Bangkok Phil

When Asians and Westerners meet on a football pitch

A weekend football tournament provided a fascinating comparison of mindsets and attitudes

Last weekend, I was invited to take part in a seven-a-side football tournament at the impressive Bangkok Patana International School.

At the ripe old age of 55, I keep thinking I've hung up my football boots for good, but it's amazing how persuasive old friends can be when it comes to talking you out of retirement for one last hurrah.  

The 'Bangkok Veteran Sevens' is held over a Saturday and Sunday and attracts teams from all over Asia and beyond. There are groups of ex-university classmates, company colleagues and drinking buddies who get together and travel to Bangkok from as far afield as Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia, India and The Middle East. You also have a number of local expat and Thai teams thrown into the mix.

The event is well-organised and bolstered by generous sponsorship from various pubs, banks and financial advisors. The football matches themselves are divided into three age groups; over 35's, over 45's and over 55's.

Despite the advancing years and creaky joints, everyone is there to perform to the best of their ability, but I suspect what really appeals to most players is that 'football weekends' give them the chance to escape from the wife and kids for a few days, bond with old friends and see how much beer they can pour down their throats.

These football competitions seem to draw a particular breed of expat - the kind you would almost certainly encounter at networking evenings, chamber of commerce get-togethers and pub quizzes. The sort whose conversations about hedge funds you can eavesdrop on during happy hours in dull Irish pubs. And an awful lot of them seem to be called Robert.  

Each to his own I know, but I have never once desired to be a part of this group, to penetrate their intimate circle and to step inside their expat bubble.  Standing shoulder-to-shoulder in Molly O'Reilly's on a Friday evening, just because it's the done thing, and making small talk with all the Roberts, has simply never appealed to me.

And yet at the same time, I begrudgingly admire these people. 

As the Bangkok Veteran Sevens drew to a close on its second day, the MC took to his microphone and reminded everyone present about the next football tournament taking place in Tokyo in a few months time.  Or was it being held in Saigon or Manila? Actually, it doesn't matter, I think most major cities in the region get to play host at some stage. My point is that if you have plenty of time and money, you can probably spend most of the year - just you and your mates - flitting around Asia, guzzling beer, swapping dirty stories and playing a bit of football in-between.

All I can think about are their poor wives. What happens to them? Are they left alone to look after the children in some high-rise luxury condo in Causeway Bay with just the nanny for company?    

But let's rewind to the Saturday - the first day of the Bangkok competition. 

"Good morning everyone and welcome to the Bangkok Veteran Sevens. It's going to be extremely hot today so could all players make sure they take plenty of liquids on board? Enjoy the football and remember it's the taking part that counts. But by far the most important thing is for everyone to have fun!"

Wise words from the MC as he declared the event underway.

I was playing for the Sanook Wanderers in the over 45's competition (disappointingly, we hadn't managed to recruit enough players to put together an over 55's team but there's always next year) 

After our opening game - a somewhat unlucky 2-0 defeat at the hands of The Gold Coast Koalas (I won't insult your intelligence by telling you where they were from) we found ourselves lining up against a bunch of local Thai guys in our second fixture. I'm not sure whether university or workplace was the common denominator but they all looked well into their forties. Several even had greyer hair than me!  

The sides were very evenly matched and as shots flew over the crossbar and into the next post code, you might say the game had goalless draw written all over it. But as the match was drawing to a close, there was a personal defining moment - a moment that you could say gave me the inspiration to write this piece.  Dwelling too long on the ball and losing possession carelessly in midfield, I instinctively lunged at an opposing player with an aggressive slide tackle. It was a perfectly timed slide tackle and I certainly got the ball before the man, but slide tackles are against the rules in this form of football and the referee rightly blew his whistle for an infringement and halted play as my midfield counterpart lay in a heap. 

Oh my God, how would he react I thought, as I held out a hand to hoist him up from the turf. As he got gingerly to his feet, I gave him my very best wai and apology. He smiled, told me not to worry and we gave each other a big man-hug right there in the centre circle. It was a beautiful sporting moment and the crunching tackle was forgotten in an instant. We even put our arms around each other at the final whistle. 

This was football as it is meant to be played. By gentleman.

Having at least an hour to kill between matches gave me ample opportunity to wander around and watch other games in progress. And in every game involving Asian players, I saw the same attitude and mindset. I was bowled over by the the cool heads, the forgiving natures and the overall sportsmanship. Yes, they all wanted to win and yes, every game was fiercely contested - but it was the joy of just being able to play competitive football that mattered most.

I'm ashamed to say it, but that attitude was the polar opposite to what went on in a number of the games I witnessed involving 'expat farangs' or Westerners.

In our next match, we faced off against a whole team of them - seven beer-bellied expat bruisers who intended to kick, gouge, scrap, argue and maul their way to victory.  Nothing was against the rules as long as the ref didn't see it. I was raked across the shin by a set of studs barely a minute into the game and the perpetrator just stood there and laughed at me. There is no opponent more annoying than the man who was probably once a half-decent footballer but thanks to middle-aged spread, has lost all his speed and agility and so makes up for it with brutality - but still thinks he's a half-decent footballer. 

Up front in attack, they had a guy who would have started a fight in an empty graveyard.  He didn't have a single redeeming characteristic. Ghandhi would have kicked him in the throat.  

He bitched and moaned and contested every decision that didn't go his way. Whenever he lost the ball (and it happened a lot) he blamed a team-mate. Every time he came out second best in a 50-50 challenge, he would throw his hands in the air and swear at the referee. I couldn't wait for the game to end. 

With the mid-afternoon sun beating down, I ambled over to watch a match which had just kicked off on pitch number three. I had no idea who the teams were but could see it was 7 Thais against 7 farangs. I could sense a feisty encounter in store and it didn't take long to boil over.  One of the diminutive Thai midfielders tackled and won the ball fairly from a foreigner three times his size. The foreigner retaliated with a hefty shoulder barge that resulted in the Thai guy falling flat on his face. While the Thai player was still on the deck, the foreigner, deciding he absolutely had to have the last word, took aim and kicked the ball at the Thai with all the strength he could muster. Pray tell, for what reason?  

The ref had no choice but to produce the red card. We didn't need VAR for that one. 

As the foreigner walked slowly off the pitch, the angry Thai player shouted "this is football, not Thai boxing" (and quite right too I thought) This only antagonized his assailant further; the red mist came down and the foreigner ran back onto the pitch to see what more damage he could inflict. 

Thankfully several team-mates intervened and dragged him away before any limbs were broken or teeth got knocked out.

I kept a safe distance and just shook my head. 

What happened to that fun weekend of football we were all supposed to be a part of?

p.s. None of the above is aimed at The Sanook Wanderers because we conducted ourselves magnificently throughout :)  


I worked with 4 of your team mates many years ago in Bangkok, and they are all great lads. Good to see them still looking so well.

By Neil Smith, UK (11th June 2019)

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