JW on Football in the Shadows of Buddha

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This article originally appeared in the August 24th issue of our newsletter, The Raven. Subscribe HERE

My wife and I are lost. In a stranger’s home. On the other side of the world.

We’re searching for a waterfall on the remote Thai island of Koh Phangan. TripAdvisor warned we would have to walk through what appeared to be someone’s home to find it and Google Maps’ little blue dot confirms we’re in the vicinity. But as I look into the perplexed eyes of two young men sitting on the floor eating dinner, I’m thinking we have the wrong house.

The residents aren’t threatening. Like us, they’re confused. And maybe a little scared that two sweaty Americans are standing in their living room, which is filled with silence. They look at each other. I can feel my partner’s eyes piercing a hole in the back of my head. I had to say something.

“Jurgen Klopp.”

It was the best I could come up with, my mind retreating to two massive Liverpool beach towels we encountered on a clothesline immediately before entering the home.

The pair on the floor, looked at me, back at each other, and burst out laughing, giving me a thumbs up as we showed ourselves the door.

Football wasn’t what I expected to find on my honeymoon in Thailand. But no matter where we went, or with whom we spoke, it proved as unavoidable as an ill-timed Sergio Ramos tackle.

It began immediately upon arrival in the Bangkok Airport, where one is greeted by the not-so-smile of football’s most feral incisors: Jamie Vardy.

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While Leicester’s Thai owner slanging those King Power-clad beauties in his home country is #ModernFootball at its finest, what struck me during the rest of my 11-day journey was how football found its way into the country’s crevices. In the shadows of temples, between bustling market stalls, in remote hillside villages. Football. Is. Everywhere.

This is best illustrated by the number of dirt patches which have been turned into makeshift fields, like this beauty (not far from the aforementioned house in which we were lost).

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In a clearing of tropical foliage, its touchlines marked off by a red string, and a pink ball resting in one of the goals, I was overcome by the romance of it all.

I didn’t go a day without seeing a local rocking a Premier League jersey, the authenticity and era of which varied greatly. From what looked to be a very authentic Romelu Lukaku United getup to a Mo Salah Liverpool number in which the name might well have been taped on the back.

More than anything, football proved the Rosetta Stone between us and so many Thai people.

In Chiang Mai, we had a tour guide named Nu. Even among a people who are the kindest I’ve ever encountered, Nu was the warmest. The type of dude you hug, not handshake. In two days of touring, a smile never left his face. Think Thai N’Golo Kante.

But on our final day, with our car nearing our hotel, we were debating whether Nu’s beloved Liverpool’s new signings would be enough to close the gap on City. We started talking Jordan Henderson’s role on the team. I noted that while I appreciate Hendo’s hustle and leadership, I didn’t think he’d ever amount to even an ersatz Stevie G. It was the only time the entire trip anyone, let alone Nu, took a stern tone with me. He turned to face me from the front seat, ubiquitous smile wiped from his face, as he said in slow, methodical English, just to make sure I understood.

“There is only one Steven Gerrard.”

Football and Thailand, you are both amazing.