Friday, September 07, 2007

Asian Cup July 2007

You don't often get to meet an elephant whilst eating at your local restaurant , a surreal experience this writer had near his Bangkok hotel. Though I declined to feed the said beast some children did (for a small charge) .That was during my first night in Thailand - a country that can definitely offer a wide variety of 'experiences'.

Thailand, Vietnam , Malaysia & Indonesia jointly hosted the latest addition of the Asian Cup.
Most games were played in the capital cities - Bangkok, Hanoi, Jakarta & Kuala Lumpur and each city had its own attractions.
All places were hot, often humid & sometimes very wet. But that was to be expected in July in South East Asia.

The conditions did serve to enhance the chances of the four home countries & probably detracted from the performance of the favourites, Australia, playing in their first Asian Cup.
Certainly the torrential rain that accompanied the Bangkok opening ceremony diminished that spectacle & reduced the attendance for Thailand's game versus eventual winners Iraq. The result of that match was a rather surprising draw with the home team benefiting from a rather dubious penalty decision. Thailand would not progress beyond the group stages but their play exceeded prior expectations.

Wandering around central Bangkok at this time of year means you will inevitably be wet (through sweating) whether it rains or not. So your correspondent had to modify his tourist strategy on this trip - using more taxis or tuk tuks or even on one disconcerting occasion, a motor bike, to see the sights.
And there are certainly sights to be seen, not least the mind-boggling architecture of the Grand Palace, the excellent National Museum & the golden buddha.

One thing that is impossible to miss are the all pervading Royal images and the numerous yellow shirts. Especially on Mondays (King's Day) when most of the population wear that colour to show support for their long-serving monarch.

In contrast Thai support for the football was fairly moderate & that could be said of the profile of the tournament generally.

However in Hanoi , encouraged by a winning start , the Vietnamese proved keen & enthusiastic supporters. They generated some serious noise at the My Dinh stadium to drive on their players towards a previously unachieved level (the quarter final)

The city itself is probably the most interesting of the four capitals.

Uncle Ho's mausoleum, the Revolution museum, the crazy roads full of bikes & most of all the old quarter, with its ancient system of streets divided into specific trades ,are some of the highlights.
But drinking a beer in a bar overlooking Hoan Kiem lake whilst watching the locals loudly celebrate a Vietnam win, circling the lake in their motor bikes with flags flying , was perhaps the best moment.
Having a hotel nearby was useful although returning after midnight was not to be recommended as I found one night. Fortunately (for me) banging on the shutters awoke the caretaker & I was allowed in.

My introduction to Malaysia was also not very auspicious. Arriving late at night on an Air Asia flight from Hanoi I expected to arrive at the main airport (the only one mentioned in my year-old guide book) in Kuala Lumpur & be collected by the hotel bus service. After a while I realised that the low cost airline base had been hived off to an airport 'annexe' & I needed a taxi to get home, belatedly, for the night.
Somehow KL continued to frustrate with its rather un-integrated transport system , over-officious hotel staff & minor regulations.

But being a much newer city than the others it tends to lack the character & obviously the history of the more established places, though Chinatown does give it some atmosphere. Otherwise you can admire the tall towers & visit a very impressive (and large) bird park.

The Malaysian football team was not so impressive - they were poor & suffered some comprehensive defeats watched by small crowds in the over-large Bukit Jalil stadium.
Though that stadium did host one of the better games ; China 2 Iran 2 , played before an enthusiastic mixture of students & ex-pats workers.

It was especially in Jakarta that you seemed to be in the presence of 'real' football fans. Over 80,000 would pack into the Senayan stadium, generating a vibrant atmosphere, to see their country.
Although Indonesia ultimately failed to reach the last eight they did produce some very spirited performances.

As with the other capital cities Jakarta was often very crowded & hectic though you did sense it had less tourists.
Certainly in Palembang on Sumatra island, the location for the 3rd place play-off, it felt like the locals had hardly ever seen a westerner.
Hence a nod & a smile, often in response to 'hello mister' from the curious faces, was the required greeting.

So the Asian Cup in South East Asia offered a variable passion for football with sometimes very small crowds in vast stadiums, better than expected performances from the home teams & a climate that made your correspondent sweat for England.

Nevertheless it was a very interesting & memorable experience amongst friendly people.

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