Viettel v Binh Phuoc, Saturday 29th September 2018, 3pm

March 19, 2019

In our time over here we’d only been to Vietnam once, a trip to Saigon a year or so earlier. It was an interesting place so we thought we’d see if Hanoi was just as good.  Turn out that it is, with the added benefit of being to gawp at the actual remains of their former leader Ho Chi Minh, rather than just wander around somewhere like his 1970’s decorated palace searching in vain for the advertised elephant’s foot umbrella stand.

The walk through Mr. Minh’s mausoleum was very well-managed. The queue snaked through the grounds for a few hundred yards but under covered walkways. It was kept moving at a good pace by some very smartly dressed soldiers and once inside, as you might imagine, there was extremely chilly air-conditioning. You weren’t allowed to talk or take photos, in fact you weren’t allowed to do anything but walk. Jen was told off for crossing her arms whilst I did my best to stifle a cough.

The route eventually ended up in a dimly-lit room with a corpse in a bed. He looked a bit like his photo on the main stand at the game we went to later, but a little waxier.

Other highlights were a big lake near to our hotel surrounded by eating and drinking establishments. The roads were closed off for the weekend to allow people to stumble around with less chance of being killed by the traffic.

We walked to the match on the Saturday afternoon and had to dodge scooters on the pavement as well as cars on the roads. We also had to dodge a bloke smoking a bamboo pipe that was at least a foot long.

The Hang Day stadium is pretty run down, but that’s the way I like them. We arrived about an hour before kick-off and there were lots of people milling around the main entrance. Vendors were selling snacks that may have been cooked a while ago and were unprotected from flies. You could wash them down with something cold. Or at least you would be able to if the cans and bottles weren’t just sitting in the sun rather than a cool box or fridge.

As we had sufficient time we did a circuit of the stadium. It was quieter around the back and we spotted a couple of soldiers. They seemed much more relaxed than the ones on duty at the funeral home.

If we’d been inclined we could have had haircuts at the back corner of the ground. That’s something the Boro should start offering during matches. I reckon there would be a decent queue of people keen to escape watching the soul-destroying set-up of five centre halves and four defensive midfielders taking turns to lump the ball forward to a single striker ill-equipped to do anything with it.

Anyway, this game was free to get in to and the sounds of partying that we’d heard coming from inside were due to the home side Viettel having already clinched the second division championship with a couple of games to spare. Not quite Charlton’s Champions but you take what you can get.

There were two tier stands down each side, with open terracing to our right and a wall to the left that backed on to housing. Potential there for “Once more and we’ll stick a knife in it”. The home fans were celebrating their promotion with their band and by waving a variety of flags. The carnival atmosphere was mirrored on the pitch where Viettel, in white, seemed to be applying the ‘Tuncay’ rule whereby the build up to any chance must include at least one fancy but ineffective flick. Binh Phuoc were in green shirts with a red band. Or red shirts with a green yoke. Hard to say really. Either way the best chances in the half went to the hosts, but poor finishing and some decent keeping kept it goalless at the break.

Our first half viewpoint in the stand opposite the tunnel had become less attractive as the sun got lower. When it began to shine through the gaps in the structure on to the backs of our heads we were forced to move to an area where the sun was blocked by a stairwell. At half time we took the opportunity to move upstairs and take advantage of the better shade provided by the roof.

The excitement level rose soon after the restart when the away coach was sent to the stands. Maybe the sun had been a bit much for him too. It didn’t seem to change much on the pitch though as the champions continued to press ineffectually for a goal to complete the coronation.

With a quarter of an hour to play it was the turn of the players to lose their composure. We had a minute or two of argy-bargy before Binh Phuoc switched off from the subsequent free-kick and an unmarked header put Viettel a goal up. It sparked just the sort of celebrations that you’d expect.

A few minutes later another header doubled their lead and we sloped out leaving them to it. Game and season over.

Davao Aguilas v Ceres Negros, Saturday 22nd September 2018, 4pm

February 15, 2019

Getting to see a game of football in the Philippines turned out to be a lot more trouble than I’d imagined. The first time we went to Manila I checked for updates at the hotel before setting off to the match and discovered that not only had the venue been changed, but the match would be played behind closed doors.  Even so, I still fancied my chances of somehow getting in, or at least I did until our taxi driver took us to the Rizal Memorial Park rather than the Rizal Memorial Stadium and the traffic was just too bad for us to get to the right location in time.

On the plus side we saw some weird blackface performance in the park where only the armpits gave them away.

I’m a trier though and so three months later we made a return visit to Manila. This time the ground was in the north of the city in the middle of nowhere and with limited hotel options. Very limited, with the view from our window giving some idea of the neighbourhood. There weren’t any bars nearby either and Jen and I spent the latter part of that evening drinking beer on the steps of the hotel whilst security men with shotguns patrolled the nearby petrol station forecourt.

Still, we were there for the football and the stadium was within walking distance. If it had been a little further I suppose we could always have got one of the retro looking shared taxis that cruised around.

We arrived a good half hour before kick off only to find that the pitch wasn’t marked and that the game had been moved to a different city. Probably behind closed doors and possibly the day before for good measure. Terrific.

I thought I’d missed my opportunity but two months further on a cup competition, the Copa Paulinho something or other threw up a game at the same Rizal Memorial Stadium that we’d tried to reach five months earlier. This time I booked a hotel overlooking the ground, so as long as the four-hour flights weren’t unduly delayed we would only have to rely upon a taxi driver finding the hotel, rather than the football ground. That’s always an easier proposition.

It turned out that the stadium isn’t actually that far from its namesake park. In fact we walked it along the seafront the next morning in under an hour.

If we’d done that the first time rather than rely on a taxi driver who didn’t know the football ground existed we could have saved ourselves two hours in traffic and two return trips.

This time though, it all worked out. The stadium, which was built in 1934, reminded me of one that my mate Paul and I had wandered around whilst in Poland for Euro 2012. That Polish place had been built in anticipation of an Olympics that used other venues instead and by now was magnificently run down. As was the Rizal Memorial Stadium.

Nobody wanted any money for admission and so I took my place in the main stand. The only concession to modern life was the artificial pitch with those little black bits of rubber flicking up from the surface.

Davao Aguilas were in white with red and blue trim with Ceres in black. Davao took the lead a quarter of an hour in when a corner was glanced in at the near post. Despite the goal coming so early on it was enough for the Ceres coach to immediately haul off his big lump of a centre-half. Perhaps he’d taken a knock. I hope so, for his sake.

Davao had about twenty fans at one end of the main stand, including three drummers. None of them looked particularly old so it might have been a school trip of sorts. They were rattling out a chant of “Davo, Davo, Davo” to the tune of No Limits. The early goal got them fired up, not that they needed it when it’s a choice between watching your team or an afternoon of algebra. Maybe they’d think differently if they had someone like Tony Pulis slowly squeezing any possible joy from watching their team. Quadratic equations might very well be preferable then.

Ceres just seemed to have a handful of fans but they made a disproportionate amount of noise by taking advantage of the good acoustics created by the main stand roof. Mind you, the noise that they made was pointless, just some oh, oh, ohing to the tune of Go West. Noise for the sake of it really. I was temporarily distracted by the old industrial light fittings above us that would be worth a decent sum to a salvage yard.  Strange how your mind wanders.

The teams went in at the break with just the one goal separating them, but it didn’t take Davao Aguilas long afterwards to double their lead with a penalty. Within two minutes though Ceres had pulled one back when a corner was missed by everyone except the fella who tapped it home from close range.

The Ceres goal was the cue for some argy bargy and a Ceres player escaped a sending off despite having put an opposition player in a headlock.  Davao weren’t so fortunate though and one of their players did walk shortly afterwards, for a second yellow. He seemed somewhat frustrated at the apparent inconsistency.

After everyone had settled down there was a strange lack of urgency from the Ceres players.  They were slowly trotting up for corners and staying down far too long after any contact. I began to wonder if the game was two legs, or if a single goal defeat somehow put them through. More likely, they thinking about the possible end of season approaching and the opportunity to head off on their holidays. Fair enough.

Maldives v India, Saturday 15th September 2018, 7pm

November 29, 2018

Whilst I suppose most ground hoppers concentrate on completing a league, or on ticking off grounds where they have seen their own team play, I’ve lately had more of an interest in ‘collecting’ countries where I’ve seen a football match.

Initially it was quite easy working my way through the territories near to Malaysia, but after a while it takes a bit more of an effort. Bangladesh wasn’t somewhere that I’d initially thought I’d go to, what with all the fuss over shootings, bombs, the security fears around cricket tours and the like. But, it seems to have calmed down a bit lately and so when I saw that the final of the SAFF Cup was scheduled for a free weekend I booked flights to Dhaka.

My first impression was the chaos. I’ve been to India a couple of times and have also braved the traffic in Manila but nothing came close to the congestion on the roads in and around the Bangladeshi capital. Lorries, buses, cars, tuk-tuks and finally bicycle rickshaws vied for position in what were often five or six informal lines of traffic on roads marked with two or three lanes. It made it the maddest place I’ve been for getting from A to B.

I took a ride by rickshaw and even something of that size struggles for space on the roads. The ‘driver’ was able to nip through a few of the backstreets, which helped a bit and it had the added bonus of letting me see sellers with baskets that were full of chickens that were stood upright and presumably tied in at their feet.

It seems that not many westerners pop over the Dhaka for a weekend break and we were objects of curiosity, more so than most places I’ve been and we posed for numerous photos with people. I called into the former house of the assassinated president who had led the country to independence and I ended up in conversation with one fella who was desperate for my opinion on why Simon Jones and Marcus Trescothick had faded from the Test scene so soon after the 2005 Ashes win.

We also had a wander around the grounds of an old fort, which turned out to be a rare oasis of calm in what was otherwise mainly bedlam.

Our hotel was carefully chosen to be within walking distance of the Bangabandhu stadium as there was no way I was going to risk travelling all the way to Dhaka and then missing the game due to traffic. As we set off for the match it was as busy on foot as it was by rickshaw or taxi and we had to fight our way through a crowded market.

We didn’t have tickets in advance as the hotel had wanted 100x face value. Yes, five thousand Bangladeshi takas for a fifty taka ticket. That’s fifty quid for a fifty pence ticket! I politely declined and we took our chances, ending up paying a twenty taka premium to a kid outside the ground for two tickets in the Category 1 south stand.

Whilst buying the tickets we acquired a new friend, Bob. He told us that he lived nearby and that he was unmarried due to being orphaned as a child. There are some people who might view the absence of in-laws as a bit of a positive in a spouse, but he didn’t see it that way. Bob was supporting the Maldives on the basis they were playing local rivals India, although a lot of others around us were supporting India on the basis that India didn’t really get on with Pakistan. There was a real animosity towards Pakistan, I suppose stemming from the past skirmishes both before and after independence.

One fella had a bit of a pop at me for being English, on the basis of our colonial past. He was keen to point out that they were doing fine without us and that they wouldn’t like us back. I reassured him that we’ve enough on our plate sorting out our own infrastructure without getting involved in other countries. He seemed happy enough with that and wound his neck in for the rest of the game.

The 36,000 capacity stadium was a bit run down with some posh bits incorporated into a couple of the stands for VIPs. There was a large picture of the father of the nation away to our right in the ground named after him. The usual running track and advertising boards affected our view a little, but on the plus side we had a roof in our section that included overhead fans.

I think the SAFF Championship is a qualifier for another competition later in the year and its lack of prestige was highlighted by India sending their U23 team. That said, it gave the grown ups from the Maldives a decent opportunity to pick up a trophy and that’s exactly what they did.

A goal on the break in each half clinched it for the Maldives. We left just before the end and missed the injury time India consolation. The early dart failed to mitigate the impact of any of the traffic or crowds. I imagine that it remains equally chaotic every minute of the day and night.

England v India, Sunday 9th September 2018, 11am

October 30, 2018

At the end of our UK holiday, Jen and I had a Sunday evening flight back  to Malaysia. This meant that if we made our way down towards Heathrow in plenty of time we could watch most of the third day’s play at the Oval in the final test of the series with India. So that’s what we did.

Rather than just rattle all the way down the M1 at once, we broke our journey overnight at Eyam. No, I’d never heard of it either, but in looking for somewhere to go for a walk in the Peak District I discovered that four and a half centuries ago Eyam earned it’s fame as a ‘plague village’.

Apparently, a load of flea infested clothes arrived from London, bringing the plague with them. It caused devastation among the villagers who, very thoughtfully in the circumstances, agreed for the village to be quarantined until they either all died or someone invented antibiotics.

Eyam is an interesting place to stay. Most of the period buildings are still standing with a lot of the plague-related history detailed on signs around the village and then expanded upon in a visitor’s centre. There are also a few footpaths, one of which goes past the boundary stone where food would be left by folk from the next village and coins would be placed in holes filled with vinegar by the Eyam residents.

I’ve no idea how effective vinegar is against plague but I used to work with a bloke who swore by it as the answer to all of life’s ailments. He’s dead now so it looks as if it may not quite cure everything.

We followed up the Eyam stopover with a night in Richmond. The London one. That made it easy enough to take a train into the Oval the next morning where the touts were out in force. The prospect of seeing Alistair Cook’s final innings for England meant that they were frantically trying to hoover up any spares, although I didn’t see any actual buying or selling taking place.

I’d bought our tickets a couple of months earlier, at eighty-five pounds a pop in the Lock Laker Stand and even at that stage there weren’t many available. I imagine Cook’s retirement announcement quickly shifted any that had remained.

There were brass bands playing as we arrived, although probably not specially for us, and our early start allowed us to watch the teams warming up. England, somewhat controversially due to the past injuries that have been sustained, were playing five-a-side football. Or maybe six-a-side. Stuart Broad didn’t look to have much of a first touch, whilst Moeen Ali appeared to be able to waltz through the opposition at will.

Whilst our seats were nominally in the Lock Laker stand, they weren’t really. We were actually sat in the curved section close by to the side nearest to the gasometer.

India resumed their first innings about a hundred and fifty behind, with just four wickets in hand. For most of the crowd, or at least those supporting England, it was just really a matter of how long it would be before Cook batted for the last time.

It reminded me of when Juninho made his comeback after a long-term injury in his third stint at the Boro. He’d been named on the bench with the consequence that until he finally got onto the pitch every movement in the dugout commanded far more attention than anything happening on-field.

We had a long wait for the England opener though as India eked out their innings until mid-way through the afternoon session and reduced the deficit to just forty runs. From the moment the last wicket fell all eyes were on the pavilion until such time as Cook made his entrance to another standing ovation. It continued long after he’d arrived at the wicket and stopped only as the bowler commenced his run-up. I think I may have had something in my eye at that stage.

Our flight time meant that we had to leave at five, with still another hours worth of batting to come. I was unsure, somewhat selfishly, whether I’d have liked Cook to have been dismissed before we left, so I could be part of the clapping off. That wasn’t on the cards though and he batted out the session in our absence before returning the next day to complete one more daddy ton.

By the time the former England captain was out for not far short of a hundred and fifty, we were back in Malaysia where I watched his dismissal and departure as it happened on the telly in our house. It’s not often you see a batsman’s innings start and finish from locations more than six thousand miles apart.

Whitby Town v Hednesford Town, Saturday 1st September 2018, 3pm

September 28, 2018

Jen and I were back in the UK for a couple of weeks and we rented a cottage at Sandsend, just outside of Whitby. We took my mam, daughter and the two grandkids along for an old-fashioned seaside holiday.

Whilst I’d made all sorts of tentative plans to get to a few local matches, it was the second weekend before a lull in activities gave my grandson Harry and I the opportunity to nip along to the Turnbull Ground for Whitby’s seventh-tier Northern Premier League fixture with Hednesford Town.

It was a tenner admission for me with the boy getting in for free. I’d not seen a game at Whitby before, although I’d walked past their ground a few times. They’ve got a big stand down one side with a smaller covered standing area opposite. The only other time that Harry has been to the match with me we were in the Fenton Suite hospitality at the Boro. I thought that standing might be too much of a shock to the system and so we sat in the main stand.

I was disappointed to discover that Whitby’s Matty Tymon was out injured. He’d played in an under nines team with my son Tom twenty years ago and my main recollection is how much better he was than the rest of his team mates. Whilst Tom and the others spent their time chasing the ball and then either mindlessly booting it up field or dribbling until dispossessed, Matty was laying the ball off or diligently making off the ball runs to create space that went unnoticed by the rest of the team.

In Mr. Tymon’s absence, I focused on former Boro youngster Junior Mondal who you’d think was named after a pair of kid’s football boots. He buzzed about up front with very little service but had a decent touch. It looked to me as if he was good enough to play at a higher level, but he was hauled off early in the second half so maybe I’m out of step.

I think the highlight of the afternoon was Harry’s support of Whitby. After checking that it was fine to cheer on another team in the absence of the Boro, he would shout out “Come on Whitby” every few minutes. Naturally I’d offer similar encouragement but in a mangled ‘club singer’ style or Gazette seller growl. The boy sighed and shook his head in the way that his mother does.

Whitby went a goal down in the first half before conceding a second late on when a pacy run from a Hednesford player culminated in him wellying it home. The hosts notched a consolation at the end, no doubt as a result of our encouragement.

PSMS v Bali United, Saturday 28th July 2018, 7pm

August 6, 2018

Medan is in North Sumatra, Indonesia, but it’s less than an hour’s flight from KL and so a lot closer to us than many of the places that we’ve visited in Malaysia. We’d been before, last year, but on that occasion we didn’t have time to mooch around in town as we were on our way to Bukit Lawang to look for wild orangutans.

We found them too, a couple of hours into an early morning walk through the undergrowth in the Gunung Leusur National Park. There had previously been a sanctuary nearby that had closed a few years previously and a few of the apes hadn’t really bothered heading too far away.

Jen and I had two guides for the walk and one of them soon spotted a patch of orange fur up a tree. We crept closer and ended up near to a large male orangutan who seemed happy just to sit and look at us. Or at least he did until his missus turned up. At that point, and despite the audience, they promptly had it off no more than twenty feet away from us. Maybe they liked being watched as it didn’t take them long. Once finished, they moved on to look for a post-coital snack.

We followed them down a path and caught up with them in a clearing where we sat and watched them arse about for a good half an hour. At one point I picked up the skin from long eaten piece of fruit and offered it to the female. She swung herself in my direction and then reached out. Rather than just take the offering she grasped my hand. At that point the guides flapped a bit in the way that guides tend to do, but she soon let go, took the fruit skin and then quickly discarded it in a similar manner to the way that I do with sprouts.

After moving on we were able to see another couple of orangutans further into the trail and then as we made our way back to the camp we found a mother with a toddler. Both of them were happy to relieve us of the bananas that we had left over from lunch.

This trip to Medan didn’t ever threaten to be as good as the last visit, but it was never intended to be. The nearest we got to wildlife on this occasion was a museum full of stuffed exhibits where we whiled away an hour or so trying to remember the names of creatures that we’d seen in Africa or Australia. The main source of fun in these places is usually the bad taxidermy, but sadly few of the animals on display looked as if they had been stuffed by someone whose only previous experience had amounted to putting a duvet back inside its cover.

Still, we were here mainly for the football and a game in the top-tier of the Indonesian league that had briefly promised the possibility of seeing ex-Boro player Willo Flood. Yes, really. He’d left Dunfermline for today’s visitors Bali United about a month ago.  I can’t see why anyone would want to swap Fife for Bali, but I’m sure the prospect of trips to Medan and their taxidermy museum must have a been a prominent factor.

Alas, it was all too good to be true and a few days after Willo arrived it was discovered that his immediate past employment in the Scottish second tier was considered to be too low a standard to justify a work permit. A shame really as I was looking forward to seeing him play. From what I remember of his time at the Riverside he seemed limited, but honest, as he straddled the Strachan and Mowbray eras whilst playing little for either of them due to injury.

I do recall seeing him score a twenty-five yarder that was clearly intended to be a cross. I liked that he had the good grace to look embarrassed. Not all of our players would have done.

The twenty-thousand capacity Stadion Teladan was busy as kick-off approached. We declined any number of offers of food and drink but were able to buy wristbands from a fella outside for the nearest stand. We paid a ten per cent premium on the face value of a hundred thousand whatevers, a total of just over five quid each in real money.

Our stand was covered and down the tunnel side of the pitch. There weren’t any seats and so you had a choice of selecting your patch of concrete either low down where the playing surface was obscured by a twenty-foot high fence or else higher up where the stanchions blocked your view. We went high and found a spot from where we were able to see both goals.

Kick off was delayed for ten minutes due to a floodlight failure, but that just helped the atmosphere to build as more people made their way in and anticipation heightened. I didn’t see any Bali fans, not surprisingly I suppose given the distances involved, but the bottom of the league Medan side, PSMS, had supporters singing behind both goals.

The support was constant, particularly from the end to our right, whilst the fans sat around us had an odd tendency to yelp whenever a chance looked imminent.

The standard of play wasn’t up to much and with the ball frantically flying around, I think Willo Flood’s familiarity with the fast pace of Scottish football would have stood him in good stead in this league.

Bali opened the scoring ten minutes into the second half when a hopeful lob back into the box beat the offside trap. Having made the breakthrough the visitors then quickly added a second. PSMS pulled one back from the spot with twenty minutes left but they didn’t quite have the quality to kick on and take a point.

Angkor Tiger v Svay Rieng, Saturday 21st July 2018, 3.30pm

August 2, 2018

One of the places that most visitors to Asia have on their must see list is the Angkor Wat temples in Cambodia. For a long time I had little interest on the basis that I’d seen loads of temples when I lived in Korea and more often than not they bored me shitless.

I think what eventually won me over to the idea of having a look at Angkor Wat was the worry that whenever in the future I ran into someone who had been ‘travelling’ they would shake their head sadly and tell me how much I’d missed out. I decided that if I’d been I could at least cut them short with “Seen it, just another temple”.

Except, when we did get around to going a couple of months ago, it was anything but just another temple. So much so that I quickly booked a return visit to see a bit more of the area. Of course, I checked to see if there was any football going on and pleasingly there was. As impressive as the temples are, a weekend is usually better if there is a match in the mix.

We’d hired a driver on both visits, but turned down a guide as the benefit of knowledgeable insights would likely be outweighed by the yapping needed to impart the information. I much prefer to wander around looking at stuff in peace, even at the expense of not necessarily knowing what I’m looking at.

Whilst Angkor Wat had been understandably busy on that first visit, it didn’t take too much effort to find areas where there were very few people about. Perhaps it was because we avoided the sunrise and sunset crowds and pitched up in the middle of the day.

The main site had numerous courtyards and corridors, with quite detailed wall carvings and plenty of statues. Other nearby areas were equally impressive, especially the buildings that had trees growing out of them.

As good as the temples were, the experience was improved by the presence of monkeys. Particularly the young ones bathing in a puddle or the even younger ones testing their mother’s patience with their recklessness.

There were also bats in one of the towers. We smelled them before we saw them. At first I thought some badly behaved monk had just taken a piss in a quiet corner but we soon realised that the stench was bat urine. We watched them coming and going for a while, doing our best not to stand beneath any of them.

On that first trip we did some eating and drinking in the pub street area, including some frog’s legs in what is clearly still a very french influenced area. We also had draft beers for fifty cents, pricing which I imagine would horrify any bar owner in Paris.

Second time we ended up in a cocktail bar where the drinks were a little more expensive but the dim sum made up for it.

There’s more to Siem Reap than just Angkor Wat and so for our non-football stuff on the second trip we headed out to Beng Mealea. It’s an unrestored ruined temple about an hour’s drive away and billed as an Indiana Jones-type place.

I think I liked Beng Mealea better than the main Angkor Wat temples. It was a lot smaller and we were able to do an initial circuit around the perimeter. The jungle had reclaimed a lot of the stonework, with arches collapsed under pressure from tree roots and with piles of carved stones cascading down by the outer walls.

After a lap of the exterior, we took the elevated walkway that winds through the inside of the temple. I was surprised at how few visitors were doing the same and quite often we got stretches of the path entirely to ourselves. Most of the other visitors were Chinese tour parties or couples where the dynamic seemed to be that of pro photographer and model rather than boyfriend and girlfriend.

After a quick stir-fry lunch that consisted mainly of ginger we were off to the game in the C-League, the Cambodian top-tier. Our driver parked up right next to the main stand alongside the tv outside broadcast van.

We still had an hour or so until kick-off, but there were already people buzzing around outside. A line of stalls sold snacks, drinks and shirts. We bought a shirt for our grandson as I thought the combination of the orange colour and a tiger badge would be something that he’d go for.

There wasn’t a separate ticket office, just a couple of young girls sat by the entrance taking money. It was a dollar to get in, although I think that was just for the covered main stand admission. It looked as if you could watch for free from the open terracing that curved towards the goals.

There were already quite a few people inside, no doubt keen to be under cover if the rain came. A group of young lads next to us all had a few tickets each. They were different to the stubs that we had and were probably complimentary. If that’s what it takes to get people watching, I’m all for it. It may have worked as the attendance was eventually announced as being over fourteen hundred.

The warm up was more interesting than most with the ref practicing his hand actions, pacing out imaginary free kicks and then waving invisible players away. I hope that whilst he was visualising aspects of the upcoming game he was dealing with the likes of Pele or Maradona. “I said ten yards, Diego. Now.”

Angkor Tiger were in orange with Svay Rieng in a blue kit. A fella in the crowd told me that the visitors had endured a six-hour bus journey to reach Siem Reap. That doesn’t seem like ideal preparation. The pitch wasn’t ideal either with the lack of grass in the goalmouths a throwback to how all pitches used to be once you got beyond the first few weeks of the season.

Svay Rieng had a couple of players who stood out, mainly for their appearance. Their keeper, Dimitry Asnin from Belarus, appeared to be about a foot taller than everyone else on the field and he looked a good twenty years older than most of the other players. My first thought was that it was Dave Beasant’s dad.

The other fella to stand out for the visitors was their beardy left-winger Harley Willard. He’s a young English lad who last played for Maidstone. Fair play to him for travelling to Cambodia for a contract. Maybe he fancied seeing the temples.

Tiger opened the scoring in the first half when a cross was turned in too low down for the wrong-footed Beasant Senior to reach. He seemed pretty pissed off about it but no doubt cheered up later after making two very good saves at full stretch that I doubt a shorter keeper would have reached.

Angkor held their lead into the second half until a cross from Willard was nodded home by Svay Rieng’s Brazilian striker. I reckon the header was probably going wide but it hit a rut in the goalmouth and turned sharply to just sneak in at the back post.

There were no more goals and it finished up even. It was a decent effort from both sides, although I couldn’t help but smile at the thought that in the previous game I’d been to I’d been watching Lionel Messi drag Argentina out of the group stages of the World Cup. That’s some contrast.

Argentina v Nigeria, Tuesday 26th June 2018, 9pm

July 9, 2018

After seeing the Brazil game, Paul and I had a four-day wait for our next live action. At previous World Cups we had always seen matches at more than one venue, but this time we’d opted for a more leisurely stay in just the single location.

There’s plenty to do in Saint Petersburg though and we started off with a wander around an old barracks just across the river from our hotel. It had a church with a golden spire that I doubt would have lasted too long in Teesside.

On the same day we called in at a museum to see a collection assembled by one of the Tsars, Peter The Great.  Pete seemed to have a bit of a scattergun approach to collecting, similar I suppose to my own where late evening post-drinking ebay sessions have seen me amass anything from postcards of Norton to houses in Bulgaria.

I’ve not yet started a collection of dead babies in jam jars though, or of two-headed calves. Still it’s probably just a matter of time and whilst some visitors politely feigned interest in stuff like the Red Indian clothing it was fetuses in formaldehyde and the cows that could drink and moo simultaneously that everyone was really there for.

There’s a much bigger museum in town, the Hermitage and whilst it didn’t appear to have any bovines blessed with multiple bonces it did have some Eskimo corpses that had been discovered in glaciers somewhere. Unfortunately the queues for tickets were too long for nothing better than icy Inuits and so the most we saw was the building and the big square outside.

All the culture fitted nicely around the three games a day routine with us mixing up the various pubs that we watched each match in. There were traditional Russian bars, Irish bars, a middle eastern place where the air hung heavily with smoke from hookah pipes and an English bar with a regal presence.

It was the Tower pub where we watched a quite astonishing first half performance from England against Panama. I remember being derided on a football message board as a ‘Southgate apologist’ for defending Gareth during his spell at the Boro. No doubt the same people were the ones later describing him as an ‘FA suit’, employed only because he was a ‘yes-man’. My current interest in England’s national team is mainly because of his Boro connection and it’s great to see that our Carling Cup captain has well and truly silenced his critics.

In addition to the bars, there was also the Fan Fest. I’m not usually that keen these days on loud, drunken crowds, but the atmosphere around Saint Petersburg was so good that we thought we’d have to give it a try one afternoon.

Thankfully there was a Russian alternative to Budweiser and it was enjoyable to sit in the shadow of The Church Of The Spilled Blood and watch Belgium and Tunisia play out a nine-goal game of what my Mam might describe as ‘shotty-in’.

By Tuesday it was time for our second live game, Argentina against Nigeria. It was make or break for both teams and after a few drinks in a city centre Irish Bar watching a Denmark game featuring ex-Boro players Martin Braithwaite and Viktor Fisher, we took the subway up to the stadium.

There were an abundance of Messi shirts among the crowd, that might quite easily have been two-thirds Argentinian.

The process of getting in to the stadium was as easy as it had been for the Brazil game, although this time our seats were on the dugout side of the ground and so we had to walk around almost all of the stadium due to the one way system that was in place.

We had a couple of beers and then took our seats among what is probably one of the noisiest crowds I’ve ever been in.  I had to shout in order to make myself heard to Paul in the next seat. There were small pockets of Nigerian fans around the stadium but it seemed as if everyone else was cheering on Argentina.

Messi, perhaps stung by the “Messi, Ciao” chants that had been randomly breaking out wherever we had been over the previous few days set Argentina off on the right foot, but after Nigeria equalised from the spot it was difficult to see how the South Americans would come up with a necessary second goal.

Nevertheless, the Argentinian support never wavered, particularly from the bloke behind us who seemed to know no other word than ‘Puta’ and who struggled to keep his beer within his plastic cup. Their support was rewarded with a late winner that sent Argentina into the next round and despite us having to lap the full stadium to get to the subway we managed to get ahead of the celebrating fans and were away before the volume of people brought things to a standstill.

It was a great week, in a city where I could quite happily live. The media had been putting out the scare stories prior to the tournament in the same way that they did before South Africa and Brazil and if it were down to me I’d lock up some of the editors and proprietors for their lies and the worry that they caused. The reality was that the claims could not have been more wrong and not only did we see no trouble, but the people we met could not have been friendlier. Well done Russia and roll on Qatar.

Brazil v Costa Rica, Friday 22nd June 2018, 3pm

July 3, 2018

I watch a lot of lower-level football, quite often where the players are unpaid and the crowds are in double figures at best. Sometimes though, it’s good to watch the game at an elite level and it doesn’t get much more elite than a World Cup. Paul and I had been to the last three World Cups and I’d been looking forward to this tournament since the hosting nation was announced. Russia has always seemed to me to be a ‘proper’ football country, particularly in the Soviet days with Lev Yashin in his black kit and Oleg Blokhin in a CCCP tracksuit.

If the tournament itself wasn’t elite enough, we’d struck lucky in the draw for a change and our first game pitched Costa Rica against Brazil. How good was that? Watching Brazil in a World Cup moves eliteness up to a whole new level. I’ve a bit of a soft spot for Brazil. I suppose most people do. I’d like to say it dates from the Juninho era at the Boro, but I can remember wearing a Brazil shirt in ’94 to cheer them on to their fourth star in a variety of Edinburgh pubs.

Paul and I flew into Saint Petersburg the day before the game. Immigration went super-smoothly with our Fan-Ids serving as visas and after a taxi journey in drizzling rain we were at our hotel next to the Niva River. We had good views of some old buildings and we were in time to catch the second half of the France v Peru game in one of the hotel bars.

In addition to showing the match on the telly, the hotel also seemed to be hosting some sort of ‘Russia’s Got Talent’ style competition in a curtained-off section of the room. The curtain provided little protection against the loud drumming that accompanied most acts and so we headed off out in search of somewhere more suitable for the 9pm game between Argentina and Croatia.

A bar around the corner proved to be a better venue with the game up on a couple of big screens, local beer at under two quid a pint, sausage and cheese for snacks and a forlorn bloke in an Argie shirt at odds with the rest of the bar who seemed to delight in the Croatian win.

We left not long after the final whistle and with twilight closing in picked up a couple of bottles of cider from a window in a wall to finish the evening off.

Next morning was match day and as an app on Paul’s phone suggested that stadium was an hour and forty minutes away on foot, we thought we’d set off about eleven and take in the sights on the way to the ground. It all started well. We passed numerous historic looking buildings and saw plenty of fans milling around.

After an hour or so there were fewer people in replica shirts and we were out in the suburbs. The architecture from a hundred and fifty years ago had given way to Soviet era apartment blocks and more modern-day high-rise buildings.

After two hours of walking and with another two to go to kick-off, Paul decided to check that the ground we were walking to and were still more than half an hour away from, really was the World Cup Stadium. Well, what do you know? It wasn’t. We’d just spent two hours walking towards the an old stadium where nobody, least of all the Brazil team, was appearing. The confusion appears to be due to the correct location having a variety of names ranging from the Arena Stadium to the Zenit Stadium by way of the Saint Petersburg Stadium or the Krestovsky Stadium. I’ve a feeling that we had been well on the way to the old Zenit ground rather than the new one. It would have been nice to have seen it, but not, I suppose, at the expense of a World Cup game.

Fortunately Paul’s app gave us directions to the correct ground that involved a few stops on a bus and a couple of subway rides, enabling us to arrive with fifty minutes to spare.

The access to the ground was managed by a one-way circuit. As we made our way towards the gates, there were frequent chants from Brazilians, Costa Ricans and neutrals alike revelling in the misfortune of Argentina the previous evening.

“Di Maria, Ciao! Mascherano, Ciao! Messi, Ciao, Messi, Ciao, Messi, Ciao, Ciao, Ciao!”

The queues at our gate were well-marshalled and whilst I did see riot police loitering, they kept a low profile and left the crowd management to stewards. In order to get through the turnstile you had to have the bar code on your Fan-Id scanned and then the bar code on your ticket.

With your photo on the Fan-Id and your name on both, the system looks to have killed touting stone-dead. In contrast to every other tournament I’ve been to where tickets have been readily available, I didn’t see anyone trying to off-load spares and I only noticed one person looking to buy.

Once inside, we got a couple of Buds. Whilst I’m appreciative of FIFA’s stance on selling alcohol and their willingness to allow it to be swigged in the stands, I’d like it a whole lot better if they could find a better global beer partner. Or, if it’s all about the marketing, just sell something decent in a Budweiser cup.

Our Category One seats at two hundred and ten dollars a pop were half-way up the upper tier, about level with one of the goals. We were a long way from the pitch but the fairly steep incline in the stands helped a little with the view.

I’m not sure how the ticket allocation was organised. We’d bought our tickets blind before the draw, but the stadium was probably half full of Brazilian fans, or at least spectators in Brazil shirts. There were random small blocks of Costa Ricans, each one maybe two or three hundred strong.

The lack of segregation made for an unusual atmosphere. We had Costa Ricans in the row behind us, with Brazilians to the right and left. These fans ignored each other and took the safer option of taunting rivals ten or twenty yards away instead. The Brazilians struck me as being quite arrogant, frequently pointing to the stars on their shirts or holding up five fingers and a clenched fist to highlight the difference in the historical achievements of the two sides.

Both fans were united however in their condemnation of anything they didn’t like with a cry of “Puta” or one of its variants. No matter what irked them the instant response was to suggest that the perpetrator or his Mam was on the game. It’s all a bit tiresome really.

Mind you, I was tempted to sling a few insults myself at whoever had decided that Brazil would wear blue shirts. It’s Brazil FFS and if I’m finally going to see them I want the full experience with the iconic kit. There’s nothing wrong with the blue shirt but it’s like when, say, The Waterboys don’t sing their ‘Whole Of The Moon’ song. Perfectly acceptable if you see them fairly often, but if it’s your one and maybe only time, you want to hear their hit.

The performance of the five-times champions wasn’t much better than their choice of shirt. They were cagey in the first half, with Willian getting the hook at the break for as less a Brazilian performance as you could imagine. They were a bit more forceful in the second half but it took until injury time for them to get the opener, quickly followed by a victory-confirming second goal, much to the delight of the fella to our right.

There was a walk through the woods to the subway after the game where foam-handed volunteers were positioned to high-five the departing fans. We had been intending to call into the Fan Fest but the queues were a little on the long side so we popped into a nearby hotel instead for the second half of the Nigeria v Iceland game and then headed back to the bar we’d been in the previous night for Switzerland and Serbia.

After what could have been a disastrous trip to the wrong ground, it turned out to be a pretty decent day in the end.

Police v Army, Saturday 2nd June 2018, 3pm

June 8, 2018

Laos is one of those countries where it’s quite difficult to plan ahead if you are trying to see a football game. The information is all out there somewhere but it’s not the easiest to find until a week or so before any matches take place.

I had a three-day weekend back in March and on that occasion we made a speculative trip only to find that the top-level fixtures had been cancelled in preparation for a forthcoming international game. That time we stayed the Saturday night in the capital, Vientiane and our hotel was just around the corner from the old national stadium.

We had a wander around the old ground and, rather frustratingly, were told that a match would take place the following day, a couple of hours after our onward flight to Luang Prabang was due to depart. The fella I was talking to spoke no English, so I wasn’t able to work out what level of game I was missing, but it suggested that their league structure might be a little deeper than the Premier League that I was aware of.

We arrived in Luang Prabang the next day and I had faint hopes that there might also be some sort of game on at the local ground. It normally hosts a Premier League team, but if there was another level below that then who knows?

I was briefly encouraged as we approached the ground after a two miles walk from the town centre. There was a woman with a stall outside the main entrance selling shirts and flags. It’s hard to imagine that she would bother doing that on a non-match day.

Hard to imagine it may have been, but that’s exactly what she was doing. After she confirmed that no game was scheduled we made a lap of what appeared to be a stadium as old as the one we’d seen the day before. There was a gate open further around which gave us the opportunity to have a look from inside the ground rather than just peeking in.

Oh well. Still, it wasn’t a completely wasted trip as Luang Prabang is an interesting place to visit. There are the usual temples and markets, a rickety bridge across the Mekong and any number of elephant ‘sanctuaries’. I’m not wholly convinced by the use of elephants in tourism though and had little desire to join a queue of backpackers to sit on the back of one.

However, I found a place that seemed to better balance the need for cash with the best interests of the elephants. You weren’t allowed to ride them, but instead a group of no more than four people could walk alongside the elephants for a couple of hours.

You took a boat across a river to a spot where a couple of females and a two-year old male calf were fed bananas every morning at the same time. You then walked a mile or so along a track to a spot where they were fed again. The elephants weren’t guaranteed to turn up, or indeed to move to the next spot, but elephants aren’t daft and are unlikely to turn down a regular feed.

We fed them bananas at the first place as planned and then walked with them to the second one. Sometimes we plodged though rivers or mud but with some kind of wet-suit material socks on our feet it was easy enough.

A one stage the young ‘un got a bit arsey and charged at me. The guides flapped a bit but I stood my ground and steered him away. I don’t think he had any really bad intentions, but I imagine he could be a bit of a handful as he gets older.

Anyway, after a third and final stop for bananas another mile or so along, the elephants had no further need for us and left the trail by heading up a bank into the undergrowth. It was a worthwhile way to spend a couple of hours and I’d be happy to do it again at some point.

This latest trip was just to Vientiane and planned around a fixture that I’d noticed on a list posted on Lao Toyota FC Facebook feed. I’m not really a big user of Facebook as, this blog apart, I’m quite a secretive person who doesn’t like people knowing what I’m up to. Still, I can appreciate that it has its uses at times.

Once we were into the final few days before the flight a bit more information appeared and as luck would have it I had a choice of three games. I picked the first one of a double-header taking place at the New National Stadium, mainly on the basis that the three o’clock kick-off left more time for carousing later in the day.

The new national stadium, didn’t look that new to me, although I suppose it’s relative. I still see the Riverside as new, but I’ve been going there longer than the twenty-one years that I went to Ayresome Park. In another similarity it’s out of town, in this case by more than half an hour in a taxi.

With plenty of time before kick-off we had a mooch around the outside for a bit, nipping in through an open entrance to photograph the main stand before heading back around to the main entrance to get inside.

Nobody was selling or asking for tickets and so we followed the VVIP signs and emerged in the directors box where we took a couple of seats. If I were a real director I’d be asking them to remove the loud speakers that were blasting out the fucking racket that I hear all over Asia about somebody sending out misleading dating signals by leaving their clothes on someone else’s bedroom floor.

Our covered seats were in the west stand, giving us shade throughout the match. I spotted one person in the uncovered end to our left, but nobody in the covered, but less shaded, stand opposite or the uncovered end to our right.

At kick-off there probably weren’t more than thirty people in the stadium, including our somewhat bemused taxi-driver who had agreed to wait for us and who found it hard to understand why a local game would have any spectators at all. The rest of the crowd at that stage were predominantly wives and girlfriends of the players and they were quick to fold the team sheets that they were given into makeshift fans.

The Police team, in red, had more of the early chances. The Army, who were in white, had a striker with a weird little top knot that I like to think was some sort of variation on a fusilier’s hackle. There was no real niggle in the game which surprised me as you never know when the two teams could find themselves on opposite sides in a coup.

By the time the teams went in goalless at the break the crowd had swollen to around a hundred. It probably doubled during the second half as the officials and fans of Lao Toyota and Young Elephant arrived in advance of their 5.30pm kick-off.

It was Top Knot who broke the deadlock when he knocked the opener in off the far post. The goal caused his wag to scream in delight for a good minute or so afterwards.

There was a lot of of Army timewasting  in the closing stages. I’d have hated to have had to try and get any of them to go ‘over the top’in the trenches and I suspect that the victory parade would have been long over before any of these fellas were ready to make a move. The delaying tactics paid off though and the Army comfortably saw out the remaining minutes for a one-nil victory.

The match took the total number of countries in which I’ve seen a football game to forty-five. My next game will be country number forty-six and the World Cup clash in Saint Petersburg between Brazil and Costa Rica. Whilst there will be a bigger crowd and better players, I’m sure that there will be a similar level of time-wasting in the final few minutes.