After seeing Muangthong United crowned TPL Champions a week ago, the second and final part of my footballing travels in Thailand was meant to be a round-up of my four nights at the Futsal World Cup. However, in a show of barefaced consumerism, I chose not to attend the third of those four evenings. Despite the ticket being there in my wallet, I just didn’t go.
Before your moral objections stop you continuing with this post, let me assure you that there were, as the modern cliche goes, genuine footballing reasons behind this act of western excess. Firstly, I’d bought the tickets before the draw had been made and I’d already seen all four sides- Costa Rica, Paraguay, Ukraine, and hosts Thailand- in action on the event’s opening night. Also, on a non-football note, the Indoor Stadium Huamark had proved a bugger to get to and from on my both earlier visits.
Back on a football theme, and most importantly of all, I’d learned that the Thai FA Cup was taking place at the considerably more conveniently-located National Stadium. Surely, a showpiece final trumps a group stage game of glorified 5-a-side, doesn’t it?
My day of decadence began in the shopping malls around Siam Square, and then my wife and I shunned the delicious and cheap local food in favour of Bangkok’s Hard Rock Cafe – a favourite guilty pleasure of ours. After some very indulgent burgers, my wife headed off for an evening of pampering, while I made the short walk towards the stadium.
I’d seen plenty of Buriram United supporters, and a much smaller smattering of Army United fans, around the shopping malls, but I was still surprised at what I found at the stadium: thousands and thousands of Thunder Castle (Buriram’s fantastic nickname) fans, bedecked in the club’s navy and orange colors. With more than an hour until kick-off, they were already in good voice, already waving their big flags, and already queuing up to get in to the stadium’s North Stand.
The sheer number of fans and apparent lack of a ticket office made me think I’d made the wrong choice and that I should have gone to the Futsal World Cup after all. I made my way through the Buriram horde and around to the quieter West Stand. Still no tickets, though.
Heading south, the sound of singing fans and beating drums could again be heard and rounding the South Stand there was suddenly a sea of green. Here, finally, were the Army United supporters. A smaller throng than Buriram, but still numbering in their thousands, the Army fans made for a colorful and noisy crowd. There were drums and horns of all shapes and sizes, dancing women young and old, huge numbers of soldiers (as supporters, not security), and even one foreign fan in a wonderful green suit and green tie combination.
Best of all, there was a ticket stall. Although, I’d intended on sitting among the Buriram fans before arriving, I purchased a 100Baht ticket for the Army United section of the East Stand. Army were the underdogs and I’d been won over by their excitable fans. What’s more, I’d noticed several green-shirted fans opting to endorse the club’s #11, a player with one of football’s most famous names: Danny Invincible.
I went into the ground about an hour before kick-off, and took my seat in the East Stand. I’d been slightly wary that my navy blue Team GB jersey would make me stand out like a sore thumb among the Army’s green shirts. I needn’t have worried, though. Army United were clearly the neutral’s choice as there were plenty of other Thai league- and European- teams’ uniforms around the stand.
The North and North-East Stands already looked pretty full, and the South was also heading that way. Army players threw warm-up t-shirts and kicked balls into the crowd, while Buriram stood shoulder-to-shoulder on the touchline for several minutes addressing their supporters.
A huge green flag was passed over the heads of those of us in the East Stand, before an impeccably-observed rendition of the national anthem, sung with particular gusto by the soldiers sat behind me. The flag was then passed over some fencing to the South Stand, and in the night’s best moment of comedy, was torn. The Army hardcore persisted with passing it across the stand, although it now seemed like the main objective was tearing the thing altogether.
Finally, it was onto the football. Just as a week ago, the referee seemed happy to allow a lot of contact. Unlike that game, which didn’t have a great deal riding on it, the game began as a far more cagey affair.
The first half produced very few chances. FA Cup holders Buriram looked the more assured. Playmaker Jakkraphan Kaewprom looked dangerous, while Spanish centre-back Osmar Ibanez Barba dealt comfortably with all of the Army’s assaults. Army United seemed reliant on their German attacker Bjorn Lindemann, but on the whole were guilty of some poor decision-making and taking too much time on the ball.
It was that dallying in possession that brought about Buriram’s opener. The ball was robbed from the Army in midfield, and then played through to French striker Goran Jerkovic. He slotted the ball under the keeper for a 1-0 lead at the interval.
In the second half, the belief that their team could come back seemed to have gone out of the soldiers around me. The South Stand were still singing and waving their flags, but the East had gone quiet. Nothing on the field did anything to encourage the fans to lift their spirits either. Danny Invincible came on as a substitute around the hour mark, but before he’d even touched the ball Buriram had doubled their lead. The Thunder Castle burst into space down the right and a cross was headed by Jerkovic for his second.
The remaining 30 minutes made for some ugly viewing with fouls and dives from both teams, and some clear time wasting from Buriram. The referee tried his best to counter the diving and fouling with warnings and yellow cards, but was very lenient with Buriram on their time wasting. One German supporter sat near me was finding Buriram’s tactics particularly annoying, booing, hissing, and using the kind of vocabulary that you are not likely to learn in GCSE German. Finally, things got a tiny bit unsavory when a bag of liquid- drinking is allowed in the ground, but no containers. Drinks are consumed in a small plastic bag with a straw- was thrown at Buriram’s Kaewprom as he was being stretchered off.
The game finally gained some tension when Army United pulled a goal back around ten minutes from full-time. Invincible had been causing the previously unflappable Ibanez Barba some discomfort, and when the Spaniard dispossessed the Australian on the edge of box, his prodded clearance fell at the feet of Issarapong Lilakorn who sent a low shot in off the post.
The northern sections of the ground were quiet for the first time, while the southern parts’ chanting had some renewed vigour. I was feeling tense- my wife was by now waiting in a nearby bar and I’m not sure that extra-time would have gone down too well with her- and it seemed that nerves all around the ground were also being tested, although probably for different reasons. Army United’s tired players gave everything for those final ten minutes, but unfortunately could not find an equaliser. Having waited a long time to witness the previous week’s trophy presentation, this time I set off to beat the rush.
I really enjoyed my two trips into Thai domestic football. There are so many reasons to visit this country of amazing sights, great food, and friendly people. Football is likely to be a long way down the list of most travelers to Thailand, but if you are a fan of the beautiful game, it really is worth looking up whether there is a match on near you.