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June Travelogue: The Beautiful Game, Malaysian-Styled

Exterior view of Bukit Jalil National Stadium, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Living in the Bay Area, I don't think I got a true appreciation for the truly highest level of college football fanaticism until I moved to the Buckeye state. Ironically, it was a trip back to California, where I saw hordes of Buckeye football fans temporarily turn the University of California's Memorial Stadium into the west coast pop-up location of The Shoe during a pre-conference game between the Bucks and the Golden Bears where I got the first full taste of this phenomenon.

My appreciation of what most other countries outside of the United States know as football was essentially nil for the first three decades or so of my life. However, my attention level to this sports received two energetic jolts around the turn of the millennium with two World Cup performances by the U.S. national teams. In 1999, U.S. Women's World Cup team capped off a championship run with the iconic penalty kick goal by Brandi Chastain in 1999, followed a few years later in 2002 when the United States Men's team put in its best performance in a World Cup since 1930 by making a quarterfinals appearance, only to lose 1-0 to eventual finalist Germany.

Since then, I've paid attention to all the World Cup tournaments (including the current Women's World Cup in Canada) and every now and again would find myself watching a Major League Soccer (MLS) game on TV when nothing else tickled my fancy. Columbus itself has a fairly fanatical following with its own MLS soccer team the Columbus Crew; my spouse and I hope to get our first taste of the experience this year by attending a game or two.

My taste of the true fanaticism this particular football can inspire came roughly six years ago, when my work duties took me to the city of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Some of the charms of KLCC Park, located in the heart of Kuala Lumpur
KLCC Park, in the shadow of the iconic Petronas Towers, proved to be one of my favorite "getaways" in the urban jungle that was Kuala Lumpur, or KL for short. People watching was a favorite activity: the park featured a family pool to combat the consistent heat and humidity (lying at just 3 degrees north of the equator, KL's climate is purely tropical) along with other ornamental water features to compliment the greenery within the park's borders. Often, I did this watching while knocking off several laps on the park's rubberized jogging path, a popular feature with many city residents. This area is rarely without people during the daytime regardless, with the convention center, Aquaria KLCC (a fairly substantial aquarium exhibit) and Suria KLCC (one of the nicer shopping malls in an area chock full of them) surrounding the area.

During my time there, I found the Malaysian populace in general had a widespread interest in all manner of sports. Local news coverage varied widely, with locally popular endeavors like badminton, handball (something of a combination of hockey and basketball), and squash covered alongside more familiar sports to the U.S. public such as auto racing, golf and soccer/football. Football interest was especially strong with the English Premier League teams, especially Chelsea and Manchester United.

The grounds around the Traders Hotel at KLCC Park was all
abuzz with activity during one of my walks through the area
Manchester United was a team I had at least gained some familiarity with, mainly in relation to the controversial ownership situation with American businessman Malcolm Glazer (also then owner of the National Football League's Tampa Bay Buccaneers). I had heard that the team was in town for a friendly against the Malaysia XI, essentially a team consisting of the country's better football players but not the official World Cup-competition team. I had figured home loyalties would lie with the national team, but it seemed like you couldn't walk anywhere in the city without seeing an AIG-emblazoned team jersey being sported by the locals.

My impression that the locals were more enamored with the visitors than their own football players was cemented when I came upon the team's departure from their hotel, also located on the perimeter of KLCC Park. Hundreds of star-struck fans surrounded the hotel's entrance, cheering wildly with cameras snapping away as team members filtered out into the bus that would take them to their friendly against the Malaysia XI side at Bukit Jalil National Stadium

The local fanfare that met the Manchester United team as they
left for their friendly against the Malaysia XI side.
The game, which was not an option for me due to price and logistics, turned out to be a closer-than-expected 3-2 victory for Manchester United. It was meant to as the start of four friendlies for the team throughout Asia; however, the bombing of the team's hotel in Jakarta just days before their friendly with the Indonesian national team caused team officials to cancel that leg of the tour. This led to a huge gap in time before the next game in Korea, and a quickly-arranged second game with the Malaysia XI side a couple days later was arranged. With ticket prices (available for under 20 dollars U.S.), the crowds most likely less daunting (Bukit Jalil National Stadium holds close to 90,000 people) and a willing co-worker in tow, I decided to check out my first live football match.

Some of the sights from the unexpected second friendly between
Manchester United and the Malaysia XI side
The game itself showed why Manchester United took the Premier League in the 2008-2009 season. After what had been reported as a lackluster effort in the previous game, the visiting team played crisply, getting out to a quick 2-0 lead after the first 15 minutes and missing good opportunities throughout the rest of the game. The Malaysian team had a few counter-attacking chances but were otherwise on their heels most of the game.

Absorbing the atmosphere proved to be just to be as fun as the game itself. Happening on a weekday, the crowd was a lot smaller than the originally-scheduled game on the weekend, and the 30,000 or so in attendance were swallowed by the vast expanse of the stadium. A young Malaysian child, not at all too interested in the game itself, kept my co-worker and I entertained for most of the game. 

There was also some uncertainty in the getting back. Getting to the stadium would be easy; we were taking the train down to the stadium. However, the stadium, roughly 45 minutes south of where we were staying in KL, was truly unfamiliar territory for us; there was just that certain hint of uncertainty in terms of the return trip, as we would have to flag down and grab a teksi to take us back home. 

This turned out to be where we had a chance encounter with another person traveling through Malaysia had to offer. A British-based family vacationing in the country and staying close to our hotel invited us to share the ride in their rather luxurious van-sized teksi. The resultant conversation and the cost, which we figured would have been doubled had we flagged our own ride back, made for a relaxing and relatively stress-free end to this first taste of the sport dubbed "The Beautiful Game."

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