Thursday, May 17, 2007

It’s evolution baby! - file

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!’


BlueinBetis said...

File, this is excellent, but I have only one thing to say so far:

the Japanese have grown by Seven feet?

No wonder Tokyo always looks so crowded....

he he he.

nesta said...

I absolutely loved this article. One of the best I have read at this site.
Surely it will appear in the "best of 2007"

Ebren said...

Agreed - excellent piece by file.

levremance said...

file - I've seen takraw on tv but never knew the name, rules or historical context/passion etc - thanks for the read.

One question though - Spike Milligan lived in Woy Woy, NSW for a time and according to him, in the local lingo Woy Woy means 'deepwater'. Spike never worked out which Woy meant deep and which Woy meant water.

When the Thai say 'jai yen yen' which means 'keep a cool heart', can you distinguish between the two yen's?

file said...

thanks all

bib, I have heard that fact so many times but when it came to using it I couldn't find it anywhere so I thought I'd be fripperent, dangerous with such an erudite readership!

levremance, Spike Milligan, one of the greatest living writers ever (I know he's dead but he's an exception)

it's a linguistic feature called 'reduplication' and it can be used to amplify the adjective or emphasise a point, in this case it emphasises the 'yen' (cool) and also aids the continous syntax - keep

The Thai language is full to bursting with idiosynchrasies like this; another example of reduplication is 'glai glai' which can mean far away or very close!

Hey, at least there is minimal grammar to learn

I've never understood the term 'reduplication' tho, if it's duplicated it's doubled and then to be RE duplicated might infer that 4 examples of the same word should be used, but it doesn't

please see Prof.Greengrass of the Archaic Linguistics dept. for an explanation of that!

zeph said...

Great piece, file, really informative and interesting.

As a football ignoramus I didn't know that about Pele either - wonder if any of the current Premier league stars have done martial arts training? :)

mimi said...

A Tour de Force, file. Fantastically interesting even though I know nothing about any of the stuff you speak of, and like Zeph, am not too hot on football either.
Let alone appearing in the "Best of", this merits a chapter all of its own.
I look forward to reading your next article very much.

bluedaddy said...

Great stuff file. I especially liked the 'baby moths hitting a Boeing' line.

My son has been playing Capoeira for a couple of years, since he was five. The great thing about it is you dont need any kind of physical parity to play successfully. I love watching, but my osteopath has enough problems with me playing football without doing me this. If I can persist with the pilates, I might give it a go myself.

At the following site you can learn a little more about capoeira, but I warn you that it is a bit Flash heavy, and you need lightning relexes to catch some of the links.

For Spike fans:

I read stuff on here and compare to GU's ploughing of the big four furrow. No contest really.

So I'll be off to GU then :0)

honolulu said...

Terrific, fascinating, and thanks for the pictures- they were very useful.

I used to mock the dirty hippy hacky sackers my 1st year in college... and by the fourth, I used to sit and eat my lunch watching them, in awe. I was really impressed by their athletisism and how they had brought their skills to the next level and beyond.

I don't know about martial arts, but I heard that Jurgen Klinsmman's American trainers for the German national team were incorporating yoga into their workouts... and this was directly responsible for their superior fitness and compensated in their relative lack of experience by inspiring cooler heads. This information I'm fairly certain came from the American World Cup announcer, but I can't provide any more evidence, sorry.

DoctorShoot said...

great piece file. have read through a couple of times now and you have managed to nail an objective eye to a passionate heart.

have watched tekraw games in darwin as highlights of the arafura games. mesmerising.

on the matter of south east asian languages, many indigenous australian languages use repetiton to emphasise, reduce, enlarge, inflex, or distinguish depending upon context. in desert languages 'wati wati' for example can mean little man (term for stick dolls) or important man (to be heeded or feared or sought out), or somebody silly and not to be regarded. on the other hand term 'ngaparti ngapartji' is roughly translated to mean you get what you give; care for your responsibilities brings a clean bill of spiritual health, etc. and in this case there is never variation of meaning in spite of the context.

sorry to ramble but your piece raises a thousand storms and sets rivers flowing in every direction.

marcela said...

brilliant file.

the capoeira stuff is so true... brazilians even have verbs for movements that only apply to samba and football!

loved it, loved it. every single word.

guitougoal said...

are you ready for the pseuds' hall of fame ?

offside said...


bluedaddy said...

I havent got time to go it this now. My life is hectic to the point of frantic.

Now this site is called Pseuds Corner so I am allowed to be a ponce. I also think this is partly what File is talking about:

Football is a fascinating capitalist battleground. On the one extreme there is the purist camp primarily concerned with the joy and beauty of the game (I need a name for this wing) and on the other there is the Kenyonistas who see product and market before they see anything else.

As a sport you have the need/imperative to win but also the desire to be creative and spontaneous.

What is interesting about File's piece is that it highlights how in many of Kenyon's target markets, style is still weighted more/as heavily as the substance of winning games/revenue streams.

Will get back to this if I get time.

file said...

all, many thanks for your kind comments


would be really interested to know more about the language of Samba/Capoeira if you ever have time!


great language and language points, but now I'm nailing my objective eye on to my passionate heart on my sleeve, oh dear (but what a picture!)


I think it's great that you've set up your sons capoeira, the practice of martial arts can really turn a life around, I know

to me it's all political and all artistic so I see your capitalist battleground clearly but don't let me give you the impression that just because there are remnants of pre-capitalist values to be seen in an Asian folk sport that capitalist paradigms and aspirations aren't the norm here, they are

unfortunately the Kenyonistas still have acres of fertile soil to seed...

btw/ if you ever want to talk about Balsamic vinager then that's fine by me, I love it, I even use it in my Coq au Vin, you?

MotM said...

Beautiful stuff File - many thanks.

I was really reluctant for my kids to get involved with martial arts, but I saw the value and went along with it. They do a version which is non-contact and much more like dance than fighting (pause for the Tango to be introduced by those more knowledgeable than me).

Anyway, I'll seek out some of these disciplines to introduce to them as one can't have too much balance, too much grace, too much understanding of a body in motion no matter what one does with one's life.

file said...


I've had an interest in martial arts for about 25 years in England and elsewhere, I'd suggest that you are right to be wary but if you focus on finding a good teacher and a well run club you could be opening up a whole new world for yours

myself I'm a committed pacifist and I'd suggest thinking about what martial art is best for them and that depends a bit on the age of your kids; capoeira as bluedaddy points is great fun and not at all violent, judo, is a bit old hat now, but it's fantastic for developing strength, focus and competitive spirit...

I could rattle on till the cows come home on this one and happy to if you'd like more info, among the rewards that I've had is the confidence not to fight and an opportunity to spend time with some really special people who understand a lot more about life, the universe and everything than I do

MotM said...

Thanks File - I'm very much moving towards your view on this. The sessions that my elder boy attends are extremely well run and a perfect microcosm of London's mix of ethnicities and ages, all learning together and showing tremendous respect for each other.

The undertow of violence at hand but not used is very positive.

I need to explore further, or, rather, give my kids the wherewithal for them to explore, judge and decide.

Ebren said...

Aikido is a good option. It's an almost purely defensive martial art, designed to use an opponent's strength and momentum against them. Tai Chi is also quite beautiful, non-violent, and will fulfil the "grace" element quite nicely. Yoga/pilates for natural (i.e. not gym-based) strength and suppleness.

That should have your children, lithe, toned, and no easy targets.

But - if I had to recommend one thing, it would be Simon Clifford's soccer schools. For either sex from any age.

file said...

soccer schools, I am sure are equally good

spent many years with the art of aikido and one of the really special folk I mentioned was Chiba Sensei

I don't know how old your kids are Mouth but aikido and t'ai chi, hsing i, pagua need a level of understanding to benefit from and a level of physical coordination to do, common advice is to start kids with arts that build their physique , agility and coordination as well as perhaps competitive spirit and then move on to develop in the more challenging arts

Jackie Chan started out as a gymnast in the Peking Opera

but it's all generalisation really, I'd avoid TKD and most kickboxing/Muay Thai including most karate, ninjitsu etc. but I'd emphasise; suss out the teacher s/he is everything

file said...

as margin says 'complex issues create hypocrisy'!

the reason I include Muay Thai in 'avoids' above and praise it's practice in the article is because of the difference in environment, Dam and his Dad can play MT because of their cultural conditioning, in England, in my experience, most 'kickboxing' is centred around the abitlity to be violent with skill (I've had some interesting experiences of this in Paris too)

one of the great benefits of Aikido , Tai Chi etc, is that it provides alternatives to violence and aims to 'educate' aggressors through spirals of neutralization

but at the same time it accumulates life experience in dealing with situations with dignity which should dissolve into a fluid approach to all lifes challenges and eventually to the lack of need to fight in all walks of life; peace

MotM said...

File that is beautifully put. I shall print your last post as a guide, in fact, I shall print the whole lot! And I shall pursue those other suggestions too.

bluedaddy said...

Anybody got first hand knowledge, especially with kids they know/of their own, attending the Simon Clifford Brazilian Soccer Schools?

I looked at the website and it is a bit scary; a quasi-religious feel almost, especially regarding Clifford himself. He sounds like a jerk to be honest.

But that is hardly the point I guess. To find out about my local school I had to send an email to the coach (franchisee?). This seems unnecessarily elitest/secretive/obscure. Why not give details of where, when and how much?

But I do like the idea of picking up football by learning to master a small heavy ball with little bounce. In fact it makes me think of the popped/deflated balls I invariably used as a kid. We hardly ever used a properly inflated leather ball.

I'm still not that good, but I hate to hoof it to this day. We never did back then coz the ball wouldnt really go anywhere.

offside said...

Great thread, thanks lads. Wish I had time to comment more constructively. I'll come back to it, hopefully. Stay tuned.

MotM said...

BD - I found that feeling seeping across cyberspace too. But the concept is good even if the prices appear a little steep for the kid in the street.

I'll try to find out more.

Ebren said...

Mr Clifford's soccer schools...

A year or two ago I got a DVD and a football de salao from the site in a lame effort to improve my touch.

The reason I suggested is that you can't play with the football de salao on your own.

The other stuff on the DVD you could do with just you and your boy/girl in the garden/park.

but the point is basically that touch counts for a lot in football, and these places work on it and core skills (passing, shooting, dribblin, tacking) better than most training sessions in the country.

zeph said...

Pilates is a fantastic system, I did it for years as a friend was one of the first teachers in the UK. If you're going into it seriously you really have to check out the teacher, there's a lot of rubbish around now, and unfortunately the good ones are expensive as they only teach small groups. But a simple version would be great for kids, especially as you don't repeat the exercises a lot of times so it doesn't get boring!

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