Through the open screens, past our banana tree, on the dusty street in front of me a dark and swarthy songthaew driver is teaching his four year old son how to roundkick. Muay Thai is still passed down from father to son here in Thailand and this is a common scene in the suburbs and back sois as if the Thais are never quite sure when the Burmese might invade again.
It’s definitely sanuk (fun), the boy is giggling and the big man too is smiling, enjoying the challenges of gentleness. The boy, as boys will, sometimes gets carried away and tries to ‘chop down the tree’ in a frenzy of wobbly kicks which bounce off the man's calf like baby moths off a Boeing and inevitably lead to a tumble. It’s another occasion for another defining Thai concept; ‘Jai yen yen’ (keep a cool heart) from Dad.
These are my neighbours to the left, Dad is, confusingly, called Boy and the boy is known as Dam which means black because his skin is dark. Mum is evidently busy somewhere frying up chilies and shrimp paste and my eyes sting and water so I close up the front of the room, anyway it’s nearly mosquito feeding time.
Later, when the air has cleared and Dam has been exhausted, his older brother Boon goes off to the end of our soi to play Takraw with his mates. Takraw is every bit as ubiquitous as Muay Thai here and might loosely be defined as a team game like volleyball without the hands.
There’s a patch of cleared ground there which does for them and an empty plastic Coke bottle which serves as a takraw. Takraw is a game and takraw is a varnished rattan ball about the size of a cantaloupe melon, takraw is also the generic name for any basket; ‘sai takraw’ in Thai means to throw in the bin.
They’ve got a ‘net’ that could be an interpretation of badminton regulations, except that its made from two T-shirts hung over a string tied on one side to a papaya tree. In common with the old ‘sweaters-as-goalposts’ rules football, the boundaries of the ‘court’ are in the mind of the beholder. This is the norm for street-takraw and you can probably predict yourself the fierce disputes over these imaginary lines in the more serious games; motorbike taxi driver gangs vs. the police for instance. Crazy huh? Ask a Parisian longitudinalist where the Greenwich meridian should be.
I digress, you can watch the game everywhere here; among the corrugated aluminium and cardboard shanty towns that line the canals of Raemkaengpaeng and Klong Toey as well as purpose built courts in Chiang Mai University’s woody campus. From under the heaving expressways of Bangkok, in lead blue clouds, to the crew deck and lapis skies of those rusting ferries that cross the gulf of Siam between Surat Thani and Ko Samui. Anywhere there’s a gap of unused clear and flat-ish space a gang of Thai males might well congregate of an evening to play or watch Takraw.
Not just in Thailand either, my only personal experience of playing Takraw was on the banks of the Mekong in Vientiane, Laos. Apparently it’s all over Asia and historically it probably spread out from China around the 11 century, though this is hotly disputed by Malays and Indonesians in these days of the sports growing organization and commercialization.
As you might expect from an ancient Asian folk game played in a land of defiantly laughing scofflaws, a clear definition is a tad tricky to pin down. A website I read for this piece suggests that I ‘Cross soccer with volleyball and mix in a bit of gymnastics and kung fu’, another site emphatically and enigmatically describes Takraw as ‘a startling game in which players must neither touch the ball nor let it hit the ground’. (sic)
The game the lads play round our way is a bit simpler than that though; to them it’s a sort of kick ball keepie-uppie which is more about enjoyment than winning. You don’t have to pass and you don’t have to try and hit the other teams ground, but you may. Athletic displays of juggling are roundly appreciated and ‘score’ just as highly as vicious spikes and smashes. It may be appreciated by some that popular agreement over artistic impression is broadly accepted as the preferred arbiter and critical acclaim is not often easy to win.
Therefore while Boon and his team play hard for points they are at peace with the knowledge that it might not win them the game and regularly sacrifice scoring for skill. This is quite radically different from most western game constructs but just part of the reframing necessary for farang to understand Takraw and Thai (Asian) culture as a whole.
Which is a shame because it’s a great game to watch; you see flips and bobbles and tips and headers, kicks and knees and hips and elbows, toe-pokes, chests and spikes. Jumping, spinning round kicks, flying over-head bicycle and axe kicks that soar above the net. Most westerners reflect, like myself, that; ‘If he could do that in the box at Old Trafford he’d be a millionaire!’
In the feverish hands of Dr Americanstein however this diverse and challenging ancient sport became the cheap and cheerful Hacky Sack in the ‘70s. Not surprisingly it disfigured, in translation, the whole concept of Jago; the archetypal proud cockerel that so fiercely drives the martial artists of Penjak Silat, inspiring mercurial Robin Hoods all over south-east Asia and providing an individualistic point of balance in a prevalent group mind.
There are similarities between Takraw and Muay Thai too. In traditional Muay Thai and Burmese Boxing of the 11th and 12th centuries the hands were originally thought of as ‘weak’ weapons, compared to elbows, knees or shins, unless they were rapped in hemp and broken glass and in Takraw the hands are forgotten completely. High kicks are valued in both disciplines as is the spinning physical dynamic of generating power. The grace and composure too, which characterize much of Thai culture, can be seen in the square rings of the Lumpini stadium as well as on the street corner Takraw courts of Lopburi.
As the light fades the kids return home, stopping to take a few penalties between the gateposts of Boons house. ‘Bekkum’ cries the smallest of them as he charges up for a prodigious strike; it sails over the gate, house and into the field behind in a chilling reenactment of the Euro 2004 quarter-final.
Football came to Thailand in 1897 and the Thai FA was set up in 1916 and nowadays it is by far the most popular spectator sport here even though the local clubs play before nigh-empty stands. Everyone here supports Man U or Liverpool or some such and the persistent visitor will eventually not be surprised by kids who claim their undying, and frankly bizarre, loyalty to Nottingham Forest or Swindon Town. There is fantastically intense criticism and support here that really supersedes even the hyperboly of the European press who often refer to the ‘fantastically intense criticism and support’ in Asia. If you didn’t watch that game (Germany 1 England 5) in a broken karaoke bar in a Bangkok slum you have no idea of what those words mean.
Unless you were in a pub in Toxteth of course…
Thailand have never qualified for a world cup but often do well in the SEA games and Tiger Cup. This year they lost in a bitterly contentious 2 legged final to Singapore but have recently won twice under the guidance of the glazed-eyed scouser; Peter Withe, who was at Nottingham Forest at the same time as the present Singapore manager Raddy Avramovitch was at Notts County. Coincidence? You decide.
In Brazil, the first sports club was set up in Sao Paulo in 1888 and as a direct result of the pioneering work of Charles Miller the Brazilian FA was formed in 1914, two years earlier than the Thai organisation. While Brazilians went on to inspire the world with their ‘beautiful game’ and to dominate world football competitions almost since their inception, the Thais stayed at home. But what made the Brazilians so adept, creative and unstoppable?
Surely natural physical characteristics has had a role to play but perhaps the key contributing factors were from an indigenous culture that cherished rhythm, grace, flexibility and physical artistic expression. Indigenous, not of South America originally but of 16th centuryAfrica, from where the Bantu traditions of Angola evolved to become both Samba and Capoeira and which now define Brazilian style.
What effect did the existing styles of movement have on the development of Brazilian football? It is interesting to note that one ‘plays’ Samba just like one ‘plays’ Capoeira and that Europeans exhibit far less of the characteristics of ‘play’ in their attitude to the game of football than their South American cousins. It is also, perhaps, significant that one of the threads leading to the development of Pele’s beautiful game is the amazingly acrobatic martial art of Capoeira. The spinning, rolling, jumping and range of motions are unlike anything in European physical culture and add a whole different dimension to the potential of a football player.
Another feature of the evolution of football style of play is the economic conditions in which it ferments. In Europe the riches accumulated from the colonies and the Industrial Revolution brought accelerated social prosperity driving football slowly from its working class roots and redefining leisure time. Whereas in Brazil the economic conditions which conspired to produce today’s stars are not so very different from those of Charles Millers protégés.
In short; the incumbent culture on which football came to lay in Brazil can be defined by its playfulness, alternative ranges of motion and social hardship, not so very different from that of Thailand really.
At the moment the Thai’s are still generally quite physically small compared to Europeans or South Americans but that whore of a factile which reveals that the average height of the Japanese has increased by 7 feet since the end of World War II may also be indicative of what could happen here as socio-economic conditions improve. Also the recent history of the Thai FA has been a catalogue of perceived incompetence and corruption and there is still a long, long way to go before Thai domestic football reaches anything like its potential. That said, there is no reason to think that things will not get better.
Watching little Dam from my front room I see the power of play, watching his brother Boon on the makeshift Takraw court I see the perseverance and awesome range of skills. Then watching him and ‘Bekkum’ taking penalties till the sun goes down I think I can see clearly which way they are going ... towards the evolution of a new style of football that you haven’t yet seen, the promise of tomorrow's beautiful game.
It’s not probable but it is possible, you might just want to set your cryogenic alarm clocks so you can surprise the living daylights out of your great-great-great-grandchildren as they are sitting watching Thailand beat England in the 2102 World Cup Final by bursting out of your ice box and shouting ‘Takraw!’