Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Sarawak FC

One of my first questions back when I was considering coming to UNIMAS was "Does Kuching have any professional sports?" The answer is yes...sort of.

I knew enough about Malaysia not to expect any pro baseball, football, or hockey, but I thought basketball was a possibility. (Seon informed me that even South Korea has a pro basketball league, although - amusingly - each team is allowed a maximum of two foreign players, and before this year a rule banned anyone over 6'8'', i.e. the height of the tallest Korean player.) Soccer has never been among my favorites, but in recent years I've shed my prejudice and grown to appreciate this world's best loved sport. In many parts of the globe it's all they have in the way of pro sports, and that includes Sarawak.

The Sarawak Football Club's heyday was in the '90s when their nickname was the Crocs. In 1999 they made their only appearance (losing to Brunei) in the prestigious Malaysia Cup, the longest-running soccer competition in Asia. Since then they have declined so much that last year, by which time they'd become the Hornbills, they faced the shame of losing their position in the Super League and being relegated to the second division of Malaysian national soccer, the 14-team Premier League.

Ten years ago they began playing in Kuching's impressive Sarawak Stadium which seats 40,000 and was built for the 1997 FIFA World Youth Cup. This venue is conspicuously and impractically large for a city the likes of Kuching.

Unfortunately, we only drove by this magnificent structure on the way to Sarawak FC's most current home, the older and far less impressive State Stadium. The team's dismal performance lately has made them unable to pay the state government enough to rent the nicer, newer stadium next door.

My friend and classmate Gary from Kuala Lumpur informed me about the game just a few hours before it started, and luckily I was free. We went for the cheap, uncovered seats (i.e., cement terraces) which cost me $2. Even though it rained, this turned out to be a good move because they allowed everyone into the covered seating regardless.
Despite the low turnout, the game felt lively throughout thanks to the chants and beats provided by the Sarawak Football Fan Club. They played one bass drum and a couple dozen kompang, shallow single-skin hand drums of Malay origin. I've been informed that the best place to buy one is the Kuala Lumpur central market, so I plan to stop there next month.
A local military marching band provided the halftime entertainment. (Any good football game has a marching band at halftime, right?) They were small and featured bagpipes and a baton wielding leader. I enjoyed their simple five-minute routine, but Gary was more interested in his dwindling supply of cheese puffs. He said his own high school marching band was better than these guys. Ditto man. Ditto.

Despite Sarawak's large indigenous and Chinese populations, nearly all the players on Sarawak FC are Malays. Sarawakians pride themselves on being significantly more racially integrated than Peninsular Malaysians, but sports here remain very much segregated. It can be said, for example, that soccer is for Malays and natives, whereas basketball is played almost exclusively by Chinese.

In the past Sarawak FC has had several Australians, a couple South Africans, a Scot, and a Brazilian, among other foreigners. (Players from at least 66 countries have played professional soccer in Malaysia, but never a single American!) In fact, teams had become dependent on their foreign players for scoring, as last year the top four leading scorers were non-Malaysian. It is quite unfortunate that the league's rules regarding foreigners are constantly changing, and the most recent ones ban imports altogether.

At one point near the game's end a slide tackle led to some shoving and exchanging of words, and I thought I would get to witness a soccer brawl – Malaysian style. It was not to be. We lost to visiting Terengganu 2 to 1.