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Fever Pitch – Attending a Myanmar Football Game

My football  (soccer to Americans) loving friend was hesitant to join me on a trip to Myanmar in 2006 as the planned dates were during the World Cup. He was afraid, based on the unreliable power supply, that he would miss the chance to see his beloved England play any of their games. But once here we were surprised at just how easy it was to watch the games. Despite the games being in the wee hours of the morning, tea shops opened, turned on their generators and showed every possible match. We crammed in alongside the locals, including many monks, and enjoyed endless cups of green tea whilst watching. As we continued our travels we realized just how serious the locals take their football – we saw numerous motorbikes with football logos plastered on them, kids and adults sporting EPL jerseys and even some Manchester United tattoos!

So when I moved to Yangon several years later, I was keen to see just how far this football fever spread. I heard the women’s Myanmar football team was playing Singapore so I called up a few friends and we hopped in a taxi out to the city’s biggest stadium. It was a surreal experience and I instantly was hooked. Since then I have attended about a dozen matches- each of them as exciting as the last.

The gates open about 45 minutes before kick-off and thus the parking lot takes on a carnival-like atmosphere leading up to this time. Vendors wander around selling bandanas painted with the word ‘Myanmar’, temporary tattoos with the national flag and tshirts and jerseys. Touts flaunt tickets- the advance purchase price ranges from 2-10 USD for a national team game (0.50 cents  – 3 USD for a league game)- and spontaneous cheers come from the crowd.

Once the gates are open, everyone rushes in. Small stalls selling instant noodles, sunflower seeds and cold drinks are found inside. Since bottles are not allowed in, the cold drinks are poured in to plastic bags for the fans!

Football-Myanmar-Fan

The stadium seats around 10,000 people in Yangon and around 18,000 in Mandalay. Even at the smaller games it seems at least half of the seats are filled. Crowds sing songs, chant My-an-mar at the top of their lungs and a drum corps gets chants going. Once kick-off has started the excitement heats up. Fans stand the entire game and bang on the plastic chairs in front of them and it becomes a complete frenzy of energy as they cheer on the Myanmar football team. Shouting at refs, gripping friends hands before penalty kicks and I’ve seen fans cry when the opponents have scored. At one pre-World Cup qualifier game against Oman, fans threw their slippers (flip flops) on to the pitch in disagreement with a ref’s call. Whilst it was funny at the time imagining all these people going home barefoot, the country got penalized and the Myanmar football team was banned from the rest of the tournament. Since then protective netting has been installed around the pitch to prevent this from happening again.

As a foreigner at these games, especially in Mandalay, you are a bit of a celebrity. My photo is taken what seems like dozens of times at each game- it could have something to do with the Myanmar shirt and (fake) tattoos I wear. But it is great fun and heart-warming to see so much support for the country.

If you want to attend a game there are two options. Firstly there are the national teams. The women’s team and the men’s under-20 team are the most popular but the have the least number of games. The men’s national team has a more regular schedule against regional rivals. As well the country has its own football league- the Myanmar National League- which was established under unique circumstances. Reportedly, several of the high ranking military generals were discussing pooling their money together and buying Manchester United. The country’s ruler at the time decided this was a bit too ostentatious so he persuaded them instead to build up a national league. Myanmar residents follow the MNL but it is the national team that they support the most. Yangon FC and Yadanabon FC (based in Mandalay) are the two powerhouses. The games are fun to attend as well and usually played in smaller stadiums.

If you want a truly memorable Myanmar experience- even if you are not a fan- I highly suggest attending a football match!

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