Globe-trotting Myanmar's trip of a lifetime
The word 'journey' is an overused term when it comes to documenting the trails and tribulations of sportsmen and women, clubs and nations. Conjuring the image of enduring many miles helps the narrative crystallise much easier for those not there for the early starts, the hours of training and the emotional turmoil sport can inflict.
For the Myanmar side taking part at the FIFA U-20 World Cup, in many ways theirs is much less abstract than the stories of growth and pain that football often provides, but it is no less fulfilling, having seen this engaging group take a life-changing adventure.
It's safe to say, back in October, that it was impossible for the members of the White Angels to envisage what the next nine months would have brought. But since booking their place at New Zealand 2015 this group of underdogs have travelled halfway around the world and back, seeing things they may never have expected to. It's amazing what a single goal can do.
Since Than Paing rattled in their AFC U-19 Championship quarter-final winner, an “unbelievable” moment where he “just went crazy”, they have been to eight countries at opposite ends of the earth, all in the name of football. Australia, Belgium, Germany, Hungary, Macedonia, Slovenia, Ukraine and, of course, New Zealand are now fresh stamps in their passports after coach Gerd Zeise took them on a globe-trotting trip built around tactical education.
Looking back, captain Nanda Kyaw feels that multi-national boot camp was invaluable. “It was a great experience going around Europe, we learned a lot,” he recounted to FIFA.com. “Playing against big European teams really helped build our confidence up for taking on the likes of USA once we got here.
“We have so much to learn, so visiting countries with such a strong footballing backgrounds, like Germany, was so important, but just taking in things like the landscape – which is so different to Myanmar – was wonderful.”
Paing similarly has fond memories of the homeland of his coach, a stay which included a month-long camp in Berlin. “Germany was my favourite,” he fondly recalled. “Not only was it great on the football side of things, it was just a fantastic place to visit - so much so we went there twice!”
We tried and tried and tried, then eventually we liked it!
While Myanmar has a varied terrain of its own, passing through central Europe opened their eyes to a world that had only existed through laptops and data connections, so drinking it in first-hand was at times spine-tingling. “We had lots of fantastic experiences,” Paing explains, “but Slovenia really sticks in my mind. We climbed mountains while there, which is something we've never done before. Taking in the view was just amazing.”
“The food too!” he remembers, as the memories flood back. “Back home the main thing we eat is rice, usually with some curry, but once we were there we suddenly had to change. We tried and tried and tried, then eventually we liked it!”
A brief pause follows, as he racks his brain a little further. “Oh, and ice-skating!”
The image of the team taking to an ice rink for the first time is a both a heart-warming and hilarious image to conjure up. “We fell down so many times!” he retold. “We were laughing and joking, everyone had a great time.”
Though while moments of fun arose, and they all ended the trip “like brothers”, the team knew this was no sightseeing tour. “While we have some great memories,” Kyaw interjects, “we all knew the reason we were there was to prepare for this tournament. Every players dreams of performing on a stage like this.”
The final stop And having travelled so far to get here, the moment it became reality was worth all the roads they had ridden. “We've played in a lot of tournaments, so hearing our national anthem played is nothing new, but this was different,” said Paing on their opening match. “It was such a proud and happy moment, it was so empowering to see our flag brought out at a World Cup.”
So far their time here has brought mixed results. A motivating narrow 2-1 defeat to USA – in which they scored New Zealand 2015's first goal – was followed by a demoralising 6-0 loss to Ukraine. But throughout their two games in Whangarei they were roared on by an almost partisan crowd.
“We never realised how many people from Myanmar lived in New Zealand,” Kyaw beamed. “We expected maybe just a few people, but we've had loads. We want say a huge thank to all those shouting for us. It has given us more strength and more heart.”
The exuberance, gusto and will shown by the team has seen them taken in as firm favourites by all fans of the underdog in New Zealand. And no matter how far they go, their stay will live long in the memory.
Though, as Kyaw admits, this journey may live a little longer in theirs. “We'll never forget this experience. It's with us for life.”