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Highway Robbery Foiled: Port Futsal Club 5-3 Department of Highways FC

 

It’s mid-December 2017. Chonburi Bluewave have won seven league titles in a row, and hold a slim advantage over second placed Port Futsal Club with just two games of a closely fought season remaining. Despite Port’s point deficit, the final day clash against their biggest rivals means that two victories in their final two games will see them become champions for the first time since 2007. Port’s next opponents sit third in the league, and their visit to Kodang Stadium promises to be a severe test for the title pretenders.

On that day in 2017 Port shot out to a lead against Bangkok BTS, before their dogged opponents clawed the tie back in to the balance, snatching a late goal to level the scores with just seconds remaining on the clock. In the dying moments, Port were to be denied a stone-wall penalty resulting from an accumulation of six fouls. This injustice understandably sent the home crowd in to a frenzy in which advertising hoardings were pushed over, coins were thrown and the referee escaped round the back of the stadium before being evacuated to widespread boos and verbal abuse from the home faithful. It rendered Port unable to close the gap on the final day, and to add insult to injury the final home game was moved to a neutral venue.

Fast-forward just a few days shy of a year…

It’s mid-December 2018. Chonburi Bluewave have won eight league titles in a row, and hold a slim advantage over second placed Port Futsal Club with just two games of a closely fought season remaining. Despite Port’s point deficit, a game in hand means that two victories in their final two games will see them become champions for the first time since 2007. Port’s next opponents sit fourth in the league, and their visit to Kodang Stadium promises to be a severe test for the title pretenders.

Department of Highways Futsal Club are the opposition – a well-drilled side who bring a healthy number of fans to Kodang Stadium. It’s a sell-out, the first I’ve seen in Port’s hot-box warehouse, with people perched on the edge of the terraced stands behind the goals, and those without anywhere to sit hunched over the advertising hoardings. The atmosphere is hopeful. And loud. Very, very loud. There are drums both in ‘Zone B’ where I sit, just a few meters down from the black-clad ultras, and in ‘Zone C’, where Spiderming holds court, and a bullhorn of course, with the usual suspects.

Port’s fans can’t inspire their team to the kind of fast start they were hoping for, though. The Highways take the lead, despite the ball appearing to go out of play in the build-up, as two Port defenders can’t make their mind up who to mark, leaving space for an attacker to slot the ball in to Kanison Phoopan’s (18) bottom corner.

With Port backs well and truly against the wall a swift response was needed, and boy did they provide it. Brazilian Marcos de Mendonca (10) provided the near instant response, with a ball from the right finding its’ way in to the back of the net off his midriff. Compatriot Rian Gomes (20) soon got in on the act, with his incredible laser-like strike from distance flying past the ‘keeper, slamming in to the net via the stanchion and sending the Port crowd in to ecstasy. Gomes wasn’t finished yet, though, although the credit for his second and Port’s third belongs squarely with veteran Lertchai Issarasuwipakorn (6). His change of direction on the left sat the goalkeeper on his arse, before his deft backheel sent the ball across the goal line where Gomes was on hand to turn it in from just centimetres out.

 

 

The Highways were not to go down without a fight though, and they obviously thought that the situation – even mid-way through the first half – was desperate enough to warrant a radical change of tactics. Now, any regular viewer of futsal is familiar with rush-goalie tactics, when an outfield player takes the field in a goalkeeper’s shirt to add an extra attacker, while obviously putting themselves at great risk of being caught out on the break. It’s not unusual to see this tactic deployed by a team facing a deficit in the final few minutes of a match, but neither I nor my fellow fans have ever seen this used in the first half. These guys really wanted it.

As it turned out, they displayed some of the most effective use of the 5 man attack that I’ve seen, led expertly by captain and former Chonburi and Thailand midfielder Kiatiyot Chalarmkhet (32). Keeping possession while probing for an opening, The Highways tested Port’s defence until just before half time when they finally made the breakthrough, although once again the ball seemed to have been dragged out of play by the attacker, before it was eventually turned in by a sliding Highwayman.

 

 

A Port goal was also ruled out, causing some serious flaring of tempers from both benches. Several rough challenges punctuated the final minutes of the half, with Port perhaps fortunate that the referees missed a flying elbow from one of their players.

Come the second half, come that same sinking feeling that those who witnessed the second half collapse against Bangkok BTS last year wish they could forget. The Highways continued with their 5 man attack, and with less than 7 minutes left on the clock they finally drew a mistake from the Port defence. Normally reliable Port and Thailand defender Chaivat Jamgrajang (7) was a little unlucky with a low ball across the box, failing to sort out his feet and turning the ball in to his own net to level the scores at 3-3.

Incredibly, The Highways still continued playing the 5 man attack, but it was to be no match for a reinvigorated Port being roared on by an increasingly anxious and belligerent Kodang Stadium. It was more fine work from Marcos that created an opening which Thananchai Chomboon (17) couldn’t fail to take advantage of from close range, but much more impressive than his goal was the celebration which followed. The best way I can describe his reaction is to liken it to Khabib Nurmagomedov’s assault on Conor McGregor’s team after their MMA fight earlier this year. Thananchai leapt feet first in to the netting separating the fans and the court, somehow finding, losing then regaining his balance on top of the flimsy barriers while wildly cheering fans grabbed hold of the hero of the hour. I’m not going to lie. I was one of them. What a moment! Witnessing the passion showed by so many of the Port faithful being reflected by the players is always great to see, and it was clear from that moment that Port were not going to let their opportunity be taken away from them a second time.

 

 

There was still time for Gomes to get his hattrick, turning in a fizzing cross from the left, before Port protected their lead expertly, defending like their lives depended on it. Huge celebrations, tinged I’m sure with more than a little relief, greeted the final whistle, confirming the 5-3 final score. The curse of 2017 has been exorcised, and now 8th place Bangkok City are all that stand between Port and that elusive Futsal Thai League trophy.

 

 

The final game of the season is unfortunately an away clash, but it’s an easy enough game to make it to. Bangkok City are based in the Thai Japanese Youth Centre in Din Daeng which Bangkok United called home from 2009-15. It’s this coming Saturday 15th December at 14:00. The gravity of the occasion as far as Port is concerned is sure to mean that a very sizable traveling army will descend on Bangkok City, making a Port-friendly atmosphere which will surely turn in to a party for the ages if The Port Lions prevail and are crowned champions.

 

 

My advice is simple. BE THERE!

 

Hotboxing: The Port Futsal Experience

 

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.

 

Zone B

 

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.

 

Spiderming Holds Court in Zone C

 

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!

 

Noppadol Loves His Celebrations!

 

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.

 

Tickets and Scarves

 

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.

 

Marcos Thanks The Crowd

 

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!