applied by the time it arrived.

Caribbean 2 – Sint Maarten in Anguilla

Saturday, November 24th, 2018

The Tuesday tale starts early, as there are a lot of countries to get through before the day can come to an end. I err on the side of caution at the start, with no breakfast so as I can take a taxi to the airport in good time.

My flights are in two parts, but all on the one aircraft. Firstly, we retrace the route from the day before, returning to Guadeloupe. Then there is a long wait in the terminal, where there is not even a coffee on sale before proceeding with a second short hop. All in all, we are not in the air for ninety minutes, but the journey takes more than three and a half hours.

It turns out that of the dozen or more people waiting to re-board the flight, most have been to the same game as myself the night before. I am, however the only one whose fare has not been paid for by CONCACAF. I talk to an official who was from the offices in Miami. He will have to get off the plane again when I arrive at my destination and then get back onto the same aircraft for a slightly longer trip to Puerto Rico. Then he will change to another flight to Miami. Others, such as the referee and his assistants may need a further flight to reach their final destination.

As with many of the offerings on booking sites in the Caribbean, I am not in a hotel but an apartment. My taxi driver does not recognise the address and reluctantly calls the accommodation on her own phone, literally taken directions for the full five minutes it takes us to reach the address.

Now, surely it is quite simple. We have been on the phone to a person at the accommodation. But no, they do not want to come and check me in. I need three things, all of which are quickly promised. A key, a wifi password and a plug converter as they are using American style sockets.

I’m in Sint Maarten, which is ruled from the Netherlands, but depends on US tourism, so USA plugs and currency rules. Lots of dollars required.

It takes about half an hour for someone working in the garden to tell the lady running the apartment that the customer is in a hurry and get her down. Even then she does not appear to know where they keys are. In the meantime, the gardener says he will find me a converter plug (but cannot). Only after I have the key, and have paid for the property do they try and tell me the wifi password – and find out they have it wrong.

I leave quickly, having garnered a promise (which will not be delivered on), that the plug converter and wifi password will be waiting for me upon my return.

Very quickly on reaching the road, I find a bus. Although both are often mini-bus vehicles, it is easy to spot buses and taxis in Sint Maarten. The registration number of every bus starts with the word, BUS, followed by a number, while if the registration starts with TAXI, it is a taxi. Fares are supposedly strictly controlled, but the internet link to the fare table is broken.

The island of Sint Maarten/Saint Martin is curious as it is split between two countries. The southern part is ruled as a constituent country of the Netherlands, while the slightly larger northern area is a collectivity of France. This means that like Guadeloupe and Martinique, it is within the EU, using the Euro as currency. It also means that on the French part of the Island, I can use my mobile phone just as I can elsewhere in the EU. This is not available on the Netherlands part.

While the two sections of the island therefore have different languages, English is spoken almost everywhere. This is not at all surprising as the economy of both parts of the Island is dependent on tourism, and a very large portion of the tourists come from the USA.

The whole of the Island, however was devastated by hurricane Irma, which blew through at the beginning of September 2017. The estimates were that over 90% of structures on both sides of the island were damaged. While reconstruction has been rapid, priority was naturally in finding homes for people and getting hotels back up and running so as the economy can start to return to normal. As a result, neither side of the island currently has a stadium suited to playing international football. The French side has not even restarted their league this season.

The British Overseas Territory of Anguilla also suffered badly, but the football ground was not completely destroyed, and has been re-opened with a new roof on its stand. This allows it to offer facilities to both the Saint Martin and Sint Maarten teams, and also to the British Virgin Islands. There should have been two CONCACAF nations league games over the weekend, but the British Virgin Islands game against Bonaire was postponed, apparently due to cancelled flights.

Anyway, the bus takes me the two stops to the ferry terminal. It is actually across the road from the airport entrance. I am there at the right time. At the ferry terminal there is a man selling packages for the trip to the match. This was very advantageous. For the princely sum of US$70, the package gives me a return crossing to Anguilla, transfers between the ferry terminal and the stadium, an admission ticket for the game and a Sint Maarten Football shirt, (not in my size). Generally, the return ferry ticket could cost around $70 on its own.

When I was looking into this part of the trip, I went through several stages. Firstly, I noticed that Sint Maarten had a game on the day, then that flight tickets were not overtly expensive, but shortly after booking the flight, I realised that the game was on the wrong island.

My immediate thought was whether or not I could get another flight to take me onwards to Anguilla, then when I realised this would not work, I considered giving up my (non-refundable ticket). Finally I discovered the ferry option, and realised that this would all in fact work out.

The person selling the tickets was in fact the vice president of the Sint Maarten Soccer Association. He was quick to point out Sudesh Singh, the president who was also going to be on the boat, along with his children.

The terminal was busy and slightly chaotic. The check in for the ferries takes the name and passport or ID card number for every traveller, after which you are allowed to go through passport control. My exit stamp from Sint Maarten was put into the passport within two hours of arrival, and most of the time seemed to have been spent waiting at the accommodation.

Most of those waiting for the ferries were match bound, giving the illusion that there could be a good crowd. It was an illusion. In reality, a pair of chartered ferries each holding no more than 34 people was about the limit. A few fans from Dominica had made their way independently, although a fan wearing a Dominica shirt who I had spoken to when getting off the flight appeared to miss the boat and wasn’t seen at the match.

The atmosphere on the boat is good though. Almost everyone is wearing the shirts, and there are free drinks during the journey, with a rum punch being the favoured tipple. From the airport ferry terminal, you cross a large lagoon with the boat running quite slowly, you then go under a bridge (which is on the French side) before the captain hits the throttle and you make the speedier run between islands. I ask later and am told that the top speed is about 28 knots. It feels faster on a bumpy sea. At the other end you pass through another passport check before getting onto a minibus to complete the journey. During the slow part of the journey, signs of the hurricane were everywhere with wrecked boats everywhere. The weather has no respect for value either, so really extravagant yachts and small dinghies suffered the same treatment.

The stadium in Anguilla, the Raymond E. Guishard Technical Centre is simple enough. All the facilities are on one side and there is no access to the other three. It would not past muster in the higher regions of non-League football in England, although the stand is impressive enough, standing tall with an accessway at the top where there is a snack bar and an officials and VIP room.

The bar, clearly important to many of the travelling fans was situated between the entrance and the stand. If rules on drinking within site of the pitch exist in the Caribbean, then they were being ignored.

The crowd was low enough that I could easily do a head count, and it came out around 80!

Sint Maarten started the day bottom of the table, having lost both earlier matches heavily, (no goals scored, 13 conceded in Haiti and 12 in Bermuda). Dominica themselves had only one point. Sint Maarten come through from the lowest seeing group, with Dominica one higher. Checking the players off on both sides against Soccerway suggested that only one was playing football outside his own island. This was Briel Thomas of Dominica. Actually, looking further suggested a couple of other Dominica players were playing in Guadeloupe. Thomas plays for W Connection in Trinidad and Tobago, and a couple of other players had played in the T&T Pro league in the past. Dominica was also hit badly by the hurricane last year, and has not restarted domestic football. Its home game in this tournament was actually played in Guadeloupe.

With so few games having been played recently by players on either side, one did not expect a classic. Dominica, playing a 4-3-3 formation scored early and appeared to have the measure of their opponents in the first half, even without making a second goal. Surprisingly they changed formation at half time. The coach said later this was to give them more width. Although they increased the score to 2-0 early in the second period, the change was not really a success and they run out of pace as the game went on.

Sint Maarten were game throughout. With the two heavy defeats behind them, one might have thought they would cave in after early blows in each half, but this did not happen and they created a number of chances in the second half. In two many cases, there was not enough support for the player in possession and the chance was lost. At the other end, Van Griensven, who had made a number of good saves in the first half to keep Sint Maarten in the game was relatively untested after the break, while the home defence looked far more organised against two forward players than they had done against three. One of the centre halves, Djai Essed who I was later informed is currently studying in Amsterdam could surely find a place in a fairly high level of amateur football in the Netherlands.

At the end of the game, I was sought out and asked to attend to post match interviews. It turned out that the only other people there to question the officials were the match photographer and someone from the Anguilla FA. I guess these only happen here because they are contracted by CONCACAF. I have only been paid for a match report once, by the press association under their contract to report AFC games. At that time, I was told later that I reported too much on the match and not enough on quotes from the coaches afterwards. At least now I know that these conferences tend to start with a request for the coach’s thoughts on the game. We got a little information that neither coach was unhappy.

The home coach thought his charges had learnt a lot since their heavy defeats, and he was looking forward to the derby game when they would finish this tournament with a match against Saint Martin. Curiously, for two countries that share a small island, the record books only show one international meeting between the two parts. This was the first match on record for each (in 1988), and ended up with a 3-1 win for the French portion. As both have three defeats to their credit, it will be a game for local pride as neither expects (or even hopes) to escape the lowest division when the Nations League proper starts next season. Indeed, as I had discussed with the FA president earlier in the day, a few matches where they have a chance of winning in this lower division, hopefully coupled with a return to home matches may be the boost his team needs.

The visiting coach was pleased by the win, and thought the sharpness of the few players who had been playing made the difference. He explained the change in formation, but we did not press him on whether it had worked.

All this meant I had missed the shuttle minibus with most of the support, but I was taken to the ferry port with some of the officials and the equipment. When we got there, all the spectators were still waiting for the ferries. Again, we have to go through the rigmarole of signing in, and then paying departure tax ($13) before getting on the boat.

In fact, the whole group including the players and home officials are waiting for some time for the boats to get back off another shuttle trip. There are a small number of tourist day trippers who must have wondered what was going on, but we did not travel with them, as ours were chartered ferries. (Still the same type of boats). I did not see any of the Dominica fans or players, nor the CONCACAF officials. The Dominica players were waiting on a bus when I left the stadium. My guess is that any supporters travelling by ferry were off the island ahead of me, while the teams and officials either left by air, or stayed until the next day, (or even both).

Once again, there was an excellent atmosphere on the ferry, and again this was refuelled by the rum punch. I got talking to a few of the fans, and then went out with them for a meal and a drink afterwards. One of this little group was actually the mother of Djai Essed, who actually joined us briefly. I got to find out how his weekend had been. He is studying in Amsterdam, so he flew out to the Islands on Saturday, trained with the team on Sunday and Monday, played on Tuesday and then was flying back via Paris on Wednesday. He does not expect to be back on the Island until the next game in March.

The others did not have a football connection, and I doubt that they watch the game on a regular basis. Much of the talk was of the damage of the hurricane and how to they survived. Everyone had lost something, whether it was the contents of their apartment, to a yacht big enough to have been sailed to St. Martin from South Africa. Everyone on the table had been born in different countries, but all now (except me) are now settled on this island.

With such a high proportion of the population being employed in tourism, storms like Irma affect everyone as the first result is evacuation of tourists, and no quick return as the facilities have gone. Many people were without employment immediately. I think one of the advantages in not being independent from the European empires is that the governments in Europe do grind into action with aid and relief.

After this, I settled on the island myself for the next week, settling into an apartment on a resort on the French side. I spent a short while on the famous beach by the airport on the morning after the game. Here the planes come in low over the beach, with the start of the runway immediately across the road from the beach. The biggest thing I saw land was a 737, but I noted that two wide bodied jets were due in during the afternoon. The cafes at each end of the beach write up the expected arrival times, while there are warning signs over the danger of jet blast. They are not joking, a Canadian tourist was killed last year as a result of injuries suffered when knocked over by the blast from a jet.

Apart from the sea and sunshine delaying my completion of this piece, the most notable thing about this area of the island is the high amount of scaffolding and construction work. By all accounts, this corner was not the worst affected, and the houses are still standing, but around half of them are still having the roofs repaired, or are waiting for the work to start

Caribbean – Part 1

Thursday, November 22nd, 2018

I have been neglecting anyone who reads the blog, as recently I have found it easier to write some lengthy diatribes directly to facebook and then post these with pictures.

I am not going to repeat all of that here, but instead provide a quick sketch of the start of my Caribbean odyssey, and then links to the facebook posts where individual reports on each match day cane be found.

Before I post that, I shall drop in a few words on country and association status, as this is particularly important, at least to my own obsessions at this point of the venture

 

Now, it is quite simple – the United Nations has 193 members, so there are 193 countries in the World. Simples?

Not really – FIFA manages to up the numbers to 211, but somehow manages to miss a few out, while there are 11 extra football associations around the world that have full or associate membership of continental federations, but are not FIFA members. Then of course there are the self-governing territories that have not managed to achieve recognition of statehood, as some of the members of the UN are opposed to their existence. The other way of putting that is that at least one UN member state claims the territory as their own, but for some reason cannot govern it. In simplistic terms that is normally down to the military forces of at least one other UN member state. It should not be a surprise that there are more than a few cases where those military forces are Russian. Some of these are members of CONIFA, (particularly, but not exclusively the Russian sponsored states). Such states include Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Kosovo is another territory that cannot get full membership of the UN, despite widespread recognition, but unlike those already mentioned, they have achieved membership of FIFA. All members of FIFA are also in membership of one of its six constituent Confederations, although as I have already mentioned, the reverse is not true.

There are 11 football associations that have joined their confederation, but are not FIFA members. Generally, these may aspire to joining FIFA, but the rules have been changed and for the moment it appears the doors are closed. Only two of these 11 are fully self-governing, although all have some degree of autonomy. As parts of democratic states, they could choose to become independent at some time in the future, but they are choosing not to be. Six of the 11 are in the Caribbean, which is why I have brought up the subject here.

The eleven are French Guyana, Martinique, Guadeloupe, Saint Martin, Sint Maarten and Bonaire in CONCACAF, the Northern Mariana Islands in the Asian Football Confederation, Kiribati, Niue and Tuvalu in Oceania and Reunion in Africa. Of these eleven, only Kiribati and Tuvalu are fully recognised at the UN and therefore stand some chance of joining FIFA in the near future.

Oceania could add another four members without controversy, if the countries so wished. The Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru and Palau are all full members of the UN and therefore meet the first of the FIFA’s current requirements. There is one more full member of the UN, Monaco that has not attempted to join FIFA or any of the Confederations. This is because of uncertainty over the fate of AS Monaco in the French League should they go independent. Curiously, while AS Monaco plays within the principality and in the French League, all the games in Monaco’s domestic football competition are played on grounds in France.

Over the years, FIFA has had a much easier entry criteria, which has allowed for many extra members that are not sovereign states. The tightening of the regulations was mainly in response to Gibraltar’s application for membership, which has heavily opposed by Spain. So much so that the two teams cannot meet in competition to this day.

Indeed, the United Kingdom has more FIFA member states than any other country in the World. Apart from the obvious constituents of the UK (England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland), and the newly entered Gibraltar, British dependent territories in the Caribbean are also in FIFA. None of Anguilla, Bermuda, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Monserrat or the Turks and Caicos Islands are members of the UN, meaning that the UK actually has eleven FIFA members.

We are not alone, just the most prolific. Apart from its four associate members in the Caribbean, France has two full members of the Oceania Football Confederation and FIFA in French Polynesia (aka Tahiti) and New Caledonia. The latter has just voted not to become independent from France. The Netherlands has responsibility for the other CONCACAF members. Sint Maarten and Bonaire, plus also Aruba and Curacao which are full FIFA members. The USA includes two Caribbean FIFA members, Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands, as well as American Samoa (Oceania), and Guam (Asia) and the aforementioned Asian associate, the Northern Mariana Islands. The Faroe Islands are an autonomous region of Denmark, while the special administrative regions of Hong Kong and Macau are FIFA members, but also parts of China. China would like to claim Chinese Taipei (aka Taiwan) as well, and will complain vigorously if you miss the island off a map of China. Finally, Palestine has a special status at the UN and is a full member of the Asian Football Confederation and FIFA.

As I keep a list of countries I have seen football in, I needed to be able to have my own definition – and I have gone for wide scope. My list of countries visited for football will include any with full or associate membership of any of the Confederations, or full membership of the UN. Hence of this trip, all my first stops, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Anguilla and Sint Maarten will count. I also count Monaco as I have seen them in the French league, but for my matches in Monaco’s Prince Rainier III competition, the venue is shown as in France.

I am not including crown dependencies such as Guernsey on my list of countries, nor disputed self-governing territories such as Transdniestria and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, even though there is an argument for the latter as they do have an independent FA and league. Transdniestria teams play in the Moldovan league

And now a few links

Recap – my visit to a match in Monaco’s Prince Rainier III

http://leohoenig.com/?p=664

 

Day 1 – flying to Guadeloupe, the Just in Time delivery experience

https://www.facebook.com/leo.hoenig/posts/10156624888529627

 

Day 2 – Life’s a Beach, (unless someone hits your car), but only until kick off time

https://www.facebook.com/leo.hoenig/posts/10156627267574627

 

 

Day 3 – Bird Watching, and more Second Division Guadeloupe

https://www.facebook.com/leo.hoenig/posts/10156628504574627

 

D

 

Day 4 – Money questions in Martinique

https://www.facebook.com/leo.hoenig/posts/10156634204059627

 

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.