Well, we're about a month away from the big kick off. I trust that you've scrawled a great big red circle around June 11th in your diary because that's when it all starts - the greatest sporting spectacular on earth - The Football World Cup. It's the opportunity for South Africa to show off half a dozen of its finest soccer stadia and Nelson Mandela to wear a hideous shirt and tell us that nothing brings nations closer together more than the beautiful game.
Something strange just dawned on me. I've lived in Thailand through no fewer than five world cup tournaments. It's been interesting to watch how Thailand has developed into such a football loving nation and that passion for football is never more evident than when the world cup rolls around. Yes folks, it's that time of year when half of your corporate business English class - noticeably the male half - suddenly disappear without trace. And as half of the students sneak off to watch Serbia against Ghana in a group D opener, you're left with a training room full of non-footy fans - four slightly butch females and the guy with glasses from the accounting department. As a teacher, you should never be disappointed that the vast majority have decided that Serbia versus Ghana is more attractive than you prattling on about subject-verb agreement, because frankly speaking, you're lucky to have found some corporate work anyway. I've got no sympathy for you.
I have a very strange world cup ritual and I adopt it every four years without fail. A month before the tournament begins, my father will kindly send me a world cup guide. It's usually a glossy magazine affair with pen pictures of all the major football stars for each country, a section on how the teams got to the finals, and enough comment and opinion to keep your average armchair fan occupied for hours. Then of course there's the world cup wall-chart, which you can spread out on the coffee table and see all the fixtures, dates and venues in their full glory. Then comes the job of painstakingly re-arranging your life for one whole month so that you don't miss a single throw-in. There are endless logistical nightmares. Now if I keep that appointment with Colin at 9.00 on Tuesday morning, I won't be able to stay up until the early hours watching Portugal play North Korea. I could move the appointment to later in the afternoon, but get stuck in traffic on the way home and heaven forbid - it would be touch and go as to whether I made it home for Slovakia New Zealand. The world is suddenly a more stressful place to live in.
Cometh the big day - I'm perched on the edge of the sofa - there's just me and a well-thumbed world cup guide. I'm so excited I can even sit through two hours of opening ceremony (five hundred local schoolchildren prancing around with lengths of colored chiffon and Michel Platini giving a ten-minute speech and frankly earning money for old rope) I can even endure the traditionally tedious opening encounter between the host nation and Mexico. OK, it finishes nil-nil, there might have been only two shots on goal (one which ended up in row Z and the other which ended up in a nearby river) but look on the bright side - things can only get better. But tragically they never ever do. Slovenia and Algeria might kick off at two in the morning Thailand time but I'm determined to stay with it - even if it means splashing my face with icy cold water at ten minute intervals. But there's nothing like a cat-and-mouse, midfield tussle between Slovenia and Algeria to make you realize that you probably have far better things to do with your time. The fact that you finally succumb to exhaustion and miss the only goal of the game just serves to make matters worse. And as I climb the stairs to bed, facing the luxury of at least two hours of poor quality sleep, there is but one single thought in my mind. I need to be a little more particular in choosing the games I want to watch. Or in other words - The World Cup can sod off.
The following day, I open the world cup wall chart with considerably less enthusiasm. I scribble an X next to England's three qualifying group games and let the rest of the tournament take care of itself. I might force myself to watch the semi-finals. No, that's just being silly. I'll definitely watch the final. But only if England are in it. And let's be realistic - how can I possibly spend so many hours watching football when I could be surfing porn or rearranging my sock drawer?
I mean, come on, no one has the time or the inclination to sit through every single one of the 60-odd games that will take place. No one except those two guys who work for the Thai TV network, and have the job of deciding if there's enough dead time to slip in a TV commercial.
"It's gone out for a throw-in, quick! Stick that commercial for motorcycles on".
"It's a corner! And it's gone into the crowd! Let's see if we can get away with motorcycles and then the hair conditioner"
"The trainer's coming on! Call me a crazy bastard but I think we can get away with motorcycles, hair conditioner.......... and engine oil. It's only Slovenia and Algeria for God's sake"
Let's go back to the topic of Thailand and football fever. Larger companies in Bangkok (and I presume it happens elsewhere in Thailand) are fully aware that work is going to be severely disrupted during world cup month. Employees who normally work well past their allotted finishing time will be racing each other to the elevator to get back home for the early evening fixtures. Those employees who stay up half the night watching football and adverts for hair conditioner will be rolling up for work the following day whenever they feel like it. Many companies expect this. Many companies brace themselves for it. The only thing they can do is enter into the spirit of the tournament.
One of the noblest company gestures I ever saw was during the world cup of 2002 which was held in Japan and Korea. Due to the time difference between Japan and Thailand, many of the games were kicking off at about 4.30pm - at least half an hour before the end of the Thai working day. At the time, I was doing some corporate training at a communications company in the Morchit area. Not only did the company allow staff to finish half an hour early but they also set up a special lounge with a wide-screen TV and complimentary snacks and drinks. Now that's my kind of company. It actually worked well because it brought staff from different departments together. Staff that normally wouldn't interact with each other found themselves predicting results, having friendly bets and analyzing the previous day's games. Even the delivery drivers were invited up to a part of the office they would never usually see and while HR staff mingled with members of the finance department, the drivers did what drivers do best - loll around on comfy chairs and place bets they could ill afford to lose.
Roll on June 11th.