Friday, July 15, 2011
All About Arsenal
The Malaysian national team has been just about the only success story in South East Asian football in recent years. The Under 23s won the Sea Games in 2009 and the full team, featuring a good many of the triumphant squad, went on to win the ASEAN Football Federation Cup in 2010.
They are the only ASEAN team still in with a shout of reaching the Olympic Games in London next year, they are drawn againt Japan, Bahrain and Syria in the next round, while later this month they play Singapore in a home and away World Cup qualifier.
A successful team then, astutely coached by Rajagobal.
But when the Arsenal came to Kuala Lumpur the Malayan Tigers success was conveniently forgotten by a press pack from London and their quest for headlines and repeating the banal.
From the opening press conference in KL on the Monday, two games before the game, to Robin Van Persie being the last player to leave the field at the slowly emptying Bukit Jalil Stadium, Malaysia became a sideshow in the eyes of the world.
They were the hosts, they were expected to roll over and submit to the immense juggernaut that is the English Premier League. They became irrelevant.
Take that early press conference for example. The UK media brushed aside their local, provincial, counterparts, hogged the front row and questioned Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger about someone who hadn’t made the journey.
‘What about Cesc?’ they demanded to know. Now, I dunno, I’m no high powered red top journo but if I had travelled thousands of miles to a new footballing country, a place I knew nothing about, then I think I would want to now a bit about the place and the people. Who were the key players in the Malaysian team to watch for example? How would they line up? How does playing Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea in one short week during a World Cup qualifying campaign help their bid?
But nope, nothing like that. “is Cesc leaving?’ was about as far as it went. The Arsenal captain of course hadn’t made the journey. He had stayed back home in London nursing a hamstring injury. Anyway, he’d already been in Asia, visiting Indonesia to help sell biscuits.
When it came to Malaysia, no visiting hack had anything for the Malaysian coach. the Little Englander mentality hit in, football is all about the EPL and that’s it. Anything else is just a distraction. A necessary distraction of course but a distraction all the same.
Even Arsene Wenger, he who is always described as studious, professorial, he had caught the bug. The Arsenal manager, famed for his contacts throughout the world game, famed for his ability to unearth 12 year old French speaking kids in deepest Africa and turn them into legends, he had not seen anything about his hosts.
Which is a shame because of course Malaysia have developed a young, winning team while Wenger hasn’t.
Most of the Malaysian support of course knew different. They knew the difference in their national team over the last few years and they treated their coach to a fantastic reception as he inspected the field a couple of hours before kick off. Mind you, he had been on the field 10 minutes before anyone noticed!
But that welcome was dwarved once a couple of Arsenal players walked out of the tunnel and into the arena. As Walcott, Wilshire et all raised their hands in the briefest of waves the decibel count on the terraes increased 10 fold. A thousand camera flashes lit up the stadium interior like the fireflies at Kuala Selangor as the travelling media pack gathered round to take pictures of a couple of footballers standing around, doing nothing much.
Arsenal won 4-0 and everyone went home happy. The Arsenal fans who had travelled from within Malaysia and from further afield like Singapore, Thailand and Indonesia, were happy because they had finally seen their heroes in the flesh, while the Malaysian fans went home happy because they had seen some EPL players in action and for them, as well as Rajagopal, the result was really secondary.
This wasn’t about football. It was about theatre. Everybody had a role to play, a role scripted in advance by the organizers, the directors.
At the final whistle the Malaysian players collected their medals for losing 4-0 and nobody really cared. Arsenal collected their medals and the place went mental. Then the likes of Robin Van Persie and Theo Walcott were given baseball caps which they then proceeded to throw into the crowd. And the crowd went wilder.
Van Persie was the last to leave the field. He was surrounded by autograph hunters among the local media and to be fair to the guy he stuck around while the rest of the team were back in the dressing room.
After a short night’s sleep the Arsenal circus moves on to China while Liverpool will enter the KL big top this weekend when an expected 86,000 fans will turn up, expecting to clap and cheer on cue.
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