By ANDREW MARSHALL
Posted by RK
More than a century ago, a diminutive Scottish teacher strode onto a school playing field in Rangoon and punted a sphere of Indian rubber into the sultry tropical air. The year was 1878. The man was J. George Scott, a preacher’s son from Fife, and he had just brought football to colonial Burma. Admittedly, there are other, more pivotal moments in Burmese history—not least the 1962 coup when the military seized power. But you would hardly know it in Burma, where the sport Scott introduced is not just a national obsession, but an indicator of a great country’s tragic decline under one of the world’s oldest surviving dictatorships.
A gifted linguist and scholar, Scott spent most of his working life as a colonial administrator. He was small, tough and fearless—he scaled hilltop fortresses to meet ferocious headhunters known as the Wild Wa, and braved man-eating boa constrictors to explore Burma’s then uncharted border with China. “Stepped on something soft and wobbly,” runs a typically pithy entry in his jungle diary. “Struck a match, found it was a dead [Chinese].”
For Scott, football was both a passion and a useful empire-building tool—a way of communicating ideas of fair play and respect for authority. He arranged matches between the followers of squabbling tribal chieftains, although he stopped short of teaching the game to the Wild Wa due to (as a British historian put it) “the risk of overenthusiasm and resulting massacres.” He also competed in hard-fought tournaments against the Burmese. They loved the game, he noted, “because it’s just like fighting.” Before one Anglo-Burmese contest, goalkeeper Jerry Morrison was felled by a stomach bug and his replacement, baffled by the rules of the sport, only attempted to save shots that went over the bar. The Burmese won 2-1.
In reality, of course, there were no level playing fields in colonial Burma. Profits from its timber, gems and silver filled Britain’s coffers, and the lives of most Burmese remained unimproved. The country won its independence in 1948, and the so-called “golden age” of Burmese soccer roughly coincides with the brief period of optimism that followed. The national team ranked among Asia’s finest, and the economic prospects of this large, cultured and resource-rich country looked rosy. Then came the 1962 coup, which plunged Burma into poverty, isolation and fear. A series of paranoid and xenophobic regimes expelled foreigners, nationalized all industry, and dismissed the country’s problems—including bumper opium crops and an unchecked AIDS epidemic—as legacies of colonialism. Opponents were jailed or killed, culminating in the military’s massacre of hundreds of pro-democracy protesters in 1988 and the jailing of their leader, Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.
Football suffered too. Stadiums—and schools and universities and hospitals— crumbled with neglect. At one point, the country actually ran out of footballs. Today, it is routine for Burma (pop. 50 million) to be trounced by teams such as Brunei (pop. 374,000). Yet though Burma’s dictators may have destroyed the national game, they have not dented its people’s enthusiasm for the global version. One of the few growth areas in a crippled economy are football magazines with English names such as First Eleven and 90 Minutes. Life in Rangoon—never exactly frenetic—will grow sleepier in the coming weeks, as half the population will have stayed up to watch the games in Germany. Electricity is rationed in Burma but the power tends to stay on during live broadcasts of important matches. Even Burma’s generals seem to realize the dangers of denying a long-suffering people this simple joy.
And J. George Scott? He is long forgotten, along with pith helmets and tiger hunts. But the sport this obscure Victorian introduced still connects the Burmese people to a wider world the junta would rather they forgot.
Andrew Marshall is the author of The Trouser People: A Story of Burma in the Shadow of the Empire