Archive for February, 2010

On Leaving Sri Lanka.

Friday, February 26th, 2010

After the group games had finished, I headed out of Sri Lanka for three days on the Maldives. That is another story, and I will be writing a new blog to cover that.

In the blogs on Sri Lanka, I have described some of the frustrations and difficulties in the country. It is true that there are too many people trying to feed off too few tourists, and so the attentions of the touts is a problem, and it is true that the ever present security in the city can present the impression that there is still an ever present threat to security – but while there are many checks, they are generally cursory, and the soldiers are very polite about telling you where you are allowed to, (or not allowed to) take photographs. Overall, it is hard to name a country where the locals are friendlier than they are Sri Lanka.

Friendly, the locals may be – but enthused by the AFC Challenge Cup they were not. The competition was billed as the biggest football event ever in Sri Lanka – but the bills were not placed where people could see them. This is the third AFC Challenge Cup, with the tournament heading South through the Indian sub-continent each time. The first tournament was played in Bangladesh in front of some quite good attendances. The second, in India was met with poor crowds in Hyderabad, but was somewhat redeemed when heavy rain forced the final to be switched to New Delhi, where 10,000 watched the home side win the tournament. This time, with no hosts involved, it will be a surprise if the final crowds reach the four figure mark.

This is a pity, as the final match could well deserve a much bigger audience. I was disappointed with North Korea in their opening game, feeling that by playing a youthful side rather than the full World Cup squad, they might be damaging their chances of using the occasion to qualify for next year’s Asian Cup finals. Indeed, in the first game they struggled to make an impact against Turkmenistan, but in the second game the opened up and increased in confidence as they put four goals past Kyrgyzstan. In the third group game, they easily beat India, and in the semi-final put five past Myanmar. Turkmenistan, on the other hand have played all the games I saw in the same way as the opening match. At times dour, and always more than willing to bend a rule or waste more than a little time, they have made a functional route to the final. After the opening draw with the Koreans, both India and Kyrgyzstan were beaten in single goal games. Neither was particularly pretty, and Kyrgyzstan had more than one opportunity to remove them from the contest. The surprise in the semi-final, when they played Tajikistan was they managed to score more than a single goal.

Hence when they meet in the final, neither Turkmenistan, nor North Korea will have conceded a goal since they played each other in their first match. The title will depend on whether or not Turkmenistan can resist the more inventive and fluid North Korean side. If they can, then I would think they could eventually find a chance of their own. North Korea will start as favourites for the match, and I am sure they can win the game if they score early. The longer the match can go on scoreless, they better the chances of Turkmenistan will be. It will be a good test of Korean stamina if the game goes into extra time.

Before the main event, Tajikistan will play Myanmar for third place. They met in the final game in their group, with Myanmar practically guaranteed a place in the semi-finals before the game started. As the scores came through from the other game, and it became clear nothing could stop Myanmar going through, they did not appear to try to head to stop Tajikistan. The result was a 3-0 win for the central Asian side. Although Myanmar will be trying harder, I believe that Tajikistan will again be too much for them. This match does have an importance if the AFC keep to their recent record of giving the top three sides exemption to the next edition of the contest.

What lessons have been learnt from this tournament? The AFC need to realise that the people will not come just because you put on a tournament. They need to add a bit of a show, a bit of razzamatazz to get the locals interested. Especially if the tournament is to be staged in the territory of another sport. For this competition, there was so little advanced publicity that even the tourist office at the airport claimed definitively that there was no football tournament being played in the country. The local press reported on Sri Lankan games only, and even then only briefly. The second stadium used was a very late choice, and not really up to the job. Clearly they did not realise that the matches there would attract the few football tourists here, and that there would be a press presence, even if it was limited to the Press Association man hired by the AFC themselves. Playing in February, (the last two tournaments were in April) means that half the teams come in from freezing conditions having not started their regular seasons. Having said this, these teams (from Central Asia and Korea), turned out to be better organised than those from further south. It did not help the cause of India that they only brought along their under-23 team. Having allowed this, the AFC allowed the devaluation of the competition. The Sri Lankan side was not technically under strength, but suffered from the decision of the local association after failings in other competitions to put all their most experienced players out to grass, and bring in less experienced youngsters in their place. For both India and Sri Lanka this meant they had a team that could not compete, although in Sri Lanka’s case, it is unlikely that any XI they could put out would have been competitive.

In the future, the AFC should make sure that the full teams are sent out to play, but they also need to put their own house in order. The AFC can find sponsors for its signature events, the Asian Cup and Champions League; they need to persuade some of these to pay a little attention to their other competitions. They need to work with the local organising committees to see that not only the main event is organised, but also that the event gets into the spotlight in the host country.

North Korea open up!

Monday, February 22nd, 2010

North Korea took a giant step towards the AFC Challenge Cup finals with a 4-0 win over Kyrgyzstan. After the match, the coach was pleased that the team “had overcome the difficulties of the weather”, and with the way the team grew in confidence with the lead from the first half. Promising that there was room in the world cup squad for five or six of this team, he declined to say who, but quite clearly the players who turned out today will not have done their chances any harm. North Korea could have gone ahead in the 21st minute when Usanov handled the ball in the area. Choe Mong Ho was asked to retake the penalty after referee spotting an encroachment, and deciding to place it in the same area, found Baimatov equal to the attempt. Eight minutes later, a free kick from about 25 yards was curled in by Pak Song Chol. Pak Song Chol’s free kicks were a constant threat to Kyrgyzstan, with a slightly longer kick in the 40th minute being well collected by Baimatov, and another shot, after half time well saved by the diving keeper who pushed it around the post. North Korea had another chance just before half time when Pak Kwang Ryong headed into the keeper’s hands after some tricky work by Yun Yong Il on the right wing. It was Pak Kwang Ryong again at the start of the second half, whose shot was deflected in for the second goal. From this point on, North Korea were unstoppable, and they added tow further goals in the 59th and 62 minutes. First it was Chong Myong Ho who got n the scoresheet, although is 25 yard shot also took a deflection, and then Ri Chol Myong added the fourth. North Korea continues to attack to the end of the game, with their best chance falling to Chong Myol Ho who forced another good save from Baimtov.

The Kyrgyzstan coached promised afterwards that “the Result does not mean the end of our participation in this competition, the final game will be important”. The weather has proved a difficult opponent from the central Asian team, even though they had a training camp in Bahrain before coming here.

In the second match of the night, the defensive minded Turkmenistan beat India by a single goal. However, with the exception of a free kick in injury time at the end of the game, India’s chances were limited and Turkmenistan was always in charge of the game. Turkmenistan had a chance in the 16th minute when Merdeov shot over the bar and was awarded a penalty just before the half way mark when the same player was brought down by Debabrata Roy. Maedaly’s spot kick just squeezed inside the post to open the scoring. Although Turkmenistan were to dominate possession for the rest of the game, their tactics were mainly to slow the game down creating few chances, while in goal, Bayram would also hold onto the ball until challenged. There was a clash of heads between Turkmenistan’s Azat Garajeyev and India’s Jewel Raja in the 52nd minute. Both players went off the field to have bandages wound around the wounds. Garajayev was surprised when trying to return to the field to find he been substituted while his back as turned (by Nazar), while Jewel Raja did return to the field after a couple of minutes. Good work by Ruslan on the right side set up a chance which neither Guvanch or Mamedaly could convert as the ball bobbled across the area in the 72nd minute, allowing India to eventually bundle the ball away. India’s slim pickings were reduced further when Bebabrata Roy stopped Ruslan from proceeding down the right wing with a potential dangerous high kick. This earned the Indian player his second yellow card, and would have left them exposed at the back had they not brought on Gurwinder Singh in place of forward Jeje Lalpekhlua. India had been warming up an attacker to come on, but this opportunity was lost. With the Turkmenistan team holding possession well, it was a surprise when India got a last minute chance, Balwant Singh being fouled just outside the penalty area. However, any hope that the Indian’s would come away with an unexpected draw was lost as Guvanch sent the kick high and wide into the night sky.

When questioned as to whether this team was good enough for this competition, coach Sukvinder Singh said that the experience would help the under-23 team in the forthcoming Asian Games, while the first team were in a training camp for the Asian games in Qatar next January. For Turkmenistan, the coach said “thank you to all his players for their efficient play”, he also criticised the referee without specifying any individual incident he was unhappy with.

The results mean that North Korea and Turkmenistan both go into the final game with 4 points, Kyrgyzstan have three, while India have lost both games and cannot reach the semi-finals. North Korea have shown they play an open game, and should easily prove too much for India. Turkmenistan may well try and tie up their final game, as a draw would see them in the semis. Kyrgyzstan need to beat them to go through. Before that, in Group A, Sri Lanka have lost twice, but they are not quite out. Should they beat Bangladesh in their third game, and Myanmar can pick up their third victory when playing Takijistan, then there will be a three way tie on three points, for second place behind Myanmar. If however, the opposite results apply, with Bangladesh and Tajikistan winning on the final day, then Bangladesh, Tajikistan and Myanmar will be in a three way tie on six points, all ahead of the hosts.

Hindu Gods

It was with this in mind that we selected the Myanmar v Tajikistan as our Saturday game. The decision was helped by the fact that this was one of the only two games being staged at the Ceylonese Rugby and Football Club grounds, the alternate venue to allow the final series of games to go ahead together. My morning was spent on a trip to the National Museum, with a short stop at the Gangramaya Temple on the way back. The national museum in a classic white building, from the height of the Empire, in 1877. Many of the artefacts contained within go back to before the coming of the Europeans, and there is no shortage of stone carvings of the Buddha or of various Hindu gods. It is well laid out, but it was not one of these buildings that has developed a natural coolness. I found myself increasing drawn to stand in front of the fans. The temple was also worth a visit, set on a short pier into the southern section of Beira Lake

When we arrived at the Ceylonese Rugby and Football Club, we found our movement very limited. AFC officials were on hand to try and keep the crowd to the modern stand behind on goal. The bar on the lower floor was out of bounds, as we were not club members, while a refreshment point, served through a hatch on the terrace of an old stand along the side was also kept out of bounds by the AFC people. Except for the groundhoppers, (five English and one Luxembourger, who apparently has seen around 690 International matches in 164 countries over 60 years), the ground consisted mainly of officials of other clubs, and a party of about 50 local schoolchildren and their teachers. Apart from the new and old stands, there was a small structure near the halfway line opposite the old stand, which looked as if it was supposed to be a press stand (actually occupied by the match commissioner), and a small shed at the far end occupied only by security personnel.

The views were not bad, but it is never ideal to watch a game from behind the goal

In the early part of the game, it appeared that Myanmar were the better team, and could win at a canter, with a good chance in the 10th minute, when Tiychiev had to save from Aung Kyaw Moe, who was set up by a short pass from Myo Min Tun. Myo Min Tun himself had a fine chance in the 32nd minute, running down the right channel, but again was foiled to Tunichiev

Tunichiev stops Myo Min Tun.

Tajikistan v Myanmar

A minute later the game turned on after a hand ball by Myanmar just outside the penalty area. Ibragim Rabinov stepped up to take the kick, and send it into the far corner of the net

Tajikistan first goal from Rabimov (7 – left)

At the start of the second half, I sneaked around to the old stand in order to take a picture showing the new stand

The new stand has around 400 seats, The lower level is a members only bar.

Fortunately for civilisation, I was soon apprehended by a member of the AFC super police, and ushered back to the stand. As I was about to take my seat, in the 53rd minute, Tajikistan crashed a shot against the bar, the ball coming out to give Khakimov the simplest of headers for 2-0, Aung Aung Oo, the Myanmar keeper for the game got a hand to the ball, but could not stop it. One had the impression that Myanmar knew that Sri Lanka were unexpectedly 2-0 up at half time in their game, and that Bangladesh had lost their goalkeeper to a red card. This meant that no further change in either score would result in both Tajikistan and Myanmar reaching the semi-finals. Tajikistan remained in almost complete control, with Ergashev heading just wide from a 68th minute corner, and a third goal added two minutes from time. On this occasion, Rabimov’s shot from long range was parried by Aung Aung Oo, leaving Yusuf Rabiev to pick up the loose ball, control it and direct it into the net. It could even have been four as Rabiev set up a good chance for Saidov in the final minute.

After the game, we wandered up the road, past a whole row of different cricket grounds. The fourth was the Gymkhana Club, and this had some action on it. Not a full scale cricket match it was true, but a local six-a-side tournament. We entered the ground and made our way up to the bar, where we were pleased to see an open policy of allowing us to buy drinks. We sat and watched the final, and applauded the teams at the presentation. Six-a-side cricket appears to be about wild swings at the ball, plenty of boundaries, but also catches at the boundaries and some rather foolish run-outs. A great time appeared to be had by all.

Playing with a tennis ball, the players need no protective equipment, and this is the first time I have watched a cricket game where the batsman has kicked off his flip-flops during his innings and played on in bare feet. Despite missing his swing at the ball on the picture, the batsman in red and white ended up on the winning team.

For the final day, we had the choice of returning to the Sugathadasa Stadium or the Ceylonese Rugby and Football Grounds. In the first match, North Korea would only need to take a point against an Indian team who looked unlikely to be able to stop them, while the ‘Stans’ derby, Turkmenistan v Kyrgyzstan had the advantage the either team could go through, but both was very unlikely (involving a heavy defeat for the North Koreans), we chose this match where a draw or better meant Turkmenistan went through, and only a win would do for Kyrgyzstan. We knew from experience that Turkmenistan were likely to try and slow down the game and hold on for the draw, and this was indeed how the game went, but as it was, there were plenty of chances. Krygyztsan held most of the early possession, but Turkmenistan created the first real chance in the 8th minute, when Guvanch headed over the bar from a Begli corner. Sidorenko was only a yard wide of putting Kyrgyzstan ahead from 40 yards in the 12th minute, when the Turkmen goalkeeper , Bayram had chased out of his goal and only half cleared the ball. Turkmenistan were forced to change the centre of their defence early when Belyh was injured and replaced by Dovlet, while Kyrgyzstan had the most of possession, but shot wide of the mark at every opportunity. In the second half, Kyrgyzstan appeared to tire of their failings, but it was not until the 70th minute that we saw a goal. It came from a Turkmenistan free kick just outside the area. Two players both ran in as if to take it and almost collided. As they apparently questioned each other on this, Begli lifted the ball over the wall and past the distracted goalkeeper. In the next few minutes, we had an exchange of free kicks with both sides making further attempts from just outside the area, but either the wall, or the shooter’s inaccuracy took care of these, and Turmenistan happily wound down the clock for a second 1-0 win.

A Kyrgyzstan free kick goes hgh and wide.

We reckon the crowd at the Ceylonese Rugby and Football Club numbered no more than fourty, but they were boosted by a small group of Turkmenistan fans, the only visiting club supporters we noticed at the tournament. As the second team in the group, they will see their boys play Tajikistan in the semi-final; this is the more difficult semi to call, but I feel the Turkmen’s more cynical attitude will prevail. When North Korea play Myanmar, I cannot see beyond a win for the Koreans

The ‘Stans’, and the Buddha’s Sweet Tooth.

Friday, February 19th, 2010

Continuing at the AFC Challenge Cup, the first game in Group B saw India play Kyrgyzstan. On a hot but dry afternoon, the game started in front of barely 100 people. It was no surprise that the game started at a slow pace, but Kyrgyzstan soon gained some semblance of control. India have entered their Under-23 team in this tournament, having won the SAFF competition with the same squad, (for the South Asian Games, an U-23 tournament, they played their U-19 team). Because of this, this game is not registered with FIFA as a full international. It appears the young team was not good enough against a Central Asian side who believe in their ability to do well here. On 15 minutes a cross by Kuleutin was parried out by Karanjit leaving Amirov with an open goal. The score was doubled on 32 minutes when Zemlanuhin capitalised on a mistake by Rowilson and finished with aplomb. India could have pulled a goal back a minute later when Abranches shot hit the post, but this was India’s best chance of the half, while first Zemlianuhin, with a glancing header that went just wide and then Amirov with a shot that Karanjit was forced to save could have increased the score.

India on the defensive as Kuleutin heads wide

The second half was a completely different tale. Kyrgyzstan’s captain, Bokoev was sent off in the 47th minute for elbowing Baljit Sahni, while India stepped up the pace and gained control of the game. Kyrgyzstan now struggled in the heat and were forced to pull back and defend. Jewel Raja came close with two chances, the first blocked by Baimatov and the second blasted over. The pressure finally paid off when India were awarded a penalty for hand ball. India dominated the rest of the game, but struggled to make real chances from their possession while the Kyrgyzstan defence held strong. The best of their late chances came when Abranches blasted a shot over five minutes from the end.

Volkov cannot reach Denzil’s penalty

The size of the crowd increased for the second game, but never reached the 800 claimed by the organisers for the first match. North Korea brought a very young side into this tournament but with places in the world cup squad supposedly up for grabs, they were guaranteed to be eager, and they started both halves of this game playing with pace, and chasing long balls sent over the Turkmenistan defence. Their best early chance was after just five minutes when Ryang Yong Gi was put through, but wasted the chance after a poor first touch. The heat however soon appeared to be too much for them, and they visibly wilted, allowing their opponents into the game. Turkmenistan have a much more experienced side, but still very few remain from when I saw the pair play in Pyongyang in 2008. They came into the game as the Koreans began to struggle and took the lead in the 36th minute through Mamedaly. The North Koreans tried an odd free kick routine with three players kneeling in front of the wall, and another two to the side of it, but it came to nothing as Pak Song Chol shot high over the bar. This turned out to be the last move of the half. Six minutes into the second period, the Koreans got another free kick, but this time went for a simple routine without disrupting the wall – this time Ryang Yong Gi curled the ball just inside the far post to level the scores. Pak Chol Min missed a chance to put North Korea ahead five minutes later. As in the first half, the Koreans began to run out of steam allowing chances for Turkmenistan, with Amanov sending the ball just over the bar on the hour mark.

Sugathadasa Stadium Main Stand

Turkmenistan’s chances were ruined though in the 67th minute when an ill-timed challenge by Omar earned the player his second booking of the game. It means that all of the first four matches have seen a red card. Down to ten men, Turkmenistan resorted to time wasting to hold on to the result, while North Korea were eager to take advantage, but unable. Most of their chances ended with shots from long range and lacked accuracy. The North Korean coach said he was happy with the result, but cited the heat (clearly most team’s favourite excuse here). The Turkmenistan coach accepted the red card, saying “this is football”, but said the team were here to win and could improve for the next match.

The second day gave us a poor first viewing of the two teams who at full strength would be favourites. India beat Kyrgyzstan in the recent Nehru Cup on their own territory, but none of the Indian first team squad were retained here, while the Kyrgyzstan side involved many of the same players. Similarly, North Korea only used one player who was in the World Cup qualifying campaign, when a stronger squad could well give them the chance to move on to the Asian Cup. Against these two, both playing at substandard strength, we have two Central Asian ‘Stans’ who want to win the tournament. On Friday we will again see the two ‘Stans’ in separate games, and if they can keep eleven players on the pitch, then I feel they may well prove to have the strengths to qualify from this group.

On the Thursday we took a day off from the football and went to Kandy. The football itself did not take a day off, with another series of games in Group A. It shows the interest in the country that as far as we could see, not only was there no interest in the tournament from Sri Lanka’s second city, hardly anyone knew it was being played. The first news we could get from the event was at the bus terminal in the morning. As there were no English language newspapers available, I asked the vendor to look at the sports pages of one of the Sinhalese editions. This carried a report on Sri Lanka’s match, saying they lost 2-1 to Tajikistan. As it turned out, they had actually lost 3-1. Meanwhile Myanmar beat Bangladesh in the evening game, but this did not make the papers. To get to Kandy, we took the train, travelling on the so called “First class observation car”. This has more comfortable seats that second class, a fan that works some of the times, natural air-conditioning (or as we normally call it, an open window). Finally the rear windows are fully glassed, allowing us to observe where we had come from. As promised, there is a short section of the line where the train travels high above a valley, giving spectacular views, but much more of the journey was passing through built up areas. So what we got was a good view of the tin shacks that many Sri Lankans call home. Meanwhile, using the railway lines as a footpath we saw schoolchildren in pristine white uniforms. Amazingly, these children were disgorged from the untidy hovels we see.

Kandy is a good place to spend a day or so away from the capital. It has a bustling centre, and as in Colombo it is difficult for someone with white skin to walk far before they get accosted by a local trying to sell them some type of goods or service. With hardly any of these being things that tourists might want, it gets wearing very quickly. Of course, anyone wanted to import coconuts carved into elephants may find a supplier here. A quick tourist can come up and down and see the main sight in a day – the observation car train arrives around 09.30 and leaves for the return trip at 15.00. This is enough time to wander through the town, see the views from the lake, explore the Temple of the Buddha’s Tooth, and have lunch in the old and not quite majestic Queen’s Hotel. There are plenty of other sites in Kandy, but my list completes those that you would go to Kandy to see, as opposed to seeing because you are in Kandy. We did choose to spend the night, staying at the Palm Garden Guest House, a moderately priced establishment that is the wrong way from the station that is further away than readers of the “Lonely Planet” guide book may expect. It was exactly a “Lonely Planet” sort of guesthouse – family run with extremely friendly and helpful staff, fans and mosquito nets, but no air conditioning, and slightly curious rooms. In my bathroom, it was a squeeze to get past the lavatory to the shower, and to be seated straight on the facility, one would need to be a midget with at least leg amputated. As I found out later, mosquito nets work both ways – if a mosquito is inside, there is no way out.

The Temple of Buddha’s tooth from a viewpoint. The Tooth itself is in the pavilion with the gold roof.

A Giant Buddha looks down on the city

Inside the Temple of Buddha’s Tooth. Note, that you do not get to see the actual tooth.

As well as being well known for Cricket, Kandy has a quite passable football ground. Apparently also used for Athletics although the track is grassed. The outside is cunningly disguised as a bus depot, but I was not fooled. A second problem, on reaching the gate was a guard whose sole purpose appeared to be to stop tourists from taking photographs. He must have thought it was his busy day as after six months without a tourist to stop, both Kevin and I tried separately to gain access. Success had gone to the guard’s head though and he allowed me to take a picture, although moving more than ten yards from the gate was prohibited.

Despite the curved stands, the grounds are too small for cricket. I left, disappointed that I had not seen a game at these stylish grounds. We returned to Colombo by bus. Not the best idea, as being crammed into a stuffy can like so many sardines is not my idea of fun. It was an air conditioned bus, but this just means the windows don’t open. The driver had to be persuaded to turn the air con on, and even then it did little to cool the back of the bus. There was not much scenery en route, with towns every two to three kilometres down the road, and every town home to it’s own set of traffic lights and attached traffic jams.

Arriving in Sri Lanka

Wednesday, February 17th, 2010

Whoever said it is better to travel in hope than to arrive probably lived before the jet age, and is referring to a leisurely journey by train or boat. Sri Lankan Airlines is a different experience. After a half hours delay at Heathrow, you are crammed into the tube that makes up their Airbus A340 like so much toothpaste. On board you can a demonstration of true service. No matter how many times you press the call button, it is almost impossible to attract the stewardess’s attention, and once attention has been obtained, you find that the stewardess has an attention span no longer than the average goldfish, and your request, however reasonable is either ignored or transformed. The headphones for the movie don’t work, so you ask and ten minutes later, the stewardess brings you a drink. At the end of the meal, you retain your cup and ask for more coffee. Fifteen minutes later, with no response, despite pushing the call button frequently, you push your way out of the seat and go to the steward’s corner. Despite the fact you are carrying the cup, you are told no coffee, because they not have any cups. The fact I had presented one was grudgingly conceded, and I got my coffee.

My travelling companions for the trip were Paul and Kevin. We arrived in Sri Lanka around 3 a.m. – inside the airport is almost indistinguishable from anywhere else in the world, whereas once you have cleared customs and immigration, it takes on a more Asian feel. At least here we were allowed to work out where we were going before we had to suffer the general crush of touts. Exchange rates in the airport are about 4% down on the town, worth knowing if you pass this way. A taxi booking desk arranged a car to town at a fixed price. Once the vehicle (it was not in any way labelled as a taxi) got started it hared off towards town. The journey is about 30km, mainly through built up areas, but we couldn’t get much bearing on the scenery as we passed. It was dark, we were travelling at full pelt, so only neon lights on the route stood out, these appeared to be mainly small eateries or hotels. We stayed at the Grand Oriental Hotel, and they checked us in without any comment about the early hour. I hate hotels that insist check in time is 12 noon or later, especially when I arrive at 4 in the morning. The Grand Oriental must have been a key point of the old British Colonial rule, opposite the docks, one imagines the well-to-do coming off their boats from England and immediately transferring here. However, nigh on two centuries have passed since its opening, and little has been done in the way of maintenance, so the Grandeur has become somewhat faded. Inside, one finds many small faults, such as noisy and ineffective air conditioning, or a shower that tends towards an uncontrollable scalding hot. As with the national airline, the staff appear to have a limited attention span, so asking for something, (such as a fresh battery for TV remote control, or a fresh jug of water) is not guaranteed to bring results first time.

Grand Oriental Hotel

Changing from a cold winter in England to the high humidity and 30 degree temperatures in Colombo hits one quickly. One only has to step outside the hotel’s air conditioned ambience to start sweating. Colombo does not get too many tourists, and there are easily enough locals trying to persuade us to ‘take a tour’, or visit certain events. When this fails to impress, one is offered a ‘massage’, or if its late in the evening, a visit to a nightclub. Apart from on foot, the only way to travel is with the Tuk-Tuks, three wheel moped was two seats under shade at the back. The way to travel in a moped is to hang on tight – as they are always going to head off too fast for the road conditions. There are not too many sights to Colombo – the basic attraction is a contrast between old colonial buildings and the hustle of local street stalls. The guide books mark off Galle Face Green as a place to see, but all this is, is a lawn next to a wide paved promenade that overlooks the sea. On a Tuesday, the remains of the litter from last weekend’s picnics still comes to the fore, with black plastic sacks, mainly bursting with rubbish placed at unstrategic intervals along its edge. While one imagines the weekend green bustling with the local family picnickers, the area is empty on a Tuesday lunchtime, while along the promenade, the evenly positioned benches are the place for courting couples. Each contains one boy, one girl and holding one umbrella as a sun shade. I think that in the more serious relationships, the boy holds the umbrella!

Wherever you wander, you cannot avoid the army checkpoints. Security is a major issue here, although the Tamils fighting for a separate state in the north have been defeated. During the war, terrorist attacks in the city were not uncommon, and the security still remains. Our hotel is right next to a restricted high security area, and we are not allowed to take pictures from the restaurant that overlooks the harbour. As this is now a major container port, it would appear to be a vital link in the nation’s trade. Even walking down the promenade at Galle Face Green, you have to pass checkpoints, and you are only allowed to take photos pointing southwards, not back towards the security zone and the presidential palace.

AT the bottom end of the green, is the Galle Face Hotel, another colonial relic, but better maintained than the Grand Oriental (and hence able to price itself outside our bargain holiday price range). Still, I can take a pot of tea on their well situated veranda (it cost less than £1), and enjoy the cool air coming off the sea, and then drafted downwards by a fan above me. Here Crows chatter between the colonnades of the upper balcony, while a small squirrel runs between the tables eager to pick up scraps left by the visitors.

Galle Face Hotel

Tuesday afternoon sees us at the Sugathadasa Stadium for the first time. This is the National Stadium and holds somewhere around 20-25,000. It is a multi-purpose stadium used primarily for Athletics, but also for Rugby and Football. Most of the ground has an even low slung roof over about ten steps of concrete. The concrete is painted but no wooden or plastic seats are provided, except in the sections closest to the main stand. With a fence and a running track before the pitch, and supporting pillars for the roof, there are no really good views to be had from the low stands. The main stand, which cover around three quarters of a side, is a two tier effort. From the lower portion, you can feel crammed in under a low roof, which is supported by view restricting pillars. Making my way upstairs, I find the rest of my party already in the best viewing positions. There is a forward section of about 10 rows, which enjoys the only uninterrupted views of the pitch. This was the only area that got crowded, even when the hosts were playing. The section is also at a good height for viewing across a track, while you are still close enough to read the players’ numbers. Above us, there are many more rows, but again the roof supports block parts of the view.

The first day’s football, a double header saw Tajikistan play Bangladesh, followed by Sri Lanka against Myanmar. We had a rainstorm just before the first match, which continued while they were playing. This made the pitch a little slippery, but did not excuse much of the play. The first half of the opening game was pitiful. There was a lack of basic skills on show as few players could either pass or trap the ball. There were a few shots and headers off target, and just one shot on target – and this had no more power than a broken down tuk-tuk. Tajikistan had come to this tournament from a country still in the grips of winter, but via a week of training in Doha, where the temperatures were not up to Sri Lankan standard (under 25° in Doha, but over 30 in Colombo, plus a much higher humidity). Their league season is on a winter break, and the team were at best rusty. With recent tournaments for the South Asian Football Federation and South Asian Games (U-23) involving many of the squad, Bangladesh came into the tournament better prepared, and this showed even in the sad show that was the first half. They were creating better chances to miss than their opponents. Although the Tajiks tried to get into the game early in the second half, the pattern soon returned, except now the chances appeared a little better. The finest piece of football of the game, halfway through the period ended with full back Nasir, overlapping down the right, cutting a ball in from the by-line to his Mohammedan Dhaka team-mate Enamul to score. Two more goals followed in quick order, although both goalkeepers may reflect that they could have done better with the chance. Rabiev levelled the scores just two minutes after his team went behind, but then Meshu got Bangladesh’s second with fifteen minutes to go. Tajik defender Choriev then got himself sent off and his team could not come close to levelling with a man short. Indeed, as they pushed forward, Bangladesh were increasingly dangerous on the break, and Enamul really should have scored again when in a one-on-one with the goalkeeper at the end.

The second game saw the hosts take on Myanmar. Sri Lanka, like Bangladesh had been playing in the South Asian competitions, while Myanmar did not appear to have had much recent football. The home side came out eager to please, but with no immediate success. They could not keep this up, and were soon being pushed back into their own area. Playing in a 4-1-4-1 formation, the midfield was slow in moving up in support of the striker, but at least to start, the defence held its line. This story changed in the 18th minute when Rahmeen was adjudged to have lunged in at a Myanmar defender and received a red card. I did not have a good view of the incident, while Paul thought both players went in together and the foul could well have been given the other way. The home manager said something similar in an interview afterwards, and blamed this loss of one of his most experienced players for what happened next. What happened next was that Myanmar took control of the match, slowly at first taking the midfield with their 4-2-3-1 formation – Tun Tin Win and wide player Kyaw Thiha enjoying the freedom that the extra player gave them. Myanmar eventually took the lead on the 40th minute, with a long shot from Thiha. In the second half, Myanmar were completely dominant, but it still took until the 78th minute before they scored their second goal, Yan Oaing getting on the end of Khun Maung Tun’s cross. Pai Soe, coming on as substitute for Kyaw Thiha added another from close range in the 81st minute and Myo Min Tun added the final goal with a free kick from 25 yards, going in off the near post with two minutes to go.

Matches come thick and fast in these tournaments, the group series means every team has three games to play in just five days – which really does not provide enough recovery time. Squad management is therefore of vital importance in the second and third games. The first day was hot and very humid, especially for the second game after the rain that had affected the first. The second game listed a crowd of 3000 which may well be about correct, while the 1000 recorded for the opening game appeared to be stretching the figures. On day 3, the two winners will meet in one match, the two losers in the other. I will not be viewing and it is difficult to guess the result of the ‘winners’ game. For Sri Lanka, it is equally difficult to imagine them improving much, even with a full eleven on the field. A second defeat would mean elimination for the home team, seriously affecting the rest of the attendances.

Setting the Scene

Friday, February 12th, 2010

It can be said that once you have a National Football Association, the most logical thing to do is to arrange a match against your nearest neighbours (and show them that you are better at the game). The Continental Federations, meanwhile have very little better to do than organise international competitions. Hence the Copa America, the oldest continental tournament dates back to 1916, the same date as the formation of the South American federation, (Conmebol). UEFA was formed in 1954, with the European Cup starting the following year and the first European Championships in 1960. The North and Central American CONCACAF were founded in 1961, with its first championship two years later – and this was the merger of two other smaller confederations each with their own championship. The Asian Cup, starting in 1956 and the Cup of African Nations a year later were both started hot on the heels of the formation of the Continental federation. Only in Oceania, a disparate confederation whose main purpose is to take on those islands not in any other grouping did a competition not start immediately. The Oceania Football Confederation was started in 1966, but only two championships were played before a regular formula was commenced in 1996. Australia have either won, or finished second to New Zealand in every competition they competed in, but have now jumped ship and become part of Asia. To some extent it is only the force of world football that has forced Oceania into having competitions, with the last two continental championships also being the World Cup qualification matches, and providing a team for the Confederations Cup a year earlier. In a similar style, the Oceania Champions League is now played annually to provide a team for the World Club Championships. It is worth noting that every continent except South America now calls its club championship the “Champions League”, and none are limited in entry to Champions only. The Copa Libertadores retains its historical name and introduced group stages back in 1962 and allowed teams, other than Champions from 1966.

Back to Asia, where the AFC has been running since the mid-fifties, and the first Asian Cup started in 1956. The first tournament should have had ten teams, with four playing the finals in Hong Kong. As it was, Israel was given a free ride to the finals, as both Afghanistan and Pakistan withdrew. South Korea qualified at the expense of Taiwan and the Philippines, and South Vietnam at the expense of Malaysia and Cambodia. The overall title was won by South Korea in a single round robbing group. Over the years, the numbers grew, and the politics became a little easier after the movement of Israel to UEFA. By 1996, there were 37 countries competing, 44 in 2000, 43 in 2004, but only 29 for 2007 and 24 for 2011.

Why the sudden discrepancy? Asia has not lost teams (Kazakhstan have switched to Europe, but for 2007, Australia came in from Oceania). The answer is the Asian Challenge Cup. Up until the 2004 Asian Cup, qualifying tournaments were held in single venues over a short period of time, but some of the bigger countries wanted more competitive home fixtures. (Asia’s World Cup qualification used to also be single venue, so a country not chosen to host matches only had friendly home games). The smaller countries baulked at the idea of travelling across the continent to get heavily beaten – in some cases they just would not have been able to afford to compete. To fill the void, and provide competitive football for those clubs not involved in the Asian Cup, the Challenge Cup was started in 2006. The first Challenge Cup was for 16 teams, with no qualification competition and just the finals in Bangladesh. It was the first Continental Championship, Second Division.

The AFC divided their 45 countries (pre-Australia) into three groups. The top 14 were those who might expect to reach most Asian Cup final series, and could even put in a good run in the World Cup (some of the weaker teams in the list must have been questionable). These were Bahrain, China, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Japan, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Thailand, UAE, Uzbekistan and Vietnam. The second group, also 14 countries were called developing associations – the theory that they could grow to join the developed associations in the first group, but in the meantime they would settle for being knocked out of Asian and World Cups in group games. These were Bangladesh, Hong Kong, India, Jordan, Lebanon, Malaysia, Maldives, Myanmar, North Korea, Oman, Singapore, Syria, Turkmenistan and Yemen.

The final 17 were called emerging nations, in some cases more in hope than expectation. They were Afghanistan, Bhutan, Brunei, Cambodia, Taiwan, East Timor, Guam, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Macau, Mongolia, Nepal, Pakistan, Palestine, Philippines, Sri Lanka and Tajikistan. You may think this is simple, the first two groups, plus new boys Australia make up the 29 entrants into the Asian Cup, while the final 17 lose one somehow to become the Challenge Cup entrants. Asia is never as simple as that. It would appear that the emerging group had the option to enter both, an option taken up by Pakistan, Palestine, Sri Lanka and Taiwan, although Sri Lanka from the Asian Cup without playing – the Maldives, Myanmar and North Korea not entering the Asian Cup. Meanwhile Mongolia, Laos and East Timor did not enter the Challenge Cup, so the AFC drafted in India and Bangladesh (the latter as hosts) and increased the number of teams entered for both competitions to five. The competition was won by Tajikistan, who won five of their six matches, losing the last group match to Kyrgyzstan only after they were confirmed as through anyway. They beat Sri Lanka in the final by 4-0.

In order to juice up the 2008 and 2010 Challenge Cups, the AFC decided that the champions of each would gain qualification to the 2011 Asian Cup in Qatar. They also decided that the top three from the 2007 competition did not need to qualify, and the hosts, of course had a free run. This meant that only 10 places were available through qualification. Never one for simplification, the AFC allowed 21 teams into this competition, meaning a single knock out match (the Maldives being beaten twice by the Lebanon), and then placed the remaining 20 into five groups of four.

Before qualification started for the Asian Cup, there was the 2008 Challenge Cup. The AFC had managed to reduce the numbers, so only one Asian Cup team was also entered this time; this being the host nation, India. As well as India, Turkmenistan, North Korea and Myanmar were made top seeds and exempt from qualifying. Holders Tajikistan, beaten finalist Sri Lanka and losing semi-finalists Kyrgyzstan and Nepal from 2006 were all asked to qualify again. Only Kyrgyzstan of this quartet had the advantage of a home qualifying series, (they were all single venue), but curiously they were they only one to lose out, beaten by Afghanistan. Bangladesh came third in this group, while Laos withdrew without playing. Nepal played in Cambodia, where the hosts were second, Macau lost two games, and Palestine withdrew without playing. Sri Lanka finished ahead of Pakistan, hosts Taiwan and Guam. The closest group saw Tajikistan ahead of hosts Philippines on goal difference, with Brunei and Bhutan only getting a point by drawing with each other.

The finals in Hyderabad must have been a great disappointment to the organisers. It should have used Lal Bahadur Shastri stadium as its main venue, but the poor condition of the former international cricket ground meant that most games were switched to Gachibowli Athletics Stadium. The final was then rained off, and switched to New Delhi. This may be seen as a godsend. While no match in Hyderabad was watched by more than 1500 (India’s semi-final) and most by just one or two hundred, the final was seen by around 10,000 spectators. The group matches did at least confirm the AFC seedings, with only holders Tajikistan of the qualified teams reaching the semi-finals. Their neighbours, Turkmenistan missing out. India went through to the final where they beat Tajikistan 4-1. North Korea beat Myanmar 4-0 to take third place

The result meant that India had qualified for the 2011 Asian Cup, some four months before the qualifying campaign was due to start. Naturally they withdrew, leaving one group a team short.

For the 2010 Asian Cup, which was long rumoured to again be held in India, there was originally a possible 23 teams, but Guam, East Timor and Guam chose not to compete. The Maldives (who of course had already failed in qualification for the Asian Cup) and Mongolia came in having missed the 2008 edition. Three teams were given exemption to the finals, India, Tajikistan and North Korea. Not only were these the top three from the last competition, but they were also the top three using FIFA rankings (which decided seeing). The other 17 teams were to be placed into four groups of four, with Maldives, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bangladesh chosen as hosts. This meant the worst two on the rankings; Macau and Mongolia had to fight out a preliminary two-legged tie. The scores were 2-0 to Macau in the first leg (crowd 500) and 3-1 to Mongolia in Ulan Bator (3000). Macau went through on away goals.

The first group to play was in Nepal, in March 2009, with Afghanistan announcing their withdrawal two days before the group started. All three matches ended in draws with Kyrgyzstan taking the honours thanks to the fact they drew both games 1-1, while Nepal and Palestine drew 0-0. There were crowds of 12,000 and 15,000 when Nepal played in Kathmandu, 2000 for the game without the hosts. Nepal was placed second in the group, by virtue of less yellow cards. Sri Lanka staged the second group, winning their first two games, meaning they only needed to draw against Pakistan in the last game. This match finished 2-2, leaving Pakistan in second, Taiwan third and Brunei (three defeats bottom of the table). The best attendance recorded in Colombo was 3000 for Sri Lanka’s final game. The worst was only 200, not a good omen for the finals. A week later, the Maldives group was played, with the home side losing to Turkmenistan 3-1 in the opening game. Turkmenistan went on to score seven against Bhutan and five against the Philippines to take a 100% record. The home side also won their other two games, and recorded official crowds of 9000 for each game. A few hundred only was recorded for games not involving the hosts. The Philippines took third place by virtue of beating Bhutan 1-0. Finally, attention turned to Dhaka, where the attendances were very good. All of Bangladesh games were seen by over 8000 and the deciding game by 14,000. This was the second game, and resulted in the home side losing 2-1 to Myanmar. Both Bangladesh and Myanmar won their first and third games, while Cambodia beat Macau to finish third.

Curiously, this meant that all four groups finished in the order one might expect using the rankings given by FIFA in January 2009, (when the groups were drawn). Finally, there was one place to be given to the best runner up. Due to Afghanistan’s withdrawal, games against the fourth placed team in the groups were discounted. This would prove crucial. Both Bangladesh and the Maldives had beaten the third placed team, but lost to the group winners, while both Pakistan and Nepal had drawn against the group winners, and the third placed team. No fourth placed team had picked up a point. So Bangladesh and the Maldives had three points, against the others with two. Bangladesh had a level goal difference, and this took them through. Had all games counted, the Maldives with a bigger win would have made it.

Sometime after all the matches were completed, the decision to play in Sri Lanka was taken. I think this is fair enough, no stadiums are being built, so six months is surely enough preparation time. Anyway, with one of the stadiums for the finals changing in the week before they were played, it seems that very little pre-planning was really done. The groups for the finals are A), Tajikistan (148), Bangladesh (150), Myanmar (141) and Sri Lanka (151) and B) India (130), Kyrgyzstan (158), Turkmenistan (134) and North Korea (85) – showing the current FIFA rankings in brackets. This however may not be a tournament where the seeding holds sway. Three teams are less than full strength. The Indians admitted so, with nothing for them to win, they are using their under-23 team, rather than the full international side. They did the same in the recent South Asia Football Federation finals, which they won, beating the Maldives on penalties in the final. Sri Lanka was so disappointed with their performance in the same tournament, that they ‘disbanded’ the senior team afterwards. The preliminary squad list I have seen suggests 50-50 between reasonably experienced players and youngsters with hardly a cap, while Panushanth Kulenthiren is staying with his club (Roma) in Europe. The North Korean squad is also bare of the majority of players that competed in their successful World Cup qualifying campaign. It appears that while they bemoan the fact they failed to make the finals of the East Asian tournament (currently underway in Tokyo) as it would have brought them up against China, Japan and South Korea and given them a good preparation of the World Cup, they do not consider this to be a good second choice. I find this surprising as it is their chance to play in next year’s Asian Cup. With their best teams, I would have expected North Korea and India to reach the final, but now I feel the central Asians, particularly Tajikistan and Turkmenistan to be the most likely finalists.

The next post on this Blog will be posted from Sri Lanka

Harimau Muda look to the West

Wednesday, February 3rd, 2010

It is reported in Malaysia that Harimau Muda (translates as Young Tigers) are to enter a side into the Slovakian First Division when it resumes following the winter break. As yet, I can find no equivalent reports from Slovakia to confirm the agreement, and the fixture list still shows fixtures for Sport Podbrezova, who pulled out of the league just five games into the season. Confusingly, the report says they will be based in the city of Vion. I can find no reference to this place, and suspect that they will actually be at Zlate Moravce, whose team in the same league carries the sponsor’s name ViOn.

Harimau Muda is basically the national youth squad of Malaysia, with the players concerned having been removed from club teams and put on central contracts, in much the same way as the English cricket team. At under-19 level, they have been competing in the lower division (perversely called the Malaysian Premier League) of the Malaysian league. At the end of last season, they won this division, but were prevented from taking up promotion to the Malaysian Super League. Instead, they have remained the Premier League, and remained as an under-19 squad. Those players graduating from the young squad on age grounds were not given anywhere to go, as they were still not permitted to rejoin club sides. The team to play in Slovakia are the national U-21 squad.

Having been kept out of their own national league, there then came a suggestion they should join the Singaporean League. It seemed a surprising suggestion, considering the politics of this are. Until 1994, Singapore entered a team in the Malaysian League. Although this team had non-Singaporeans, it was still the basis of their national side as well. The S-League has a history of allowing a number of foreign sides into its competition. Albirex Niigata, with a senior team in Japan’s J-League have been operating in Singapore for several seasons, I guess they believe it is a good training ground for their younger players. There have been a number of Chinese teams in the league, and for the last few years, there has been a Korean team. All the ‘foreign’ teams in the S-League have a base within Singapore, and play a team made up 100% of their own nationals. The rest of the S-League combines Singaporeans with a limited number of foreign nationals. Whereas I have never been certain about the success of say, Albirex Niigata, in terms of transfers back to Japan – it is clear that their existence has increased the number of Japanese players with other Singaporean clubs – most are graduates from the Niigata club.

There was a departure for the S-League last season when DPMM were admitted. DPMM had followed on from a long tradition of Brunei clubs in the Malaysian leagues, but were thrown out in December 2008 (between seasons) when the Brunei FA failed to register properly with a governmental agency. Taking them into the S-League, DPMM were an instant success with good crowds and results. Unlike the other ‘foreign’ teams, they continued to play in Brunei, and used Brunei players with a permitted number of foreigners. However, local politics conflicted with FIFA policy, the government attempting to set up a new organisation to run football in Brunei. FIFA then suspended the country from all international football, and DPMM were forced out of the S-League with just five fixtures to play, and the League Cup in their trophy room. Had Harimau Muda been accepted into the S-League, they would have been a team of Malay nationals only, but it was uncertain whether they would have been based in Singapore, or played home games in Malaysia.

However, despite the fact that they had a vacancy, and the chance to turn the tables on their local and larger rivals, the S-League refused to admit the Malaysian team into their membership. Instead they have given places to a side affiliated to Chinese champions Beijing Guo’an, and to Etoile FC, who are intending to use only French nationals. Incidentally, the Singaporean equivalent to Harimau Muda, the Young Lions, play at Under-21 level in the S-League, so by taking in the Malay team, they would effectively be raising three matches per season to the level of U-21 international.

Not perturbed by this, the FAM turned to Europe, and appear to have come to an agreement where their team will take over Podbrezova’s fixtures from the end of the month. The Malaysian report says these matches will be competitive, but that must be open to questioning? With 14 games to play, it is difficult to believe that points will be awarded, as they will be playing 3 of their 11 opponents twice, but the rest once only. If points are not awarded, then surely these games are no more than friendlies, and the Slovakian sides will have no incentive to put out their strongest XI.

Is this the way forward for small nations, anxious for the players to get experience? Could we see a number of National, or National Under-21 sides playing in European leagues? It certainly could help their players to gain experience in a more competitive arena (at least, if the games are made to be competitive), and it puts these players closer to the market place, increasing their chances of being picked up by European clubs generally.

On the other hand, keeping a squad of 26 players and their coaches away from home for four months or more must be testing the FAM’s finances. In the meantime, their home league is in disarray, two top division clubs pulled out at the end of last season, and this season they will have only one representative in Asian club competitions, the other citing costs as their reason for not competing. The clubs also complain that the rule banning foreign players in Malaysia reduces their competitiveness in these competitions.

The senior national team fares no better, with heavy defeats in the 2007 Asian Cup followed by straight defeats in all their games in the quest to reach the 2011 finals, while the World Cup campaign was over almost before it began. The loss of a group of players who should be among the best in the league is not exactly doing anything to improve the situation.

Last seasons under-19 squad, having won the lower division of the Malaysian League, then narrowly failed to make it to the finals of the Asian Under 19 competition. This may be an acceptable return for keeping the squad together, but one wonders what will be required to justify running a squad abroad – the next challenges for Malaysia are Olympic qualifying for London 2012 (an u-23 squad then, so basically using the current u-21 team) and the 2014 World Cup – Asian qualification is going to start incredibly early, but I think Malay pride would settle for an improved performance in the more local ASEAN Cup at the end of the year.

Post script – since writing this, I have been alerted to a Slovakian news story. What this shows is that while the idea is being given serious consideration in Slovakia (as a series of friendlies, not for league points), the decision will not be made until a meeting of the clubs on 15 February.