Well here I am on the coach back to Cha Am at 10.20 Tuesday morning after a breathless and exhilarating trip to the Blade Runner set that is modern Bangkok and boy oh boy what a treat my first visit to Port F.C. turned out to be.
This folks is REAL footy. None of yer prawn sandwich brigade welcome here, just people gathered together to watch THEIR TEAM win, lose or draw.
PORT F.C. are the Port Authority of Thailand team and are based on the edge of the notorious area called Klongtoey. To compare them to Millwall may be unfortunate but is possibly/perhaps a good comparison. A one time powerhouse in the early days of pro-football in Thailand they’re currently celebrating their 50th anniversary and on the rise again as they’ve just been promoted back to the top tier along with their opponents Ubon UMT who boast an English Thai League winning coach (with powerhouses Buriram Utd) and several ‘big name’ signings that have seen them start the season well and currently sit in 4th position. Port have won 3 of their 5 home games but have lost both away games currently sit in 8th.
Arriving at the ground fashionably early I’m greeted with a typical Thai scene as the open training ground immediately outside the small stadium is lined with food and drinks stalls. Kids of all ages, persuasions and nationalities play kick about on the training pitch. Many of them sport Port shirts including a young English girl in a yellow Port jersey attempting to kick anything that moves. Except the ball of course.
Farangs (foreigners) are everywhere and the majority of them are wearing Port shirts. My host Tom Earls grabs the first of several beers and leads us to the infamous ‘sandpit’, name of the highly recommended excellent English language website and meeting place for many of its members. It’s actually a concrete petanque/boules/bocce set up which seems incongruous but TIT (this is Thailand) so it is what it is and nothing too out of the ordinary. The general pre-game consensus seems to be the Port are in tough, a point will be good, a win a bonus.
The atmosphere is happy and relaxed eye contact is greeted with a smile and in what seems like the blink of an eye we’re filing in to the metal stands behind one of the goals and standing to attention for the national anthem. A small compact ground with what looks a decent playing surface (but as is the fashion these days turns out to be over-watered ) is filling up late due in no small part to the strange day and time of the kick-off which is due to the recent 3 week international break! Yeah, I know.
The small but vocal crowd is provided a constant back beat by drummers on 3 sides of the ground and as I look at the teams it’s clear Ubon are roughly twice the size of Port. I’m hoping this means they’re slow and ponderous, we’re quick and clever.
Neither turns out to be particularly true.
A first half short on incident but high on atmosphere has just enough going on to make it interesting. Both sides have a couple of half chances and Ubon look the better organized of the two teams. Port seem to have no discernible game plan or team shape and often look like a group of individuals recently thrown together and told to go out and see what happens. Challenging for or anticipating the second ball appears to be a foreign concept and promising moves often fizzle out for a variety of reasons including, skillful but lazy Thai playmakers and wingers who are not keen on either getting to the byline or crossing the ball. Josimar – a stocky Brazilian centre-forward – is decent in the air but no-one’s playing off him and his movement in the box is non-existent.
Ubon on the other hand seem to know each other and are keen to get the ball to their right winger Siroch. Strangely tall for a Thai he’s apparently a star in the making and provides the two real moments of danger, first with a run and dangerous cross and then with a run and cut back inside that floors his full back and leaves him with only the keeper to beat. The keeper is out quickly and makes a good save. So it’s 0-0 at the half and all to play for.
Whatever the much maligned Port coach has said at half-time it’s done the trick. For the first 15 minutes of the second half Port use pace and width to stretch the previously comfortable Ubon defence to breaking point. Josimar’s winning everything in the air, balls are being played wide to wingers moving at speed and Ubon don’t look anywhere like as comfortable as they did in the first 45.
With 15 minutes gone the ball is swept wide right and the Port winger hits a lovely low cross into the 6 yard box, the onrushing Genki can’t meet it with his head but the Ubon keeper is distracted and rooted to his line. The ball fizzes towards the back post where Josimar does well at full stretch to control the late rising ball and deflect the ball into the net. Mayhem ensues. The drummers of Burundi are on the march, the metal stands are squeaking and Port take a deserved lead.
By now the ground is full, the floodlights are on and the atmosphere generated by the small crowd is approximately three times the size of its collective number. My female Italian Juventus fan is jumping up and down with a grin the width of the Grand Canyon plastered across her face as she claps in time with the drums and joins in with the screams of the frenzied home support who sense blood.
“TA RUA – TA RUA – TA RUA”
The place is mental. The Port manager makes a strange substitution, Ubon make two. One goliath replacing another and immediately they set about Port with a vengeance. Port seem content to soak up the pressure and hit Ubon on the break a tactic that may well have paid dividends if it hadn’t been for a referee inept enough to be doing it in the Premier League. A couple of astonishing decisions raise the temper of the fans and the Port players and deny Port a clear opportunity to increase their lead when Josimar is penalised for what looks like an excellent challenge that sees him dispossess a defender inside the box leaving him with only the keeper to beat. The referee blows his whistle. The striker’s apopletic and the crowd goes ballistic. I’m gobsmacked and later am reminded by Tom that corrupt referees are a real issue in the Thai game. i bow to his superior knowledge because as regular readers will know I’m not one for footy conspiracy theories.
Ubon huff and puff, Port throw their bodies around like their lives depend on it. 5 minutes of added time are added to by some handbags in the Ubon end that attracts most of the players on the pitch but is sorted out by Ubon’s Brasilian defensive goliath Victor who basically picks up several of the Thai players puts them across his knee gives them a good spanking and sends them packing back into their own half tails firmly tucked between their tiny legs.
Eventually the referee seems to realize that despite his best efforts he’s not going to be able to help Ubon score gives up the ghost and blows the final whistle. Exhausted players from both sides collapse in heaps, hysterical fans do likewise. The drums are still pounding, the guys with the megaphones are still cheer-leading but the climax has been reached and eventually the shattered Port players come to greet the almost as shattered fans and take their well deserved applause.
My magical evening is completed when Josimar spots my Fluminense shirt and starts waving at me pounding his chest where his badge is. Like the 18 yr old I still am at heart I tear off my shirt and wave it at him and his fellow Brazilian coach who he’s pointed it out to and the 3 of us are waving, grinning and chest-pounding like a troop of primates in the jungle. (Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time. Now? Not so much)
Which is a fitting description of the night overall.
Marvellous mayhem that exhibited the best that communal spectator sport has to offer. The post-match comedown necessitated more beer, Michela the Juventus fan proudly wearing her newly acquired Port F.C. blue and orange striped team shirt went home immediately; exhausted but exhilarated and soon texted to say that her taxi driver was a Port fan and had refused to let her pay for her ride home!
TIT people, TIT. (This is Thailand)
Where the 70’s are alive and well small gestures are made that take your breath away on a regular basis and you can go and join thousands of other people for an evening of footy that’ll cost you 2.50 pounds or 3 and a bit Canadian dollars to watch. Plus you can eat street food that tastes as good and costs as little as it does on the street, no tinned burgers and watery boiled onions that require a mortgage to buy on offer here. And nary a hint of aggression to trouble your mind or sour your evening. What a strange concept! And wonderful experience.
So, a deserved slender victory for the good guys and an experience I need to repeat as soon as I possibly can. I’ve been to Upton Park, Wembley, the Maracana and the Calgary Saddledome when ALL have been rocking and this, fellow footy lovers was up there with them all (nearly, I just felt the urge for a bit of MSM over-hype there. You know the JJ, PN school of brilliant).