About a decade ago Thailand caught football fever and nothing has ever been the same here. Almost every Thai you talk to these days follows football. The guys down the pub, women at work, they all have their favorite team and favorite player. Strangely, though, that team seems to be Manchester United, and David Beckham is the only player they know. This is a typical conversation you’ve probably had with a taxi driver.
“Where you come from?”
“I’m from England.”
“Ah! Manchester United numbah one.”
“Oh. You know Tony Beckham? He numbah one.”
It’s not like the taxi driver is even from sophisticated Bangkok. He’s probably from Buri Somewhere, but he sure knows more about football and footballers than I ever will.
I’m going to be a heretic here and tell you the truth. Football is about the last thing on earth I’m interested in. I’m into solitary sports — like swimming (bet you thought I was going to say something else, didn’t you? Naughty, naughty.)
Yet there is no getting away from it. It doesn’t matter where you go in the world football is the number one topic of conversation. You can be five hundred miles up the Amazon River and an Indian will pop his head out of the jungle and ask, “You like Manchester United?” And if you say “No” he will probably spear you to death.
Despite this, you have to wonder how much some of these ‘fans’ really know about football. They all seem to ask about ManU, but I’ve never had anyone outside Australia ask me how I like the team from, say, Footscray. Heck! Come to think of it, I’ve never had anyone outside Melbourne, the home of Australian Rules, ask me about Footscray, or Aussie Rules football either for that matter.
Aussie Rules football in Melbourne is not just a game. It’s an obsession. I was on a bus one day in Melbourne when two old gents of Italian heritage got on and sat behind me. Their conversation went like this. It really did.
“Hey Joe, you think-a St. Kilda will-a win-a da league this year?”
“Are you a-crazy? Footascray is-a gonna win for sure!”
“Mama Mia! Is not-a possible. You know the trouble with-a Footascray? There’s-a too many bloody Australians playing on-a da team. If they had-a more Italians a-playing they would-a be in-a like-a da bloody Flynn!”
My relationship with football has been a disaster all my life. I mean, I’ve really tried hard to get into the game. I begged my father to buy me a pair of boots and a soccer ball when I was about five years old. We were living in Gibraltar at the time. That’s a small British colony just south of Real Madrid.
One day my old man brought home the boots and ball I’d been clamoring for and two seconds later I had ripped the paper off the parcel. I sat down, pulled on the boots and then had to call for help. I mean, those laces were twenty foot long. Where was I going to put them? In the end, we threaded them through all the right holes and did the first tie. Then we had to wrap them around the arch of my foot a few times before we finally had ends short enough to ensure I wouldn’t go arse-over-tit as soon as I started walking. I looked like I had a real big problem with fallen arches.
But it was no use. As soon as I stood up on those beautiful studs and tried to walk – Whoosh! I nearly bent my knee the wrong way and then landed flat on my back on the floor. It took a while before I managed to get used to walking in those funny boots. But when I finally mastered them they sure felt good. I was going to play football!
Walking gingerly at first, I went outside and managed to saunter casually down to where some of the local boys were kicking around a bunch of old rags bound into a ball. As soon as they saw my shiny new football I was an instant team member.
That was when I found out that my hand, foot and eye coordination were severely impaired. Instead of kicking the ball back to one of my new friends, it went everywhere but where it should. Maybe it was just a problem with the geography of Gibraltar. If you can find a piece of flat ground bigger than a postage stamp on the Rock you have to fight the Barbary Apes for it. Humans have to live on the steep hillsides too.
Anyway, I would kick that ball up the hill and the next thing I knew it would come hurtling down past us. We spent the afternoon chasing the damn thing up and down the hill. I hung up my boots after the boys kicked me out of the team when the ball eventually bounced all the way down to the harbor. It was last seen headed for North Africa. They tell me soccer is very big in Morocco today. Probably all my fault.
My next serious encounter with football was in my early teens. It was a sports day at high school in Penang, Malaysia (I had a real international upbringing). I had just got over my desire to play cricket after watching one of my schoolmates catch a ball with his two front teeth. The ball won. Then I was tempted to join the soccer team, but my last encounter with that game still rankled.
So, I wandered around the school playing field and happened to spot a bunch of proto-Tarzans flying up into the sky after a skinny oval football.
“What game is that you are playing?” I asked.
“We’re playing Australian Rules football, the game for real Australians, mate.” They replied. “Not like that poofy game they’re playing over there that the Brits call football. Get in here and join us.”
Well, I was intrigued and after watching them do a few flying catches, a “mark” they called it, I knew I wanted to play Aussie Rules too. I particularly liked the fact that you could hang onto the ball and run with it as long as you bounced it as you went. Then you could “drop kick” the ball to someone further down the field, as long as they weren’t “off-side”, whatever that was. I could never figure that out and so I earned plenty of penalties during each game.
Not long after I started playing my starring moment came when I was right in the path of an approaching ball. I took a long run towards it, jumped up on one of my teammates shoulders, leaped over him onto the shoulders of yet another one, and held my hands up to catch, er…mark, the ball.
Crunch! The ball landed on the tips of my fingers and broke one of them at the joint. I spent the next few months in physical therapy. No more Aussie rules for me.
But the game wasn’t finished with me yet.
A few years later I was in Melbourne. It was soon after I heard that conversation between the two Italians I mentioned earlier. I had planned to go ice-skating out at St. Kilda. It was a great place to pick up girls. I would skate around the rink and pick out a pretty girl I wanted to strike up a conversation with. Then I would ‘accidentally’ bump into her, giving me an excuse to catch her before she fell to the ice – well that was the theory. Sometimes I missed and we both ended up on our bums. But I had achieved my goal. We were in contact and talking. I managed to warm up many a feminine bum that way after a skating session.
This particular night in question caught me unawares. As I neared St. Kilda I saw huge crowds of people partying in the street. It was just like the New Orleans Mardi Gras. I got out of the cab and started walking towards the skating rink. As I went I found out what the party was all about. Someone shoved a bottle of beer in my face and said, “St. Kilda won! We won! We won!” as he went bounding down the street clutching his mates in a bear hug. I made a note to watch out for those huggers.
It turned out that the St. Kilda Aussie Rules football team had finally won the championship after twenty-five years or something of straight losses. I’ve never seen a party like that at any other time before or since in Australia. It lasted all night, and they were mopping up drunks well into the next day. I’m still not sure how I woke up on the beach clutching a football. Then I realized that it was actually my head.
Such is the power of football. I had all the pain and no game.
I’ve seen perfectly sane men, and sometimes even women, go ape over a bunch of guys dressed in shorts and lurid shirts chasing an inflated pig skin around a field. Of course, this doesn’t include the Yanks. They have invented a game they call football. But to the rest of the world it looks more like a bunch of behemoth gorillas dressed in crash helmets and Victorian-style swimming costumes chasing after the dinkiest looking ball you ever saw. They charge into each other with all the fury of two express trains in a hurricane. How they survive those massive attacks is beyond me. The only other thing I’ve seen anything remotely like it is the bull fights in southern Thailand. But the bulls are much more polite about it.
For sheer tenacity, though, soccer is the game that truly amazes me. You can walk into a “sports” bar anywhere, any time of the day or night, and they will be showing what looks like the longest running ข่าวบอล, game in the history of the world.
I mean, that’s what it looks like to me.
The sound is almost always turned off on the TV’s, and I need my reading glasses to read anything printed on the screen, so I don’t really know who is playing. It could be the same game over and over again. The players chase the ball all over a beautifully manicured green field. They dribble, pass the ball to another player, he shoots, and Bingo! It’s a goal.
Then the crowd goes wild as they watch the guy who kicked the goal engulfed by a bunch of his teammates. They hug, they kiss, they dance together, they make obscene gestures to the crowd. To this old Aussie, it looks like a bunch of poofters using the goal as an excuse for an orgy in public. Really!