DPR Korea – Burkina Faso
As a Swedish football fan, I’m well familiar with the King’s Cup in Bangkok as it used to be a tournament where my beloved national team would try out potential players active in the Scandinavian leagues. Some years have passed since but this summer, my interest in the cup was rekindled as me and one of my very best friends were planning to attend all four matches. His sudden passing a week before kick-off changed all of this and I couldn’t even bring myself to watch the semi-finals on the telly, let alone go out to the Rajamangala Stadium in person. However, I felt obliged to watch the third-place playoff and final in honour of my friend and parked myself next to my six-week old daughter on the couch to enjoy the afternoon’s encounter between North Korea and Burkina Faso. This was also the match that we had, in particular, hoped to get see as it would have been the most obscure one possible, from our perspective, and a great conversational topic among for next time visiting our equally football-crazed friends back home.
Like the concept of the King’s Cup, the match itself brought me back to days passed. It looked a lot like the World Cups of my youth, with an unorganised and inconsistently skilled African side, a slightly more organised but unskilled Asian side, and poor goalkeeping on both ends. Burkina Faso looked better, mostly due to individual efforts. But only after the North Koreans got the first goal through Pak Song-Chol, following a free-kick deep into the attacking left wing and some soapy hands from Burkina Faso’s number one after only three minutes.
Burkina Faso then got the logical equaliser from a free-kick in an identical position just before halftime. The North Korean keeper accepted the challenge from his colleague at the other end and handed Ismael Zagre an easy rebound to smash home high into the net.
North Korea entered the second half as a completely different side, as they were no longer in front and actually displayed some quality football. The effort bore fruit after 66 minutes as Hyon Myong-Cha sent the keeper the wrong way and put his side ahead from a penalty that looked like it may just as well have been a free-kick just outside the box.
2-2 came only a couple of minutes later from a Lassina Traoré header. Joyous celebrations followed by the Burkina Faso bench, unlike the indifferent looks on the North Korean players after their leading goal just before. Traoré then got his second to put his team ahead for the first time of the day after 72 minutes, off came the shirt and an euphoric Traoré was in the book.
The West Africans held the lead for about ten minutes before a messy situation in the box ended with Rim Kwang-Hyok curling the ball beautifully into the top corner. This time, the Koreans even looked happy about scoring.
3-3 meant Burkina Faso faced their second penalty shootout of the tournament (after a goalless draw with Belarus in the semi-final). The practice paid off and they were able to secure the bronze, winning 4-3 from 10, very poorly executed in general, penalties.
Thailand – Belarus
Thailand faced one of Sweden’s opponents in the WC-qualifiers, Belarus, in the final. The visitors brought nothing close to their strongest XI and Milovan Rajevac have still to make a Thai-selection with all his players available. Despite a number of absentees, the hosts had beaten North Korea comfortably in the semi-final (3-0), and surely considered themselves favourites against a Belarus that had failed to score against Burkina Faso. The sides were evenly matched though, and all through the first 45 it looked like the match could go either way.
I opened one up a bottle of my friend’s favourite beer ahead of the second half, and found myself drifting in and out of the, not very exciting, match as my mind started to bring memories of him to life, more often than not revolving around football. Like the amazing trip to Berlin during the 2006 WC or attending UEFA Champions League-football in Moscow ahead of a journey on the Trans-Siberian railway. The teams were still pretty even from what I gathered during my more focused moments, and the match actually seemed to get a bit more intense as another penalty shootout drew nearer. Thailand looked more eager, perhaps because Belarus felt confident after winning the semi-final on penalties, and nearly won it from a 89th minute free-kick from Thitipan Puangchan. But, in the end, the home side came out on top, scoring 5 times to Belarus’ 4 from 6 penalties and giving Rajevac’s stewardship a huge boost.
It was tough to watch today’s matches as I associated the Thai national team very closely with my friend, even before our plans to watch this cup live. But, I’m glad I decided to do so, it was the first time this week that I’ve managed to think about him for more than a little while without breaking down and crying. It was also the first time I’ve been able to simply focus on a few of the many wonderful memories we shared, and not only grieve for the things we never got around to doing. I’m not, by any means, finished mourning but today, I only feel lucky to have had an extraordinary person in my life.