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The Soccer Match from Hell (Or so it Began)

“Yes, Elephant Army, where can we buy tickets? You don’t know . . . okay, thanks.”

Over the past two months (can’t believe how fast my time here is going, ahhh slow it down) there’s been a number of things in Malaysia that have made me scratch my head in confusion or raise my arms I exasperation. I try to chalk most of them u to culture shock and remind myself that there are about a hundred million things I still need to learn about this culture before I can begin to truly understand why and how they do things, much less make judgment calls on them.

However, yesterday I had one of those days where I was willing to make a judgment call and say Malaysia seriously tak boleh (directly translates to cannot but “#takboleh” has become our Fulbright cohorts saying when we simply cannot handle some element of Malaysia, be it cultural, food, ) on how to organize tickets for soccer matches. How can a country that prides itself on its love of soccer (football here) fail so hard at making it feasible for people to buy tickets to attend a match?

Allow me to backtrack a little to fill you in on all the steps that occurred before I reached my point of want to dub the struggle of getting match tickets to be right up there with Odysseus’ quest to make it home during the Odyssey.

Pahang (the state I’m living in for the year in case you haven’t caught on to that yet) is home to the professional soccer team the Elephant Army. The 2014 National champions and all around amazing team. They’re kind of like the Malaysian league Manchester United. Pretty much as soon as I learned that I would be living in Pahang and about the Elephant Army, I knew I had to attend a match.

Last weekend in the Cameron Highlands the group all seemed really up for going to a game so we figured we would check it out and try to go to the next possible match. We should have known it wasn’t going to be quite that early when we went online to try to find the match schedule and found out that it isn’t available anywhere online (at least not that we can find). Strange, but not super atypical of Malaysia.

So during the school week both Erin and I asked around to try to find out more details. Sadly, my staff had really no idea. They were all super excited that I wanted to see a game, but had no idea when the next match was going to be. Thankfully, Erin had a bit more luck. One of her teachers said that Elephant Army had a match against Sembilan at the team’s home stadium in Kuantan on Saturday at 7:00. Okay, awesome! We now know when and where the game will be.

Erin asked where we can get tickets and was told that there are only two locations where tickets are available. Either the Temerloh stadium (the largest town near us and about an hour drive) or at the stadium in Kuantan (about 3 hours away). Tickets were not available online and it was not possible to find out if the match was already sold out unless you went to one of the locations. What? How for the entire state of Pahang (the largest in Peninsular Malaysia) could there only be two locations? What century were we in (and yes, I realize I found very first world problemish about this whole thing)? It gave me flashbacks to trying to buy train tickets to Chengdu during National Holiday in China and having to spend 8+ hours in the rain waiting to buy our train tickets at the only station in town.

Upon finding out this new development in the plans, enthusiasm from the Pahangsters to attend a game quickly depleted. Pretty soon it was just Erin, Sabrina, Hannah, and I that were still in, all with varying levels of apprehension about actually being able to get tickets. Erin and I were pretty dedicated though so after a kind of crazy week in Bera (life just seemed really busy this week, probably because work started this week on the rebuilding/renovation ko-ko I am helping lead at the school so we can repair much of what was lost or ruined during the flood and I have now begun attending bad mitten practices and that takes up an extra two nights a week), we headed to Temerloh in the afternoon to pick up tickets.

After the hour drive (added traffic as people headed to mosque for Friday prayers) we arrived to find the stadium completely locked. That’s not a good sign. We quickly googled prayer times to make sure we hadn’t arrived during one (we hadn’t) and then asked around the local shops. Once we eventually found someone who spoke English we found out tickets are not available on Fridays. Cool. We asked when they would be available. We were told that no one was sure, but that maybe the ticket counter is open half days on Saturday. But no one could verify what times the half day entailed, other than that it was sometime in the morning. Great. Not to make the trip a total loss we headed to a local coffee shop in Mentakab (one town over from Temerloh) and took advantage of their internet (still no internet for us in Bera) for a while to answer some emails and upload pictures. As we headed home we agreed to give it one more shot in the morning trying to get tickets. We called the other girls and they were waiting on us to figure out the ticket thing before deciding if they were coming or not.

Since we weren't entirely sure when “sometime in the morning” meant we decided to play it safe and left Bera around 10:00 am (a tad too early on a Saturday for either of our likings since it was our first free Saturday in weeks). However, after another hour drive we once again arrived to find all of the ticket counters closed. Sweet. We asked around some shop workers and were informed that since the match was happening that night, the only place to buy tickets now was in Kuantan, but there was no way to know if tickets would still be available. Fabulous.

At this point I was pretty much ready to throw in the towel and content to spend the day in Bera exploring some new trails around the feldas (palm oil and rubber plantations) and taking photographs. I was a bit crabby, still sleepy, and annoyed that the entirety of figuring out tickets was on Erin and I despite others having said they wanted to come. Making a three hour drive to Kuantan and simply crossing our fingers that tickets would be available didn't sound like a great time to me.

However, I said Erin could make the final call. She opted for us to give it a shot. While not entirely sold on it, I figured it would be an adventure at least and we could see a new part of Malaysia (plus Erin let me drive which always seems to make me happier in Malaysia, I love driving and exploring here). To Kuantan we go!

First though, we needed to get cash so we could buy tickets and elephant army shirts (they’re seriously the coolest and I’ve been so jealous of the ones my students have) You wouldn't have thought that this would be such a hard thing. However, like most things that morning it became a production. Whoever designed the streets of Temerloh most have studied a similar theory of thought for urban planning as the civil engineer of St. Cloud because the street layout is literally the worst. Everything is a one way. So while we could see an entire street of banks across from us, it took almost fifteen minutes of driving in circles before actually get to one. We’re off to a great start on this adventure.

Eventually though, we were on our way to Kuantan. However, I missed the exit for the express way to Kuantan and we were forced to take Route 2, a series of old village roads that are filled with plantation lorries (big trucks) and about a million pot holes. Great. Thankfully, it wasn’t too awful. A lot of it was two lane and we were able to pass most of the lorries without issues. As we approached Kuantan we got stuck in some major traffic though and it took almost 30 minutes to go about 15 kilometers.

We also realized that we had no idea where in Kuatan the stadium actually was. Fortunately, while being stuck at red lights that lasted between 4-8 minutes (no joke, I timed it) I was able to pull up an address to the stadium and after about three hours in the car, we arrived. Now fingers crossed tickets were available.

We wandered around the stadium and after a bit a kind stranger pointed us to the direction of the ticket counter. There were tickets left! This hadn’t all been a waste! Yes!! We bought four tickets for the grandstand section and happily called Sabrina and Hannah to them that we had tickets. As we got back in the car, I asked Erin to check the tickets to see what time the gates opened for the game that evening. That’s when we realized that rather than starting at 7:00 (like we were told) the game didn’t start until 8:45. It was around 2:00 in the afternoon and we realized we have over six hours to kill and no clue what to do in Kuantan. We checked out the Lonely Planet book and the only advice it had for us was to avoid the city and just spend time trekking in the nature parks around it. Yeah, we’ll get right on that Lonely Planet, thanks.

We also realized that we weren’t going to be getting on the road to go home much before midnight. Since we had thought the game was going to be at 7:00 we figured we’d be out of there by 9 or 9:30 and home with no issues. Ha, funny joke. Now it wasn’t going to be much before 3:00 am that we’d be back in Bera. At this point though, we didn’t care. That was later Erin and Rach’s problems.

Since we had so many hours to kill, we decided to head to Kuantan’s Giant grocery store (that’s not describing its size, that’s actually its name). Giants in Malaysia usually have a much wider selection of food and we can find some of the Western things we’re missing there (like Tobasco and balsamic vinegar in my case). However, as were driving away I noticed a light on our dashboard begin frantically flashing. Shoot. In the awful traffic we had used a ton of gas and were now dangerously close to empty. Making this an even bigger problem was that all of the petrol stations that we knew of were outside of the city and we had a bunch of stop and go traffic between us and them.

After a stressful 15ish minutes we finally pulled into a station. After first pulling up to the wrong side of the pump we succeeded on our second try and asked the attendants for RM70 in gas. However, as we went to fill the tank, we realized the gas nozzle didn’t fit our car correctly. So rather than simply inserting the nozzle and letting it fill, we had to insert RM70 of gas at intervals of about 30 sen a time and constantly watch out for the slashes it created. Needless to say, by the end of this process. Neither of us were happy. It seemed as if this soccer match adventure was cursed and I decided to call it the soccer match from hell.

Following the gas fiasco, we headed to Giant. Since we had about 6 hours until the game (3ish until the other girls arrived) and nothing else to do in the city we decided to just kind of camp out for the afternoon. After doing some shopping and stocking up on things like granola bars, balsamic, hot sauce and cans of garbanzo beans so I can make hummus I joined Erin at a table in the foodcourt and we just kind of hung out for the afternoon. Erin read and I took a nap (which I’m definitely adding to the list of one of the weirdest places I’ve ever slept while traveling, it’s right up there with some of the sketchy Eastern European train platforms).

Around 6:00 we got a call from the other girls saying they were close and we headed back to the stadium to meet them. As we got in the car, Erin and I agreed that the worst of the day had to be behind us. From that point onwards, everything was going to go well. And we could not have been more correct. The level of awesomeness of the night seemed to be directly proportional to how much the morning had utterly sucked. It was one of those nights where you have to constantly ask yourself, “Is this real life?”
We met the girls at the stadium and decided to get some Elephant Army shirts so we could blend in more with the countless fans that were already gathering around the stadium. The choices were pretty much endless. I ended up picking out two T-shirts and on a whim bought a team jersey for on RM 12 or about $4 (it was last season’s style, hence why it was so cheap, but I was still pumped about it). I’m already excited to wear them at school and show my kids.

After a cheap dinner of Nasi Lemak (a Malaysian staple consisting of rice, dried anchovies, sambal - a kind of spicy sauce that I’m obsessed with and put on everything, even the teachers in my kantin laugh at the amount of spice I put on my food, it surpasses many of them - peanuts and sometimes an over easy egg on top) at a hole in the wall restaurant, we were ready for the game. As were walking up to the stadium we had a momentary panic as we were passing the police post (there was an unreal number of police at the game – at least 100) and the called after us to stop and come over. Under national law all foreigners are required to carry their passport with them at all times. None of us had brought them because we were nervous about the potential of pickpockets at the game and instead just had photocopies with us. Rather than wanting to check our passports though, the police brigade (about 10 officers) just wanted to take their pictures with us. After some pictures and a big sigh of relief and some laughs we headed into the stadium.

The seats we had purchased were about 6 rows up from the field and about halfway between the 18 yard box and midfield. Pretty much perfect. It felt so nice to be watching soccer again. Not quite as good as playing would have been, but I’ll take it. Maybe I can convince my hostel boys to take a study break from exams (it’s finals weeks for the first trimester this week and they’re all freaking out) and play with me. The first half wasn’t too exciting, and the teams seemed a bit slow, probably the result of having played a match on Wednesday as well. But Pahang did put away a nice goal with about 7 minutes left in the half to keep the crowd engaged.

Throughout the half though our eyes were continually drawn across the stadium to one of the fan sections. It was an entire sea of black t shirts, Elephant Army scarves, an entire drum section, and six massive flags. What was more striking than their appearance was their energy level. For the entire 45 minutes (well 48 with stoppage time – Sembilan players were really into swan diving) they did not stop moving, cheering, and just generally celebrating their team (I should probably add that they were completely sober the whole time, no alcohol is sold in the stadium and the venue seems to be kept halal). We decided we wanted to get over to that section for the second half and see what it was like close up.
We quickly realized however that standing between us and that section was over half a stadium of seats and some large locked gates. Always up for an adventure, I decided to just start walking and see what happened. The other girls followed and once we reached the pitch level we were approached by a number of media photographers from various newspapers and asked for photos. After posing for a few, we asked one of them if it was possible to get to the Elephant Army fan section. He laughed and said, “Just ask.” So we approached the guard at the first gate and pointed across the stadium. He smiled, unlocked the gate for us, and waved us through.

The next two minutes were probably two of the strangest of my life. The entire stadium turned to watch us walk and all started cheering. They seemed so excited to see four Westerners sporting Elephant Army jerseys (even if they were last season) and attending the game. The people we passed all cheered, people held out their hands for us to clap as we passed by and did everything they could to get our attention. If I thought I had experienced celebrity status before in Bera, this was like nothing I’ve experienced in my life. Once we finally made it through the cheering crowd and across the stadium. I walked up to the rope surrounding the Elephant Army fan section and gestured inside. Instantly the section cheered and welcomed us in, placing us in the very front and center of the section.

We spent the entire second half cheering with the Elephant army section (there were only two other women in the section and they took us under their wings and showed us the ropes) and having a blast. It was unreal. I’ve never experienced a fan section with that much enthusiasm before. I had been told that the Elephant Army fans were world famous for their dedication, but until I experienced, I never fully understood.

Once the game ended (Pahang won 2-0, the second goal was a beautiful shot from right at the top of the 18 that hit the perfect upper 90 corner, nothing the goalie could have done), we posed for about 30 minutes with various fans as they took about a million selfies (Malaysians seriously love their selfies) and promised that we would attend more games when we could. Once they started turning off the stadium lights, we took that as our cue to leave.

As we were heading out past the main entrance, a man wearing a simple black Pahang jersey, a pair of jogging pants and TOMS (first Malaysian I have seen in TOMS which is why is stood out to me) stopped us and thanked us for coming to the game and asked where we were from. We explained that we were Americans that we were all living in Pahang for the year and teaching English. He then proceeded to say that he was the CEO of the team and was wondering if we could take a picture together. Laughing, Sabrina somewhat facetiously said, “I don’t believe you”. He responded by pulling out his phone, opening up his Linkedin account (I think) and showing us. Turns out he wasn’t lying, we were actually causally chatting with the CEO. Kind of cool.

After posing for a picture he asked us if we wanted to meet the players. Is that even a question? Hell yes we do. He escorted us back into the stadium hall and said the players would be out shortly. While standing there, we were approached by the director of the fan pages for the team and asked to film quick promo video for the Pahang. Um, what? So after about 10 seconds of prep we each were filmed giving a little spiel about what school we were teaching at, where we were from, and why we loved Pahang. They posted the video last night and so far it’s already gotten over 1.5 thousand views. Lol what is this life? The social media director for the team also asked for our photo and put it up on the team’s Instagram account. As of this morning that photo had over 2,000 likes and I woke up to an insane number of new Instagram follower requests (all of which I denied, the last thing I need is random Malaysian Instagram followers, although it would definitely make my following to followers ratio look sweet).

Eventually the players came out. While most of them were too nervous to talk with us, we got pictures with a few to show our students. There is one player from Bera I was hoping to get a photo with, but he apparently left before we got a chance to see him (sad face). Hopefully at one of the future games I’ll be able to meet him. I’d really love to see if there is some way I can get the team, or even just a few members, to do some kind of clinic or visit to my school. I’m currently brainstorming ways to make it happen.

Finally, as if the night could not get more surreal, the last player emerged from the locker room and was kind enough to take a photo with us and then actually stayed to talk with us for a while. Throughout the course of the conversation he asked us if we had paid for our tickets. We responded with yes of course. He said that shouldn’t be the case. He took down our contact information and is looking into getting us free season tickets to the game. Uh, that would be amazing!

Over an hour and half after the game ended we finally made it to our cars and headed home. The night could not have been more surreal. What went from the soccer match from hell became one of the best memories in Malaysia so far. I could not have dreamed of a better first experience at an Elephant Army game and I am so excited to attend games in the future. I know I’ve become a lifelong fan of Pahang FA and can’t wait to follow their success for years to come.

The ride home was long, but pretty noneventful. What was eventful though was waking up this morning to find my phone blowing up with messages from my mentor and the other teachers at my school asking if I had seen the paper? I said no, since all of the papers are in Bahasa Maleyu. Well it turns out our picture was front and center of the sports section and we "were famous". As one of my teachers put it, "All of Pahang now knows who you are." Talk about a strange way to wake up.

For how amazing the night was, it also caused me to take some time to reflect on the privilege that I’m experiencing here. Privilege is something that’s been on my mind almost every day that I’ve been here and once I form some actually articulate thoughts on it, I’m sure I’ll do a post on it. But the game was just a small microcosm of it. I have no doubt that we received the treatment we did because we were four young, attractive, white western women. If I or the ETAs I had gone with had been some of the ETAs of color, I expect our experience would have been much different. We might have been asked for a handful of pictures and maybe some doors would have been opened to us. But I suspect we wouldn't have received a celebrity reception like we did or been plastered all over every social media account. It was an interesting lesson on what is available to me because of my appearance and background wrapped up in a pretty amazing night.

Posted by remullin 06:49 Archived in Malaysia

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