A circus of football at the Thammasat Stadium

My friends and I stood in the humid night air and looked up at Bangkok United’s impressive Thammasat Stadium. The home side – Bangkok United – were squaring off against Port FC, and none of us knew quite what to expect. Like many Asian nations, Thailand has a healthy appetite for the English Premier League, but did that indicate a lack of quality in the domestic game? We needn’t have worried.

We passed through the belly of this 25,000-seater stadium and took our seats. Admission was around £2 a head, but the stadium was only half-full. Those fans who were in attendance more than made up for it, however – crowding together in tight blocks of noise and movement, ramping the volume and passion up to cup final levels. From our seats at the halfway line, we had a perfect view of the home side’s ultras – a motley crew clad in Bangkok United red and leading the supporters by example. Their passion was impossible to resist, and by the second half we couldn’t help but join them.

But the stands couldn’t hold our attention for long. The match soon found its rhythm, and clearly this was to be no cagey, tactical battle – both teams were in it to win it. There was no sideways passing or possession for possession’s sake – instead, the players exchanged slick passes, rattled off quick one-twos and sent runners scurrying into the opponent’s box. It looked like we were in for a treat of a football match. 

It wasn’t long before the referee had his first big call to make. A Bangkok player was brought down in the box, and although the defender clearly took the ball, I was on my feet appealing for a penalty with the rest of the home fans. The referee pointed to the spot, and I punched the air in triumph. The penalty was dispatched. 1-0, and the ultras at the front went crazy – the drummers started up afresh and a fan clad head-to-toe in a full black gimp suit spread his arms in the universal gesture of “come and have a go if you think you're hard enough”.

 

Barely five minutes had passed before Bangkok had another penalty shout. If the first was dubious, this was clear cut: no penalty. The referee gave it anyway. Bangkok scored, and the fans erupted in a fresh wave of euphoria. One man, dressed in Rupert the Bear checkered trousers and the glasses of an accountant, even stood on his seat and wiggled his backside in a camp gesture of celebration.  

United quickly scored a third, and by now it should have been plain sailing. But Port FC were having some joy down the wings, and before long, the away team pulled one back. And what a goal it was. A short, slight Port FC forward with the low centre of gravity of a Thai Messi ghosted past a hoard of Bangkok defenders and floated a thirty-yarder square into the top corner. My mouth fell open, and despite my newfound affinity with Bangkok United, I couldn’t help but applaud the finish. I looked to the ultra below me – no-one was clapping. In fact, one woman even let out a blood-curdling scream – something she did every time the opposition came even close to mounting an attack. When Bangkok had the ball, she sang, danced and shook a pair of neon pom-poms with boundless enthusiasm.

The half-time break gave us the chance to reflect on a breathless first period, and refuel with dumplings and fresh pineapple juice from a vendor’s stall. Call it patronising, but I’d never expected the quality of Thai football to be so high. After taking their early lead, Bangkok had shown excellent game management to control possession and recycle the ball in precise little passing triangles.

There were moments of genuine magic, too. For the fifth goal, a Bangkok midfielder drifted in from the right wing and arched a perfect outside-of-the-boot pass beyond three Port FC defenders and into the path of the striker. The forward met the ball in stride, and had only to poke out a foot to divert the ball into the net. Later, another Bangkok player met a low, whipped cross with a volleyed half-rabona, sending the shot crashing back off the crossbar. This was circus football. Bangkok had six by now, and the fans were loving it.

We were stood with the ultras by now, learning the songs and losing our voices in the process. There were no fewer than four drummers in this section of the crowd, one with a full kit: bass drum, cymbals, snare, the lot. By the time the full-time whistle sounded, the scoreboard read a frankly ludicrous 6-2 in Bangkok’s favour. As the players left the pitch, exhausted, these hardcore fans surprised me with a gesture that seemed to sum up Thailand. They pointedly turned to the away supporters, and gave them a prolonged, meaningful round of applause.

They call Thailand the land of smiles. And after this feast of football, I left the Thammasat Stadium with a broad one of my own.

– Words and images: Gavin Williams.

Gavin is a freelance writer currently travelling Asia in search of captivating football stories. You can read more about his adventures at:

https://gavinwilliamsblog.wordpress.com/