It could have been any other of over twenty original shirts from different countries he owns, but gods of coincidence decided it’s going to be a Buriram United’s dark blue Tao will wear that day, almost a year ago between protesters in Hong Kong’s Admiralty. The protest colours, yellow was the most dominant, exploded over central Hong Kong in October 2014 and I was practically colour blind after shooting millions of pictures every day. But two Chang elephants and that beautiful blue, my favourite of all Asian football colours I could not possibly miss.
Besides sporting such a beautiful shirt and being Thailand’s champions several times, Buriram United F.C. is not the most loving sports club in the Land of Smiles. It’s one of those money-can-buy-you-all-but-not-really clubs that many people love to hate. Since it was bought by a local politician in 2009 who renamed it and moved to his hometown (original name PEA, colours purple/white), Buriram United is a powerhouse of Thai football. They have amazing new stadium, one of wonders of Buriram, a strong team and even stronger rivalry with Bangkok’s Muangthong United for which Robbie the God Fowler, pushing his wasted body to the limits, use to play.
The day I met Tao and his beautiful family, Buriram United beat Police United 2-1 to secure another league title. A year after they remain atop the Thai Premier league together with Muangthong United, 56 points each. At the same time in Hong Kong, few hundreds pro-democracy protesters with yellow umbrellas are taking streets of Admiralty again to mark the anniversary of protest – is Tao there and what shirt he wears?
Why Raja Casablanca? I asked.
“Best, best, best”
The initial enthusiasm of someone who thinks he is a pinball wizard quickly deflated after a machine, accustomed to someone’s else hands, hungry swallowed my coins. With great regret I made conclusion that my magic somehow vanished (I blame digital world) so I moved to the next room where local boys were attending what looked like a serious tournament in table football. To avoid further embarrassments, I choose a little boy age seven or something to play with. I use to own one of these tables and I think I’m good in it. However, it turns that the boy is not from this planet and he puts all the balls behind my wooden goalie before I even managed my tactics. I admit, in my career of promising table football player I lived though a number of humiliating defeats. The one in a dungeon just off Rue el Fassi in Morocco’s capital Rabat is probably the worst one.
So I walked away, down the street and then left to a small alley following the irresistible smell of freshly baked bread. Like a black hole, a small bakery sucks me in. One of boys inside, Hassan is his name if I remember correctly, was wearing AC Milan shirt but as soon as he saw my camera he jumped and proudly put a green-and-white Raja Club Athletic jersey over it. Naturally, I took pictures of smiling Hassan and then followed him and one Ronaldo pushing carts with bread through the labyrinth of Rabat’s old town.
Raja Club Athletic from Casablanca, eleven times champion of Morocco, had reputation of being a people’s club for which was often more important to hide the ball and humiliate the opponent than to score goals. Many of my friends will now, with a loud sigh, think of FK Velež from Mostar in Bosnia and its legendary generation of artist players. It’s not a surprise that one of these geniuses, Vahid Halilhodžić, led Raja Club Athletic to the Moroccan title as its manager in late nineties.
WTF?, I asked.
“You know, Bird loves Liverpool”, said one of his friends.
The idea and and rule of Footballists, simple and never-changing, is to talk and take pictures of people wearing shirts of their favourite football teams. This is, obviously, a special edition on our blog so let’s make an exception. If Khun Bird would be wearing his favourite shirt today the gods would be angry, that’s what his rule says. Actually, Khun Bird is a god today. More precisely, a god possess his body. It’s complicated.
The bizarre vegetarian festival on Phuket, the island known to be a tourist heaven in southern Thailand, easily tops otherwise very bizarre list of events I normally attend in my wanderings through Southeast Asia. In short, the festival, featuring face and every other piercing, spirit mediums and strict vegetarianism is a part of the local Chinese community’s belief that will help them obtain good health, and the rest that comes with pleading with Nine Emperor Gods. However, the original idea somehow developed into a spectacular festival of mind blowing rituals. Besides usual self-mutilation that is known to other religions in other parts of the world, what makes veggie fest in Phuket very special is variety of objects that are used to piece bodies. Car exhaust pipes and alloy wheels, chandeliers, nunchakus, models of racing cars and sailing ships, umbrellas, barbed wire and every possible kind of spikes, knifes and screwers plus M16s and other weapons – it is all pierced through cheeks and mouths of devotees of different Chinese temples as they parade through Phuket. That and many other unimaginable objects sharpened to cut through flesh. If you are in the mood, probably not, for some more pictures and attempts to explain the unexplainable, please look here and here.
Khun Bird, god for a day, loves Liverpool. I had no chance to talk to him directly as he was in trance with two metal rods carrying LFC flags, oranges stuck at their sharp ends, pierced through his mouth but members of his entourage, all wearing original Liverpool shirts, briefly explained his passion to me. So I took some pictures and then followed another god, fishing net coming from his mouth, into the crowd. For true believers this would be another strong proof that if you choose the right team, here and elsewhere, You’ll Never Walk Alone.
Why Italy? I asked.
“I’m from Italy. Actually not from Italy, I’m from Brazil. But my ancestors are from Italy”
At Tutty’s, sovereign behind a cashier he operates, Luciano smiles. Italy just won against England in an unexpectedly entertaining match and Andrea Pirlo, a football genius in the body of priest, or vice versa, is on TV. The largely empty restaurant in a small street behind the church in Porto Alegre is, apart from a dodgy night club offering pleasures of unknown sex, the only facility opened at this time of night. Two fat waiters with enormous quantity of gel in hair dance between empty tables serving unhealthy food to few customers. Naturally, football is on all of many screens mounted on Tutty’s walls.
To make almost poetic picture perfect, Luciano wears a Pirlo shirt. I immediately walk to him and, in a short conversation full of understanding using a meta-Latin language, we agree on number of things. Above all is our love for football with less running and more improvisation. And sometimes painful love for countries of our forefathers (my Bosnia played day after in its virgin World Cup match and I was already very nervous). Luciano’s, just like of many great Brazilians (Luis Felipe Scolari, Felipe Massa, Falcao…) came from Italy. Centuries later, that duality proved to be a win-win situation – no other combination in football offers more pleasure and trophies.
Andrea Pirlo fits perfectly in that picture. To re-phrase a friend – if the God played football he would be just like him. He doesn’t run, he sees it all and he can alone win a big match without even touching the ball, as he did against England. I’m not religious and nothing can be done about that but if Pirlo brings Italy to the throne this time I may consider starting at least a sect. I’m sure it would not be hard to find followers.
Why Man united? I asked.
“I’ve been watching football from when I was very young. This is when Cantona played, and I fell in love.”
Okay, that is possibly the most normal of all the answers to a question asked but, honestly, I didn’t expect to hear it. If not made clear, Ling’s bright red shirt, one of about a thousand at Aqsa road just outside Bangkok that morning could have suggested something else – perhaps affiliation to “red shirt” movement that, in Thailand’s color coded politics, fights for what they believe is right wearing all sorts of red clothes. Football jerseys included.
But, no. Ling said his Man United shirt has nothing to do with protests and that he is visiting a friend near the area where red shirts have been gathering for weeks. He just likes Cantona and his moves with the ball a lot, that’s all. Fair enough. Football uber alles.
A day after, Thailand’s mighty military staged another coup d’etat and immediately desaturated the streets of its protesting colors. Reds and others were sent home. Military fatigues are dominating again in a country in whose turbulent times you better be careful what color of shirt you wear.
Why Liverpool?, I asked many times and got always the same answer in a language I don’t speak with the attitude I understand perfectly. There is no need for translation – a raised eyebrow and a pose of someone who will never give up speak volumes.
I know Khun Suarez for many years. He is one of tough motorcycle taxi drivers working in my street and he wears his football shirts to work. Most of the time it is one from his vast Liverpool collection although recently I’ve seen an Atletico Madrid emblem under his taxi vest. He takes me through the madness of Bangkok traffic almost every day – without people like Suarez (not his real name but we both like it) I would be just another miserable passenger stranded in what often looks like one huge parking lot in the streets of a monster city.
Our conversation, always short but pleasant is a combination of gabbling in my non-existing Thai and his equally understandable English, with important elements of pantomime. The words we understand are always the same: Liverpool (followed by his smile, a rare moment in the world of Bangkok’s taxi drivers), Manchester and Chelsea (with a face expression of someone who is about to vomit) and number of goals from last night’s matches. At the end of the day when I come back home and when he had already taken off his taxi jacket, we share a few glasses of poisonous Thai whiskey, rarely a beer. The conversation however remains the same, about football. It’s been like this for years and I don’t want it to change. He is one of very few things that can make me feel Bangkok home.
Tomorrow morning I will be again on the back of his decomposing 125cc Yamaha and he will wear a Liverpool shirt. There is a slim chance Liverpool is snatching that trophy tonight but that will change nothing. Some things are just bigger than anything money can buy, including the title.
Why DDR?, I asked.
Instead of the answer, I will copy here a few verses from Ahmed’s book The God of Transition. The poem is called “Ulf Kirsten, a star man” (the star here is a five pointed one, symbol of the revolution) and it’s obviously about the legendary player from East Germany who would raise his arms and spread legs making it look like a star after scoring a goal. After the Wall was brought down, Ulf played for re-unified Germany, hundred caps in total: 49 for the East, 51 for what came after.
When he came out to play in that white Germany shirt with Bundesadler on his heart
Instead of blue one with the sickle and hammer and DDR sign
Nothing was the same anymore.
We were not the same; the Europe was not the same
Only Ulf, firm on strong legs, suggested we can survive
And still score a goal.
Talking football with Ahmed, a Bosnian journalist, poet and great friend, is bit of a festival that requires special skills. Even if you consider yourself an expert, you will still be just a mere listener. Your knowledge is void, your observations shallow, your predictions pointless. Anything else you think you know – better keep it for yourself, open your heart and listen to Ahmed. He is a football encyclopedia filled with facts, emotions and hard to control passion. Watching matches with him, our routine for many years, is a rare pleasure in which I’m not sure what’s more important and entertaining – what is happening on screen or in front of it.
Ahmed, just like every real lover of the game, cheers for not only one team. Teams Ahmed loves, and whose jerseys he wears, have to be very special, just as he is special – a combination of power, knowledge and charm but above everything with often irrational and seductive moves of a genius underdog who came from nowhere to play against big powers. In his own team Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Miles Davis would be creators, Hendrix striker no matter the result. The final score is important but the game Ahmed plays is above everything.
I will be going to Brazil for the World Cup soon, to take pictures and enjoy the tournament. That is great and I’m humbly thankful to all gods involved in making it happen. But, what makes me even happier is that my beloved friend Ahmed will be there, to follow the tournament and dribble with verses about it. If you ever come across his byline or meet him in person, stop and listen what he has to say – I promise you won’t be disappointed.