For over two hours I’d been sitting in a pink-colored plastic chair, about 20 rows up from the pitch at Rajamangala National Stadium, broiling like a piece of red meat in a frying pan under Bangkok’s scorching midday sun. A Thai-language Coke commercial boomed over the stadium’s jacked-up loudspeakers, again, for what felt like the hundredth time since I sat down. When it wasn’t on loop, two young Thai emcees on a small stage at the front of the bleachers breathlessly screamed into two microphones — literally screaming bloody fucking murder into those bloody fucking microphones for over two bloody fucking hours.
Oh my god, I want to die.
Sunscreen long since washed away in an ocean of sweat, my only salvation from the merciless sun is a thin rolled-up flag, one at every chair in this 60,000-seat stadium. I wrap it around my entire head like a scarf in winter, face completely concealed behind the blue and white colors of Chelsea FC. Desperation is sinking in as the torturous noise, noise, noise, noise drones on with glib high-volume indifference. The sun, oh hot hot Southeast Asian sun, please, have mercy!
I wanted to claw my face off and I felt like pulling my ears off. What had I gotten myself into?
Mangy dogs languidly limped around the stadium parking lot as I took a seat underneath a shady tree, cracked a can of Leo beer, and forked fish cakes out of a small styrofoam container with a thin wooden stick. Street-food vendors were lined up in front of a long row of basketball backboards, tents popped up like a traveling circus. Skewers of barbecued meats roasting on grills. Rows of dried, salted squid stretched out and tacked onto a tall wooden rack. Cockle omelettes, iced coffee, fried shrimp, miniature hot dogs wrapped in bacon, fresh fruit, som tam, big jars of jelly drinks.
I looked around and smiled. Today was going to be a good day.
Kickoff for the friendly exhibition match between Chelsea FC and the Thai Premier League All-Stars was still more than four hours away, but thousands were already streaming into the stadium on this sweltering late-July afternoon, many of them clad in blue Chelsea jerseys. I’m not a Chelsea fan, but I was curious to see them play in person, and for the last few months had been regularly attending decidedly low-key Thai Premier League matches around Bangkok and becoming a casual Thai Port FC supporter.
The game wasn’t cheap — my ticket cost somewhere in the neighborhood of US$45, or about 1,350 Thai baht — but it seemed like a worthwhile splurge and a chance to see how well the TPL’s finest matched up with one of the best teams in the world. (For the record, I expected the stadium to be a soccer slaughterhouse, Chelsea cruise-controlling their way to a 10-0 laugher, but still.)
A Super Bowl-style pavilion filled with corporate distractions was set up beyond the security check gates and before the stadium entrance: Chelsea merchandise stands, smartphone booths, motorcycle displays, Coca-Cola tents. Noise, noise, noise, noise, noise — I decided I was better off in the stadium, where I’d grab a cold Chang, find a good seat, and wait for the game to begin.
Oh, I bought two bottles of cold water and found a great seat, but there was no beer for sale and no re-admission to the stadium. Kickoff was still almost 2.5 hours away, and as the mobs that had filled the parking lot steadily paraded into the stadium I worried about losing my seat if I got up. This is about the time when it started to feel like I was melting away like the Wicked Witch of the West, and when the emcees launched into their blood-curdling serenade of amplified nonsense.
I was soon surrounded by a multi-colored sea of umbrellas, Southeast Asian-style protection from the mighty sun — all of us in the “cheap seat” side of the stadium directly faced it in all of its scalding glory. Across the field, the sporadically filled but completely shaded seats an unattainable Eden.
I was on the verge of crying into my sweaty, salt-stained flag when, finally, a lifetime after I’d arrived, the chatter ceased. Fireworks were lit. Boom! Boom! Boom!
The crowd roared, the sea of umbrellas replaced with an ocean of blue-and-white flags. All eyes turned to the northern end of the stadium, where a man and woman glided down separate zipline cables from the stadium roof onto the pitch, him middle-aged in white pants and a red-and-white colored Coke soccer jersey, her a young Thai beauty queen in a red dress that wrapped around her neck. I don’t know who either of them were, but they were presented with a ceremonial Coke bottle-shaped trophy with a soccer ball on top, then escorted off the field in a golf cart. Huzzah for corporate pageantry!
Polite, mostly indifferent applause greeted the Thai Premier League All-Stars as they trotted onto the field to warm up, sacrificial lambs to the great slaughterhouse of Chelsea FC. It turns out that the TPL’s best Thai-born players are off playing Palestine in a 2014 World Cup qualifying match, so the group here is a mish-mash of second-tier Thais and foreign-born players. Thunderous applause and waved flags greet the visiting heroes, Chelsea FC, who dutifully clap and wave to the crowd.
Save for the sun mercifully disappearing behind the stadium walls, that was the last special moment of the evening. Disinterested and sluggish from the extreme heat, Chelsea was flat from the start and it rubbed off on the crowd, which save for the occasional golf clap during corner kicks and the rare first-half scoring opportunity was mostly silent. My still-bleeding ears welcomed the relative quiet, but about 15 minutes in a rattle of drums was piped in over the loudspeakers to supplant the lack of atmosphere. The only goal in the first half came off the foot of Chelsea’s Frank Lampard with about two minutes left.
The TPL All-Stars, to their credit, fought valiantly and even forced Chelsea backup goaltender Hilario to make a few diving stops, but in the end they were predictably overmatched, allowing two early second-half goals before bowing out 4-0. I left at the 80-minute mark, sunburned, sweaty, thirsty, a little broken, a sacrifice to the soccer gods.
Remind me to bring an umbrella next time — and ear plugs.