Sunday, June 08, 2008
Where Big Sam is King
Followers of English football may feel like hiding away for the next two weeks, as the rest of Europe has its soccer championship: for which, of course, the England team failed to qualify.
But a trip across Asia, as I’m making right now, shows English football in a less humiliating light. From India to Indonesia, English football is embarrassingly popular, despite its failings.
This phenomenon was brought home to me in Sumatra. I was briefly staying in the mega-luxury Banyan Tree Hotel, on the island of Bintam. During a chat with the Javanese hotel manager, I asked him what famous guests he had hosted. He shrugged, and dutifully reeled off a list of presidents, pop stars and movie idols. He did look moderately interested in one name: Ian McKellan the actor. He seemed pleased by the idea they'd had Gandalf raiding the minibar in Villa 20.
But then his demeanour changed. ‘Actually, we have had one very wonderful guest. Big Sam was here!’
I gazed at his new enthusiasm, nonplussed. Who was so famous he only needed a nickname? Who was this Big Sam, more famous than pop stars? Samuel L Jackson from Pulp Fiction? Sam Fox the ex page three girl? Samuel Beckett, the absurdist Irish writer and Nobel laureate, who is in fact dead?
Then it dawned on me. ‘You mean Big Sam… Allardyce. The onetime manager of Bolton Wanderers??’
‘Yes! He was here! Big Sam. We were all very excited, one of us actually talked to him. He said he liked coming to Banyan because it allowed him to escape the fans.’
How weird is this? A manager of lowly soccer teams who is almost a comedy figure in Britain is practically a semi-divine icon in Indonesia. But then it isn’t so weird when you see the adulation of English football across Asia. In Bangkok, everyone is either a rabid Gooner, or a Red Devil, or a mad Chelsea fan. There is a Man United shop in the very centre of Singapore, with a similar outlet in Bangkok's Central Chitlom. English football shirts can be seen, en masse, in Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, Chiang Mai and Hanoi. English premiership games are televised live, across Asia, whatever the hour.
The obvious question is: can this be real support? Or is it just a passing fancy?
I think it may be turning into real support. Because some Asians now follow teams which have no chance: the true test of fanhood. I found one Sumatran guy who was mad for Tottenham Hotspur, for instance.
“I am a Spurs man.” He said. “I don’t care if they ever win. They are my team”.
The man added a coda: “I think it’s a great shame England are not in the Euro Championships. Me and my friends, maybe we won’t watch the tournament - without England it isn’t the same.“
So if it’s any consolation to domestic England fans, staring moodily at the telly this month: right now people are sharing your pain in the jungles of northern Sumatra.
Posted by sean at 12:40 pm