North Korea open up!

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