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Burmese Days - Day 10: Goodbye to Myanmar and the most demanding supporters on the planet

Cesare Polenghi

Minute 92. Timor Leste is down 2-1 against Brunei and desperately need an equalizer to qualify for the group phase of the tournament. The Japanese referee whistles for a foul a couple of metres outside Brunei’s penalty box. This is clearly the very last chance for Timor Leste to make it happen. Leandro looks a statue of ebony, as he prepares to kick. He finally unleashes a powerful curved ball that flies around the wall, and...

Bactrack to the morning of my last full day in Myanmar, my buddy Myo kicked me out of bed with a call from my hotel’s hall, and we were immediately crossing town on a taxi, with the training grounds of Yangon United as the final destination. Away from the colourful roads of the city, the sports complex lies quietly nested off a big road in a busy area of Yangon. The facilities are state-of-the-art stuff, a brand new synthetic ground with stands on both sides, a glass-walled gym, pool, a clean, luminous building for the athletes in residence and a team bus painted in the green and blue colors of the club parked outside.

Zwe Hlaing Hmee, the general secretary of the club is a bright young man who I met the night before at the gala dinner, and he told me a bit about the objectives of the club. The idea is of course to bring local football to the next level, and Yangon United are clearly serious about it. When they were founded, in 2009, they opened try-outs to the whole country to fill-up a dozen teams, covering all the spectrum of youth categories, from 11-year-old to the top team. Allegedly, an astonishing 300,000 showed up from the whole country, to get a shot at joining the club and its academy.

Yangon United now has continental ambitions, and after their second domestic title in a run, are looking forward to next season’s campaign in Asia. “All that Myanmar football needs, are a dozen clubs like Yangon United," I told Zwe as I greeted him goodbye and thanked him for the hospitality.  Yes, it was an impressive visit.

It was a torrid afternoon as we arrived at the Thuwanna stadium for the last day of games. Myanmar and Laos played to a dull 0-0. Truth be told, the only match of the tournament that turned out to be a stinker. The thousands who had crowded the stands did not take it lightly. With ten minutes left, the whole stadium incredibly started to chant “Laos, Laos.” The game ended with the local team being completely ignored, rejected by their own supporters, despite qualifying by winning three out of four matches, keeping an undefeated record and conceding one goal only. Myanmar supporters must be the most demanding I have ever seen, I thought. The cheers were only for Laos, whose players bowed out, their turn now to hope for a miracle in the last game.

And it was actually happening. The tiredness accumulated in the ten super-intense days was catching up with me as, in a quasi-dreamy status, I witnessed Timor Leste going two goals down against Brunei, and then finally pull one back with a dozen minutes left. But they needed one more to go through. It was all a crescendo until that last-gasp free kick. I was standing behind the goal snapping my last pictures, as the powerful, curved ball beautifully flew toward the goal.

In that very short blink of time, images of the last ten days zoomed across my mind. The arrival in this new land, the big sky above the old stadium, the excited faces of young players, the stories of the adventurer coaches, my new friends from Yangon driving me around town at night, the golden stupas of the Shwedagon Pagoda...

The metallic thud of the ball against the post woke me up from my dreaming. The game was soon over, with the defeated Timorese players laying down on the field, some cursing, some crying. It was the epitome of the brutal cruelty of football. The history of a small football nation that missed its appointment with glory by a matter of a centimetre or two.

But at the press conference, Emerson did not seem depressed. He thanked his players and everybody. He wished best luck to Myanmar and Laos. He knows that there are more histories awaiting, for Timor Leste and for the football of Southeast Asia.

A huge thanks to all who made my experience possible - my staff at, AFC and WSG, coaches and players, the great people at the Myanmar Football Federation, the taxi drivers in Yangon and the lady who cooked me lasagna at 2am at the 365 Restaurant the night I was starving. And of course, thanks to you for reading.