Kicking off young

Myanmar has a shortage of proper sports facilities and infrastructure, so kickabouts played on street alleys, underneath overpasses and on the roads are a common sight in the country.
Myanmar has a shortage of proper sports facilities and infrastructure, so kickabouts played on street alleys, underneath overpasses and on the roads are a common sight in the country. PHOTO: KENJI KWOK
Boys from the Yangon Football Academy watching the senior team during morning training. Some football observers say that Myanmar is stumbling upon a golden generation, with its U-20 football team a surprise qualifier for the U-20 World Cup in New Zea
Boys from the Yangon Football Academy watching the senior team during morning training. Some football observers say that Myanmar is stumbling upon a golden generation, with its U-20 football team a surprise qualifier for the U-20 World Cup in New Zealand this year.PHOTO: DANIEL NEO

Street football is playing its part in nurturing the next generation of stars in Myanmar. By Amir Yusof

Nearly everyone was barefooted, the spattered mud on their heels a reminder of their devotion.

Phyo Yan Htike has never owned a pair of shoes. Though slight, he dribbled elegantly, gliding up and down the pebble-strewn futsal court on his calloused soles.

As the rain fell harder on the wooden planks placed as goalposts, most of the 11 teenagers ran for shelter.

But not Phyo Yan Htike. He gave a shrug at his friends' reluctance to play on.

Eventually, the 15-year-old gave up and grabbed his school bag. "Maybe we should go for class now," he said.

CHANGING DIRECTION

I once dreamt of becoming a professional footballer and playing for the national team. But I am too old now and my parents want me to be an engineer. 

PHYO YAN HTIKE, 15-year-old football fanatic, on the "death" of his dream

School is a secondary priority for this group of football fanatics. Despite skipping lessons for a kickabout session in the mud, there is no trace of guilt.

Most of them will take the final middle-school exams in two months. But for Phyo Yan Htike, football comes first.

"We always play during school time because that's when the courts are empty," he said through a translator. "In the afternoon, we continue playing on empty roads. We play anywhere."

VILLAGE GAMES

In Yangon, the ball moves through a myriad of surfaces. It rolls on the cobblestones of street alleys, the concrete underneath overpasses, asphalt on the roads, and in the July monsoon, it glides on mud.

Phyo Yan Htike and his friends complain that their school has no field and no football team. But that does not stop them and millions of other youth across the country from playing the beautiful game.

"I once dreamt of becoming a professional footballer and playing for the national team. But I am too old now and my parents want me to be an engineer," said Phyo Yan Htike.

But perhaps he has not missed the boat completely. Top clubs in the Myanmar National League send scouts to identify talent in obscurely organised street games all over the country.

Mr Win Thu Moe, technical director and head of youth recruitment for Yangon United Football Club, believes that the ruggedness of street football helps develop professional players.

"Compared with other countries in South-east Asia, Myanmar is still lacking in terms of infrastructure for boys to play football in schools," Mr Win Thu Moe said.

"But that doesn't mean those who don't play in competitions aren't talented. Many of our young stars were identified playing in their villages," added the former technical director of the national team.

Football observers say that Myanmar is stumbling upon a golden generation. The U-20 team was one of Asia's surprise qualifiers at the U-20 World Cup in New Zealand this year. Despite not getting past the group stage, the team nicknamed White Angels gave established sides like the United States and Ukraine a run for their money.

Myanmar also performed admirably at the SEA Games this year in Singapore after clinching a silver medal, their highest achievement in the U-23 competition since 2007.

Singapore fans will not forget how the Myanmar U-23 side outplayed the Young Lions in a 1-2 defeat in that competition, as coach Aide Iskandar's team failed to cope with the technical superiority of Myanmar's young talents.

STREET SKILLS

Winger Aung Zung Moe says spending his childhood aiming at rubbish cans in his village in Kayin state has paid dividends.

"I'd practise till I put the ball in 20 times every day before going home," said the Yangon United star. He would stand 20m to 30m away and shoot from different angles, practising with either foot.

"I knew that doing so would help me take care of my family one day," he said.

Unlike the players in the Young Lions squad, the 22-year-old did not play on a football pitch until he was 16.

For national striker Kyaw Ko Ko, playing with a real football was a rare treat until he was 15 and signed with Zayer Shwe Myay FC.

"We'd use our slippers to mark the goal and kick around the roundest rock we could find," he said, recalling his street football days in Mandalay.

"Sometimes our toes got really black and bruised but we'd just play on."

Mr Win Thu Moe believes that the young players' raw talent was formed before they were recruited.

"These boys learn technique and physical ruggedness when they play on the streets. When they come to us, we only need to condition them physically and teach tactics. Street football makes it easier for coaches," he said.

A NATIONAL PASSION

The U-23 team returned from their SEA Games exploits to a rousing welcome by tens of thousands of supporters at Yangon International Airport.

Supporters also pack the stadiums during local games, where 10m-high fences and army personnel with AK-47s keep fans at bay.

Former Myanmar national team coach Raddy Avramovic says the fans sometimes go overboard.

The Serbian, who had also been the longest-serving senior coach of the Singapore national team till he resigned in 2012, said of Myanmar: "Supporters here are really passionate about football, but that passion and enthusiasm must be in accordance with rules."

The former coach is unhappy that for the upcoming 2018 World Cup qualifiers, Myanmar will be playing all their home fixtures in Thailand, instead of at Yangon's Thuwana Stadium, due to Fifa sanctions.

The Myanmar Football Federation had been punished for an incident in 2011 during a World Cup qualifier against Oman when angry fans hurled bottles and rocks onto the pitch.

While Mr Win Thu Moe says that passion must be displayed in a disciplined manner, it is the raw ingredient for boys to succeed as footballers.

"Many footballers today are distracted by glamour and money. But if you go back to why they started playing, it's the dream of scoring for your country," said Mr Win Thu Moe.

As Yangon transforms into a concrete jungle, the day may come when there is no room left for children to play on the streets.

Fortunately, schools may soon have proper football pitches and equipment. Yangon United has already opened the Yangon Football Academy, which allows boys aged 11 to 16 to learn the basics for three sessions a week at its state-of-the-art training ground.

But Mr Win Thu Moe, who oversees the running of the academy, believes village and street football have their own allure. "If you look at the best footballers in the world, like Neymar and Mesut Oezil, they learnt on the streets. It's a good starting point in a footballer's education."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 01, 2015, with the headline 'Kicking off young'. Print Edition | Subscribe