For the last two months, I have had the life-changing opportunity to live and work in the beautiful nation of Timor-Leste. This has been especially exciting as an avid soccer fan. During my time here, there have been three home games for the World Cup Qualifying, and yesterday featured the last home game for O Sol Nascente. The international edition of the Beautiful Game constantly creates new and unique stories, and Group A of the second round of the Asian zone has been no exception.
I had watched this team narrowly lose to Malaysia despite dominating possession and shots on target. I also watched this team go toe-to-toe with Palestine in a game which not only featured entertaining athletic prowess, but had powerful symbolic value as well: One of the world's newest nations shared the pitch with one of the world's longest nations-to-be.
Tuesday, November 18 offered yet another match of tremendous symbolic value. One of Asia's oldest, wealthiest, and storied football associations took to the pitch against one of the continent's newest, under-resourced, and newest. Indeed it was one of the world's richest nations against Asia's poorest.
Yet despite the vast disparities, there was a touching moment of unity. Before kick-off, both the men in green and the hometown heroes in all white held an Asia-wide minute-long silence for the victims of the Paris attacks followed by respectful applause. The entire stadium stood up in absolute reverent silence, and the only sounds were the straining motors of distant cars. It was a touching moment of global solidarity from the players and fans of one nation which has endured decades of incalculable atrocities, and from another which is no stranger to terror or tragedy.
Timorese Toons vs. Middle East Monstars
While the Desert Falcons were always the heavy favorites to win the group (with only one hiccup due to a Palestine once again forced to play away from home and desperate to snatch points away from the group leaders), Team Timor was not exactly the helpless yet loveable underdog hero. Indeed this team has certainly not been without considerable controversy, as other teams in its group (and even many Nascente fans themselves) have decried the imported nature of a team "more Brazilian" than truly Timorese. In response to these complaints, the last home match finally featured a genuinely home grown Timorese team sans the mysteriously naturalized Brazilians, going up against an Asian powerhouse.
If the symbolism was potent, and the stage was set with all the hallmarks of a tantalizing David vs. Goliath underdog redemption story for the home team, nobody read the script. Rather than the Looney Tunes pulling off an unlikely win-or even a respectable draw or narrow loss-the desert Monstars were able to run rampant and pulverize the feeble opposition into total submission. The entire match can be watched here, but one statistic speaks volumes Saudi's trusted Number 10 super-striker Mohammad Al-Sahlawi was able to score a hattrick in open play-plus two penalties-to become the entire World Cup qualifying cycle's top scorer at 13 goals.
The highlight for the home team? A fanciful bicycle clearance by a desperate defender at the beginning of the game while Timor was just a goal down, which drew measured applause by a near-capacity crowd. Yet two goal concessions and the home crowd began abandoning ship and the vocal home advantage began rapidly dissipating; by the end of the dying minutes of the match when substitutes Naif Hazazi and Fahad Al-Muwallad both got on the score sheet, the remaining fans began ironically cheering the visitors for completing the humiliation
Perspective through Pain
Real-talk: There was no real expectation for the home team to steal a win or even a draw. Timor just began playing World Cup qualifying matches in 2007 and did not win one until it's two victories against Mongolia in the first round playoffs. This all-Timorese team was a group of under-experienced semi-pros facing off against a team of fully paid professionals. At the end of the day, the Saudis-with their towering physical superiority, exceptional team chemistry, and undeniable skill-were always favored to win whether at home or away. Yet the end of the match brought a sense of bitter disappointment and humiliation from fans, and even a sense of indignation among many. They wondered: Why did this all-Timorese team not have an opportunity to play more matches together, especially at home?
Perhaps having that experience and team chemistry would only have lessened the blow, but retaining some dignity at home would have done a world of good for the home team and their fans. After I expressed my condolences to one of home team's officials who gave me my press pass, he expressed his genuine gratitude for his players' efforts despite the result.
Such an attitude may very well do this team a world of good. Indeed they still have the qualifying round of the Asian Cup to look forward to, and after controversy and humiliation can end the qualifying round on a positive note. After Timor pick themselves up, they will travel to Hebron's defiant Dura International Stadium to face a Palestine desperate to steal second place away from the Emiratis. Once again, Asia's infant nation will take on the nation yearning to be, and there will be everything to gain for one team while nothing to lose except national pride for the other.
Yet the fact that Dili's new municipal stadium has now hosted four home matches (including the play-off game against Mongolia) will go a long way towards cementing this nation's love for the game-and perhaps inspiring a new generation of youth to train for the opportunity to join the Nascente. After all, my experience as a Bangladesh cricket fan has taught me that patience and perspective truly does pays off and repay the faith of its fans-eventually.
Huge thanks to the Federação for their amazing graciousness in letting me join the matchday media team! Truly an experience I will treasure for the rest of my life.