A Legend At Home, A Legend Thousands of Miles Abroad: The Story of the emotional rollercoaster journey of UCL to being the champions of the 2014 Samaggi Games Football Tournament

22nd February 2014 – Lilleshall National Sports Centre, Newport Telford and Wrekin, UK

 

Lilleshall National Sports Centre will leave some of the fondest memories for the UCL Thai Society, not only in terms of its excellent state-of-the-art facilities and beautiful, scenic countryside views, but also as the site where the society football team rode their way through a thrilling football tournament, lasting about eight hours, to the prestigious accolade which we all reverently call the Samaggi Games Trophy. The moment in the final when legendary striker ChanonPatnasiri (Pipe) smashed the ball into the roof of the net in the very last seconds of extra time leaves another indelible mark in the history books of UCL’s sporting success, and was made all the more sweet with a stylish goalscoring celebration to the delight of the supporters who had stood to cheer for UCL in the cold and windy February winter evening.

UCL were handed a reasonably challenging group that consisted of Warwick, Leeds, Kings College London and Coventry. The opening match against Warwick was rather difficult for UCL as the team felt slightly nervous and needed lengthy periods of time to adapt to the pace of the game. With not everything in place, UCL did not fully find their rhythm. Pipe put UCL into the lead before Warwick equalized to put the match all square. With the intention and urge to claim the three points from the opening match, Pap was sent on as a substitute to create more attacking options. This change clearly paid off when the striker grabbed the goal to restore UCL’s advantage, but defensive errors and loose marking allowed Warwick to grab the equalizer again for a two-all draw. Both teams shared the spoils in a pulsating encounter.

The next match against Leeds was going to be tough anyway and the fact that Leeds had star defender OeyChulacharrita and played a novel style of defense and marking strategy meant that there were going to be difficulties for UCL to employ their free-flow game. Nevertheless, Pipe assuaged UCL nerves with the opening goal with just thirty seconds on the clock. The prolific striker, who once scored 21 goals in a single season back in the school days, showed his predatory instincts again as he spinned the ball past a defender before finding the net with a grandstand finish. Leeds were not to be undone by this moment of grandeur and responded with an equalizer of equal quality by capitalizing on a defensive howler from the UCL backline to level the match.

Ball Trimetsoontornwas a prominent figure in this game and helped inspire the team to improve their passing and coordination; he even forced the Leeds goalkeeper into a tremendous save from point-blank range. UCL tried to retain possession in the toughest times of the match and sent on Pap once again in a tactical change to attempt to salvage something more than a draw from the match. The switch rewarded them again when Pap nutmegged one defender before scoring the winner by finding the bottom left corner of the goal.

With one win and a draw but no clean sheet, UCL faced Kings College London (KCL) in what was a repeat of last year’s quarter final defeat on penalties. This time round, UCL were clearly the dominant side and resoundingly thrashed their opponents with five unanswered goals. Earth grabbed his brace and there was also room for Pap and Karan to register themselves on the scoresheet. This match also saw Ball score with a splendid left foot shot from distance. Pap notched his third goal of the competition by eluding three players to find the bottom corner once more, while Karan Narula clinically found the bottom of the net courtesy of a cunning through ball from DirekKhanijou. It was just one-way traffic as UCL recorded their first clean sheet.

Talking of clean sheets, one clean sheet was followed by another as UCL destroyed Coventry’s resistance with a comprehensive 3-0 scoreline which featured three separate scorers. Ball Trimetsoontorn was first to score and also provided one assist to Earth to claim UCL’s second goal. Ball was the man of the match in this game as he helped inspire some excellent team coordination from UCL. The highlight of this match would undoubtedly be the moment of magic from Karan Narula. After being released on goal, Karan dribbled past the goalkeeper and nonchalantly chipped the ball into the goal from the narrowest of angles one could imagine. The level of composure and the fact that the angle was extremely acute made this goal exquisite. This was another stunning moment and neatly followed the success Karan and Direk had the previous night in table tennis when they went through an evening session unbeaten in the doubles, successfully overcoming some of the best doubles pairs in Wai and Ball. The victory helped UCL comfortably top the group with three wins and one draw and an impressive statistic of twelve goals scored.

The knockout stage began after 3pm as many group stage matches needed to be complete before the picture of the Round of 16 could come together. When the news did come it turned out that UCL would be playing Queens Mary. Thanks to a brace from Chai Addison, UCL could afford to sit back on a two goal cushion for most of the match. Pipe played some delightful one touch football with Ball in the first half while the UCL defense appeared largely untroubled. Unfortunately, there was to be no clean sheet this time as another sloppy defensive error allowed Queens Mary to score a consolation goal, but the 2-1 score was more than sufficient for progress to the quarterfinals.

Portsmouth University had enjoyed a fine run of matches throughout the entire tournament and their multitalented team were well respected by the UCL players during the pre-match team talk. Portsmouth were fantastic throughout the match and their players performed extremely well on numerous occasions to obstruct the UCL attack. Their solid defense and their well organised midfield restricted the amount of space UCL had to put together genuine attacking routines, and for a somewhat lengthy period UCL were limited to half chances and hit-and-hopes, of which none came to avail.

In games like this, there will have to be players who can produce moments of individual brilliance to break the deadlock and help their team to achieve even just a one-goal advantage. This was when Pipe stole the spotlight once again, but in even more style compared with in the group stage. A few minutes into the first half, Pipe received the ball following a counter attack which stemmed from a clearance of an inswinging corner kick. Nothing seemed likely with Portsmouth locating apparently enough defenders to provide cover for the goalkeeper who had been in outstanding form. Contrary to expectations, Pipe dribbled into enough space and unleashed a left-foot drive from distance which caught the keeper by surprise and found the back of the net. This was followed by a single cartwheel celebration which was just as spectacular as the goal itself. In the second half, with the match evenly poised as usual and likely to swing either way, another scintillating piece of individual brilliance by Pipe put UCL 2-0 up and in total command of the game. When the ball broke through the centre of the park, Pipe seized the loose ball and dribbled through speedily to meet the onrushing goalkeeper in yet another one-on-one situation. The goalkeeper was clearly ready to dive for the ball but Pipe anticipated the rhythm of the game spot on and calmly lobbed the ball over the goalkeeper to find the back of the net. It was done with such precision and accuracy that it never looked like being above the bar, and it was no surprise that this goal was compared with some of the masterclass of professional football players when they met one-on-one situations with the goalkeeper. Two episodes of individual brilliance separated the two sides and sent UCL into the semi-finals of the tournament, where the University of Southampton would prove to be the next opponents.

By the time of the semi-finals it was already sunset. The picturesque sunset scenery, the green trees and the verdant landscape and the chilly evening winds helped set the tone for UCL’s contest with yet another top quality team.

The match was clearly going to be evenly contested in many aspects. Southampton had been in superb form and put on some tremendous displays throughout the tournament. They pegged UCL back in the opening stages and their elegant and coherent style of play was a pleasure to appreciate. Pond pulled off some good saves in the early stages and eventually played a well weighted long ball through to Pipe, who struck the ball past the goalkeeper with his left foot. The score remained at 1-0 through until the last few minutes of regulation time, when Southampton launched an expertly-planned attack on the UCL goal. A long ball from midfield penetrated the UCL defense and was intercepted by a sliding tackle from Pond, who had to charge out to clear the ball upfield. The clearance found a Southampton midfielder who slotted the loose ball straight into the goal to send his team’s fans into jubilation, and the spectators could simply experience the joy and the happiness just from looking at the way the fans applauded this well taken goal.

Five minutes of extra time ensued with neither side able too get the better of one another, and the penalty shootout was inevitable. The fans knew the writing was on the wall just by appreciating how both sides matched each other throughout the match and how well balanced this game was.

Self-efficacy was a clear issue with penalty shootouts and UCL had to decide on which players were most confident with the intimidation and the tension of taking a penalty. With probably less than twelve yards to goal, one might think it is easy, but the Southampton goalkeeper had been in the finest form all the way to this stage, and the goal was not of much height at all.

The first penalties were both clinically dispatched into the roof of the goal. Pipe found the target on this occasion and made everything look all too easy. Earth scored the second penalty convincingly, and now all the attention was on whether Southampton would level. It proved that they would not. Pond produced an excellent save to deny the opposition and to hand UCL what was a massive advantage. After two misses in the third round, Direk found the bottom left corner in the fourth penalty which meant that Southampton would have to score their fourth penalty to remain in the contest. Once again, Pond produced a heroic save by punching the penalty to safety, which proved to be the match-winning save as UCL reached the final of the tournament.

The final started around 6pm and was made all the more intense by the strong winds and the dark sky. There would be little sense in dreaming of having long days in February, and it was no surprise to see the floodlights being turned on as the environment around the pitch rapidly descended into darkness. UCL and Imperial, two teams which went all the way, would meet in the final. Two universities based in London, both of outstanding international reputation, would battle it out for the trophy. It was one of the best matches of the entire competition, full of thrills and spills in every sense, with two of the best teams always prepared to keep opposition strikers at bay with some of the most immaculate marking one could describe. It was also one of the best matches in terms of the friendly rivalry between the two teams, and moments of humour were embraced by the crowd when opposing players claimed “we are all friends” after some well timed but physical challenges and when Pipe joked that the referee looked like a teammate when a pass was mishit to the referee. Plenty of free kicks were given and the ball often went out as the teams surged forward for the opening goal, and several shots went off target as the strikers attempted to grab the goal that would potentially help their team win the tournament. Pond was forced into a decent save from point-blank range and pulled off a stunning double save with his lightning reactions in a separate wave of attacks. He was well supported by Chai and Ball at the back and his goalkeeping excellence spared UCL’s blushes on countless occasions. After earning a man-of the match performance against Southampton with his two penalty saves in the semi-final, he almost earned UCL the trophy in regulation time when another of his precise long balls found Pipe in space, but Pipe’s bouncing half-volley was saved by the outstretched leg of the Imperial goalkeeper. With the time now 6:40pm and the sky totally dark, the teams negotiated whether they would want a penalty shootout, but five minutes of extra time ensued. If it was a penalty shootout, both the goalkeepers would have featured in the spotlight as they were both on top of their game through the entire tournament.

With the situation getting ever more nerve-wracking, it was impossible to predict just whether it would even be a penalty shootout after all. There were lots of shots off target, countless set pieces and random long balls floating all over. Time ticked and the fans huddled together as punctual tackles and interceptions came in from all areas as players desperately tried to avert any sense of possible danger. In about the eighth minute of extra time, Pipe charged up the right wing and was fouled on the right wing, earning his team a free kick in an ideal position. The resulting free kick was hastily blasted into the penalty area to generate a goalmouth scramble and the ball was imminently cleared from the danger zone.

It was this moment when Pipe chested the ball down with his back to goal and with three defenders surrounding him, anticipating his every move and expertly jockeying the striker. Then Pipe feigned left and found some space and controlled the ball, turned round and let fly with what was the last throw of the dice in the match. This half volley flew straight into the top of the goal and caused the net to bulge, and proved to be the championship winning goal for UCL as well as the striker’s sixth goal of the tournament. The UCL players and fans knew it was all over by now and ran onto the pitch to celebrate the team’s success. Pipe was the top scorer of the team with six goals, but it was this goal in the final which we will all cherish as the one which brings the magnificent and majestic trophy into London for the following year.

Throughout the tournament UCL had stuck together and shown tremendously high levels of courage as a team to survive the toughest moments of every individual match and to overcome the various obstacles they faced. It was not a story of a one-man-show at all, but a tale of teamwork and adept collaboration all the way. From beautiful chips by Karan to the muscular endurance of Direk, from the outstanding saves by Pond to the last-minute goal from Pipe, a squad of superstars who had travelled from London the previous evening to help set the tournament in place completed the journey and did so in the most dramatic fashion. And as we recall the goalscoring celebration from Pipe in the final and Lilleshall Sports Centre itself, we would all agree that this tournament will leave some of the deepest and fondest memories in the fans and players of UCL alike. The Samaggi Games Champions of 2014 are UCL and this story is one of sporting success which we will continue to enjoy for several months to come.

 

Report by Jinji (Economics and Finance BSc student at University of Bristol)

House Sports Correspondent Shrewsbury International School Bangkok 2010-2012, Correspondent for University College London Thai Society Football Team at Samaggi Games 2014.