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Burmese Days - Day 5: All roads lead to the AFF Suzuki Cup qualifiers

Cesare Polenghi

The second full day with no games scheduled started with an early rise and a taxi ride across town to the Yangon Hotel at 8th Mile. Not sure if it is a tribute to Eminem, young lads, but that is indeed the complete name of the residence for the four guest teams of the AFF Suzuki Cup qualifiers.

As my cab lazily rolled through the streets of the former capital of Myanmar, still half-asleep I drove by parks and lakes, until my vehicle neared my destination and I recognised some familiar silhouettes: the Timor Leste players strolling around for their morning walk.

In the hotel lobby, I met two of the characters that make these days of football in Yangon even more interesting: Emerson, who coaches Timor Leste; and Kimura-san, who has recently moved his residence from Yokohama to Vientiane to lead the Laotian team. Besides the returning Timoreans, players from Laos, Cambodia and Brunei also crowded the hotel and bumped into each other exchanging greetings in an atmosphere that reminded me of that of a high school tournament in Japan.

Both managers were kind enough to give me some of their precious time, and both had a great story to tell: two footballing journeys, through countless training sessions and games across the world, which will eventually bring them together tomorrow (today for the readers) to face off for the second spot in the table worth a ticket to Kuala Lumpur for the finals.

Their interviews will be featured in full on in a couple of days, but I need to underscore how both men were almost moving in their honesty, their gallantry and their attachment to their players. Messi was of course smiling upon us from one of the billboards out in the street, but beyond the glamour of major football, there is a game worth loving that is made by people like Emerson and Kimura. So, kudos.

As tomorrow will be the third of five days of games and therefore marks the conclusion of the first half of the tournament, I decided to observe an afternoon of detoxification, and randomly walked around town with no destination. It was already dark when I finally arrived back at my hotel, and my new local friends picked me up for a night tour of the city. Zarni, the most talkative of the lot, made a point to take me to the city’s most famous landmark, the Shwedagon Pagoda.

As we walked through the corridors littered by Buddhist souvenir shops, we soon found ourself circling around the gigantic golden stupa. Caught in an intense discussion on the cyclical redundancy of life and how football is a perfect metaphor for the realms of heaven and earth, I lost all sense of time and geography.

For at least a good ten minutes I failed to realise I was in one of the most amazing places I have ever seen on the planet. Suddenly, as if experiencing a micro-awakening, it hit me. I found myself in a magnificent City of Gold, where countless Myanmarese families were joining me in their pilgrimage around the immense structure, guided by the rhythmic sound of bells and the perfume of incense.

The rest of the evening was a confused mix of tastes, smells and sounds typical of the first conscious visit to a new city. I was comfortably lost, but sure enough, it will all return to normality as the universality of football restarts tomorrow, with the brave Emerson and Kimura squabbling to earn the right to write one more chapter in their already amazing careers.