About a decade ago Thailand caught football fever and nothing has ever been the same here. Almost every Thai you talk to these days follows football. The guys down the pub, women at work, they all have their favorite team and favorite player. Strangely, though, that team seems to be Manchester United, and David Beckham is the only player they know. This is a typical conversation you’ve probably had with a taxi driver.
“Where you come from?”
“I’m from England.”
“Ah! Manchester United numbah one.”
“Oh. You know Tony Beckham? He numbah one.”
It’s not like the taxi driver is even from sophisticated Bangkok. He’s probably from Buri Somewhere, but he sure knows more about football and footballers than I ever will.
I’m going to be a heretic here and tell you the truth. Football is about the last thing on earth I’m interested in. I’m into solitary sports — like swimming (bet you thought I was going to say something else, didn’t you? Naughty, naughty.)
Yet there is no getting away from it. It doesn’t matter where you go in the world football is the number one topic of conversation. You can be five hundred miles up the Amazon River and an Indian will pop his head out of the jungle and ask, “You like Manchester United?” And if you say “No” he will probably spear you to death.
Despite this, you have to wonder how much some of these ‘fans’ really know about football. They all seem to ask about ManU, but I’ve never had anyone outside Australia ask me how I like the team from, say, Footscray. Heck! Come to think of it, I’ve never had anyone outside Melbourne, the home of Australian Rules, ask me about Footscray, or Aussie Rules football either for that matter.
Aussie Rules football in Melbourne is not just a game. It’s an obsession. I was on a bus one day in Melbourne when two old gents of Italian heritage got on and sat behind me. Their conversation went like this. It really did.
“Hey Joe, you think-a St. Kilda will-a win-a da league this year?”
“Are you a-crazy? Footascray is-a gonna win for sure!”
“Mama Mia! Is not-a possible. You know the trouble with-a Footascray? There’s-a too many bloody Australians playing on-a da team. If they had-a more Italians a-playing they would-a be in-a like-a da bloody Flynn!”
My relationship with football has been a disaster all my life. I mean, I’ve really tried hard to get into the game. I begged my father to buy me a pair of boots and a soccer ball when I was about five years old. We were living in Gibraltar at the time. That’s a small British colony just south of Real Madrid.
One day my old man brought home the boots and ball I’d been clamoring for and two seconds later I had ripped the paper off the parcel. I sat down, pulled on the boots and then had to call for help. I mean, those laces were twenty foot long. Where was I going to put them? In the end, we threaded them through all the right holes and did the first tie. Then we had to wrap them around the arch of my foot a few times before we finally had ends short enough to ensure I wouldn’t go arse-over-tit as soon as I started walking. I looked like I had a real big problem with fallen arches.