As my motorcycle taxi pulls in to the warehouse compound, I look back over my shoulder at PAT Stadium. It strikes me for a second how peculiar it is experiencing the tingling feeling of anticipation that only game-day brings practically a stones-throw away from a deserted PAT Stadium. As he parks, the noise from the action inside filters out. A distinctly recognizable but strangely muffled smorgasbord of drums and cheering accompany a screeching tropical bird. How did that get in there?
I peer through the open but inaccessible door at the back of some bleachers, and a security guard points me round the corner. As I approach another door the sound crescendos, and as I pass it falls again to a muted rumble. More doors, more bleachers, more security guards.
I eventually make it around to the front where a few fellow latecomers are still filtering in. I say late, but really its five past two in the afternoon, and it bloody feels like it. After paying my 100 baht and getting the usual ticket and stamp I walk inside and the hot-box effect doesn’t waste any time. As boiling as it was outside, it’s somehow even more intense inside. Out of the grill into the oven.
It takes me a moment to process the large open space that I’m walking in to, and then it clicks. I’ve just walked past where the big screen was the only time I’d been here before. On that occasion the Port faithful were banned from PAT Stadium, and some resourceful fans decided to put up a big screen and some industrial speakers in the open part of the warehouse. A few hundred fans turned up that evening to witness Port secure a crucial win against promotion rivals Ubon. As I walk through the now empty space I vividly recall the deafening rave-style music, flashing lights and wild celebrations that followed each of Port’s three goals. Good times!
Just as I make my way around the bleachers and the playing surface comes in to view, the tropical bird seems to be having a fit. Rapid-fire squeaks punctuate the vociferous cheers of the crowd, and two players tumble in to a heap about five feet away from me on the nearest corner of the court. Ahhh. It’s the shoes that squeak! As the players pick themselves up, the area where they fell is quickly mopped up, and play continues.
I find a gap in the bleachers and clamber up to a free space near the top. I’m behind the goal that Port are defending in the first half and there’s a small group of ultras down at the bottom of the stand. Let’s call it Zone B. To my left near the halfway line I see another slightly larger group of very vocal Port fans with the conspicuous figure of Spiderming hanging over the railings. That must be Zone C. Half of the opposite end is for the dozen or so Bangkok City away fans, and the area next to theirs is nearly empty. Zone D. To my right there are no bleachers, only benches for the players, and a VIP stage for some suited dignitaries. Prawn sandwiches on the house in Zone A, I reckon.
Just as I smile to myself at the symmetry of the place, I realize why there was an open space where I was. There are a few fans (the other kind of fans, I mean) down at the bottom of the stand, and whilst they do their best to move the dead air around, I’m too far away from them. Relocation is a must. Then a roar recaptures my attention. Port are on the break, and within what can only have been a couple of seconds a square ball in to the middle finds a Port teammate, and the ball is smashed in to the back of the net. Noppadol (13) erupts in to celebration, and the warehouse follows his lead. He punches the air, then runs towards Zone B where he hugs a woman through the netting. “I scored, mum! Did you see?” After the excitement of my first live futsal goal dies down, I make my way down to search for cooler climes.
As I make my way along Zone B I see some familiar faces. Jim and John have also positioned themselves in the upper reaches, and as I scan the lower sections of the bleachers I realize that the wily regulars have completely colonized the fan-cooled areas. It’s going to be heat or nothing for me. At least I will be suffering in solidarity.
As I take a seat between my fellow football fans, they are eager to get me caught up. John tells me that Port are 4th out of 14 in the Thai Futsal League, but they finished 2nd last season. Today’s opponents – Bangkok City – are 7th. Jim points out two small towers adorned with illuminated numbers from 1 to 6. Port are on 3, with Bangkok City on 1. Noting my confused look, Jim tells me that this is the foul count. Similar to basketball, when the team has accumulated a certain number of fouls, they are penalized. In the case of futsal, once the sixth foul has been committed the offending team can no longer use a defensive wall for free-kicks, and all free-kicks for the opposition are direct. Those further than 12 meters out can be taken from the second penalty spot and those closer can either be taken from the place of the infringement, or from that second penalty spot. Pretending to understand, I keep watching and quietly hope there will be enough fouls for me to see this rule in action!
Substitutions from both sides are flowing thick and fast, not even waiting for play to stop. The outgoing player grabs an orange bib from the incoming player then sits down on the bench. Quick and easy, fast and furious. After Bangkok City bring the score level at 1-1, it becomes clear that Port have a plan. The best 5 players are generally played together for a few minutes of high-intensity attacking action, and when they get tired, the best of the rest are given a run-out to try and keep the scores level and maybe nick a goal on the break. Port’s first 5 consist of goalkeeper Prakit (2), defender and national team star Lertchai (6), flair Brazilian and Leandro doppelganger Marcos (10) and Watchara (3) in midfield with goalscorer and mummy’s boy Noppadol (13) up front. Positionally it’s seriously fluid stuff though, and these guys are all fantastic technical players capable of playing all positions when necessary.
My favourite moment of the first half features the quickest and most bizarre substitution I’ve ever seen. Brazilian trickster Marcos plays the ball square to Lertchai, then immediately – with the ball still in play – turns to the bench and subs himself off. Lertchai puts his foot on the ball, and the opposition stand statuesque. Marcos kneels down and hurriedly ties a shoelace, while the player he has subbed himself off for loiters just inside the court. With time standing still, Marcos finishes tying and subs himself back, immediately receiving the ball back from Lertchai and starting an attack.
What just happened?!
With the first twenty minute half coming to a close, Port are precariously perched on 5 fouls with shouts from the crowd of Jai Yen aimed at powerhouse defender Lertchai, who has been fouling his way through the match in what can only be described as a Siwakornesque fashion. Nevertheless, Port push on with their first 5 determined to make a late impact. Their fresh legs find the breakthrough just a minute before half time when Noppadol pings an inch-perfect shot off the post and in from range. Pick that out! Not content with putting Port back in the lead, Noppadol once again goes above and beyond with his celebrations. In a moment reminiscent of former Newcastle madman Temuri Ketsbaia, Noppadol puts his boot in to the advertising hoardings a couple of times. Pick that out!
As the half time whistle blows, I start to pick myself up and head for the exit. It doesn’t take me long to realize that I’m absolutely dripping with sweat. Getting outside, I revel in the cooler air. You don’t say that every day in Thailand! I notice the posters that adorn the front wall of the warehouse, which display the larger-than-life Port players in their futsal kits, as well as a smaller poster of each logo in the 14-team Thai Futsal League. Scarves are for sale at the ticket counter for 300 baht a pop, but replica shirts are nowhere to be seen.
A bottle of water gets drained in record time just before I head in for the second half, and the action, comedy and breathtaking skill continue at break-neck pace. Twice in quick succession the referee makes a decision, before overturning it at the request of one of the players. He overturned one for each team though, and as rule one of the Thai refereeing handbook clearly states: ‘Two wrongs do make a right.’
Five minutes into the second half, two quick-fire goals bring the game to life. City equalize with a well-worked corner routine, then the ref gives a free-kick to Port right on the edge of the box. Marcos and Lertchai stand over it menacingly. The wall are on their toes, ready to charge as soon as the ball is touched, while Noppadol stands to the side of the goal. What’s he doing there? Lertchai puts his foot on the ball, but doesn’t release, teasing the defenders by rolling it back and forth. The wall look confused, not knowing whether to stay or go. When he does eventually roll the ball to Marcos, they’re all over the shop. Marcos fires the ball in towards the far post where Noppadol hugs the far post as if it’s his mum. The ball bounces of his legs and in to the goal. So that’s what he was doing there. Genius!
The City players don’t agree. Their two foreign players Jackson (5) and Tota (88) are livid, and make sure the officials know as such. This time the ref stands firm, though. The goal stands. Tota gets substituted, and proceeds to tell everyone who will listen on his bench that you’re definitely not allowed to do that ball-rolling trick from a dead ball. As a futsal novice I have no idea, but who cares? Port are 3-2 to the good, and the clock is ticking down!
Even though the clock stops when the ball goes out of play, there still seem to be histrionics on the part of the Port players. Maybe they’re trying to slow the game down to stay fresh? The closer the clock gets to full time, the slower time passes. A minute on the clock seems to take five minutes to play. Time outs are called, and after Bangkok City use theirs, they resort to some radical tactics. Their sub keeper is less of a keeper, more of an outfield player wearing a keeper’s shirt. When City have the ball he joins the attack, making it five outfield players on four, and when they lose the ball he pegs it over to the sideline to be subbed off for the real keeper. Surely something has to give?
Or not, as it turns out. Port fail to find their way to the empty net, and City fail to make the extra attacker count. Final Score: Port Futsal Club 3-2 Bangkok City Futsal Club. Phew!
My afternoon out at the futsal is complete when I make my way over to Zone C to get a closer look at the team who, as we’re used to seeing at the football, line up to be applauded by the fans. With the closer proximity of the fans to the court, the players all come right in for high-fives and hand-shakes. I have a little fan-girl moment with Marcos where I tell him he’s bloody brilliant.
When I reconnect with Jim and John, I’m told in no uncertain terms that the experience rates as a 7.5 out of 10. Points are gained for the atmosphere, the non-stop action, the skill-level and most of all Noppadol’s celebrations, but the sweat factor takes its’ toll, and the refereeing is a whole different species of bad. Will I be back? Without a doubt! Whilst I can’t see myself making a routine of it, when the stars align and one game leads conveniently to the other, I will definitely brave the hotbox again to cheer on Port’s high-flying futsal stars. It’s a back-to-basics Thai sporting experience not to be missed!