Borneo. When thinking of this large tropical island, one is more likely to think of rainforests and orangutans than football. However, on my first full day on this wondrous island, I decided to forego the usual sights and take in the first Borneo derby of the season: Sarawak vs. Sabah in the Malaysian Premier League (one league below the country’s top-flight Super League).
I had spent the day exploring the charms of Kuching, Sarawak’s largest city, with Mrs Lost Boyo, and then after a few late afternoon/early evening Tiger beers and a delicious dinner of grilled red snapper, we went our separate ways; she headed back to the hotel and I to the Stadium Negeri Sarawak.
I’ve written on these pages before about my pre-game worries while watching football games in new and unfamiliar places, but given the preview in that day’s local paper, the Borneo Post, and a complete lack of bemusement from my pleasant taxi-driver Suhanna, my fears were seemingly unwarranted on this occasion. Any remaining doubts were dissipated by the heavy traffic en route to the ground and the numerous motorcyclists wearing the red, black stripes with gold trim that are the colours of the Sarawak region.
There was no more beer to be found among the stalls outside the ground, although the large local crowd were busily tucking into the various barbecued, skewered meats. It didn’t require Sherlock Holmes-esque powers of deduction to figure out that ‘Kaunter Tiket’ was the place to purchase entry, so buying tickets wasn’t the challenge I’ve encountered in other places. With a ticket obtained for a meagre 10 Malaysian Ringgit (roughly 2quid), it was time to find out what the Malaysian Premier League was all about.
Inside, the stadium didn’t come across as the most pleasant place to watch football. The steps and walkways were covered in so many nut and seed shells, cigarette butts, and wooden skewers that I find it very unlikely they had all appeared that evening. With my previously iron stomach beginning to show some early signs of rust on this trip, the already overflowing squat toilets meant a possibly uncomfortable 90 minutes lay ahead.
As the players lined up it was clear that both Sarawak’s imported players, Guy Bwele from Cameroon and Ivan Babic from Croatia were starters. Sabah were, however, using just one of their allotted foreign spots, Ivory Coast’s Koh Traore. That their second wouldn’t feature was disappointing as he was a major reason for coming out to watch this game; Welshman Rhys Weston.
Unsurprisingly, the colours of all of European football’s biggest teams were represented in the home crowd, but the most common colours were those of the home team, suggesting the large crowd were regulars and not just here for the big derby (on a kit-related sidebar, after three full days in Malaysia at the time of writing, the sole Cardiff City shirt I’ve seen was blue!).
The Sarawak fans also showed some neighbourly support for the men from Sabah, as the northern region was recently invaded by forces from the Philippines; banners with ‘Pray for Sabah’ were evident for all to see. After a rendition of the national anthem and a well-respected minute’s silence, we were underway.
Both sets of players seemed to have received instructions to shoot on sight of goal in the first half. Sabah played the cagier football, neither unexpected nor insensible given that they were away from home against a side 13 points and seven league places ahead of them. Sarawak’s goalkeeper appeared unusually short and less than adept handling the high ball, so the long shot strategy seemed a smart one.
At half-time, Sabah’s coach, ex-Northern Irish international Dave McCreery, possibly told his players to focus on getting the point and most of the attacking threat came from Sarawak. ‘Through ball. Through ball,” shouted one of the locals sat in front of me, and he had perhaps spotted a weakness as a Bwele pass found Babic for Sarawak’s best chance. The shot was well-blocked by Sabah’s solid keeper whose skills between the sticks were matched equally by his time-wasting abilities, taking even the simplest gather to ground throughout the second half, much to the annoyance of the home support.
Sarawak pushed and pushed, forcing a series of corners, but aside from Babic’s chance and one or two other fairly close efforts they never really looked like scoring. As the match petered out towards it’s inevitable 0-0 ending, I rang Suhanna to arrange my pick-up.
Exiting the stadium wasn’t simple given the large number of people and the inconsiderate way in which some matchgoers had left their motorcycles blocking parts of the footpath. Eventually I made it to my rendez-vous point were I was happy to find Suhanna already waiting there.
This wasn’t my most memorable Lost Boyo adventure so far, but then expectations for Malaysia’s second tier hadn’t been too high. It was disappointing that our first Lost in... featuring a real-life Lost Boyo didn’t materialise, but I certainly didn’t feel my trip was wasted. The crowd was larger than I had anticipated- far larger than the equivalent level of football in my home in Korea and, in fact, larger than the majority of that country’s top-flight games. Whether the size of the crowd was because it was a derby, or because of the timing of this particular derby, or whether it is always like that, I can’t be sure. There was certainly enough passion- always loud and mostly good-natured- on show to suggest the latter of those suggestions to be the case.
Highs: good crowd- large, fun, and loud; Suhanna the taxi driver; the sights and smells of all that smoky, skewered meats
Lows: A pretty grim stadium; no Rhys Weston; still no goals for Lost Boyos in Asia in 2013.