Thursday, May 10, 2012

Chonburi 2 at Home United 1 (AFC Cup, Matchday 6) - May 8, 2012

After 15 years in Japan, I have moved to Singapore, perhaps the worst country for watching live sports as there is little of interest in such a small nation. The S.League is the main soccer circuit with 13 teams and there is another Singaporean club that plays in Malaysia's Super League. The ASEAN Basketball League also has a single team based at Singapore Indoor Stadium. Finally, there is the F1, a world-class event that lasts only three days in September. It looked like things would be beyond boring here, but I was happy to find out that the Asian Football Confederation provides a tournament for clubs from smaller soccer nations such as Singapore. Even better, there would be a key game just two days after I arrived.


Last month I saw a couple of AFC Champions League matches to close out my time in Japan. That league is for the top clubs from the bigger soccer nations in Asia such as Australia and South Korea, but with 47 members, the Asian Football Confederation needs another competition for club teams from weaker countries like Vietnam and Malaysia. The AFC Cup is that tournament. It is held simultaneously with the ACL, using the same structure with 8 groups divided evenly between East and West Asia. Each group has 4 teams face off in a home-and-away round robin and this week saw the final games of the group stage.

There were two Singaporean teams in the competition but Tampines Rovers had already been eliminated. Home United, on the other hand, had qualified for the second round but their final game was against group leaders Chonburi of Thailand. The winner would take first place in group G and secure a home game in the round of 16, while the loser would finish second and face a lengthy road trip to the Middle East. This might not be as compelling as the NHL playoffs, but as beggars cannot be choosers, I headed over to Bishan Stadium to check out the action.

Bishan Stadium

Located just 5 minutes from Bishan Station on the North-South MRT line, this stadium was apparently renovated for the 2010 Youth Olympic Games. It was difficult to tell as the field was patchy and in poor shape. The stadium itself consists of one stand with a lower and upper section with uncomfortable seats that have no leg room. There was no food available and if you tried to buy a drink outside from the single working pop machine, you were not allowed to bring it in. It was a humid 30 degrees and I can't figure out why food and beverages weren't permitted, but most fans didn't seem to mind.

Tickets were only $6 (about $4.80 US) and you could sit anywhere. The lower section was filled with a small group of supporters, one of whom had to pay and extra $2 to store his snare drum on an empty seat. The upper section was a bit cooler and provided a better view of the action.

Suffice to say that I loved this place as it is certainly much different than what I grew used to while in Japan. Just next time, I'll sneak some food in.

The Teams

Thailand is not considered a "weak" country by the AFC and Chonburi qualified for the AFC Cup after losing an ACL playoff to South Korea's Pohang Steelers. They had 3 wins and 2 draws from their five games.

Home United is an S League squad that represents the Singapore Police Force as well as the Ministry of Home Affairs and other government protective organizations. Their nickname is appropriately the Protectors and many of their fans seem to belong to one of these groups as there were uniforms and crew cuts galore. Home United qualified for the competition by winning the 2011 Singapore Cup and had 3 wins and a draw from their five fixtures, with their only loss coming away to Chonburi.

The Game

The visitors got off to a quick start when the Home defence was caught napping and Thai national player Pipob On-mo was left alone in front from where he drilled home a cross from the right just four minutes in. The next 20 minutes was some of the more entertaining soccer I have seen, in that neither team was concerned about defending. The action was back and forth with several chances at both ends parried by some great goalkeeping, in one case from a Home defender who headed away a sure marker from Therdsak Chaiman.

Clearly outplayed in the first half-hour, Home United made an early substitute, bringing on Frederic Mendy, a tall Frenchman of Senegalese descent (in red below) who towered over the Chonburi defence. Even then, the Home midfield couldn't get him the ball with anything approaching regularity and halftime arrived with the visitors up 1-0.

With it so hot and humid, the second half was somewhat slower and it wasn't until the 57th minute when Chonburi brought on Kotchaplayuk Noppanon (#34 above), a speedy winger, that the game picked up. It was a good substitution as Kotchaplayuk energy allowed him to race past the Home defense, receive a perfectly timed pass from  Therdsak, and chip over Lionel Lewis to give the visitors a 2-0 with just 13 minutes left.

Home United broke the shutout with a nice passing play but it was too late, coming with just 4 minutes left as Chonburi held on to win 2-1. With the loss, Home United is forced to travel to Syria in two weeks to face the winners of Group E, Al-Shorta. Update: Home United lost, ending Singapore's hope for continental glory.

Next Up

I'm afraid that there is very little to see here in Singapore in terms of good sport so this blog will be fairly quiet for a while. Mostly I'll be traveling around Southeast Asia or going back home for an extended sports road trip. The first of these is next week when I head back to Toronto to see the Jays and Mets in a 3-game set as well as a side trip to Buffalo for the Bisons. The Marlies have made the AHL semi-finals and I'm hoping they have a home game while I am there as well. Check back then for some updates.



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