By Jintana Panyaarvudh
For most devout football fans, the chance to watch their favourite team play at their home stadium is a dream come true. First of all a confession: I’m not a Chelsea fan. However, my recent trip to Stamford Bridge had me drooling at the thought of my beloved team stepping out onto the turf.
Last week, Singha Corporation, makers of the famous suds, invited some 30 Thai journalists to watch as it renewed its sponsorship deal with Chelsea FC. Singha extended the deal for another three years at the Stamford Bridge ceremony last Thursday. Four of Chelsea’s Spanish players along with the club’s CEO Ron Gourlay welcomed the guests from Thailand led by Piti Bhirombhakdi, regional marketing director of Boon Rawd Brewery. The players shaking hands and signing autographs were Fernando Torres, Juan Mata, Cesar Azpilicueta and Oriol Romeu.
During the “meet and greet”, Torres was the man who drew most of the Thai media’s attention. This was the second time The Nation had met the Spanish superstar striker, the first being his visit with Liverpool to play the Thai national team in 2009.
When I mentioned our first meeting, he said, “Really? I love Liverpool.”
The four players were very friendly and generous with their time, spending 15 minutes signing autographs and posing for photos with their Thai guests.
Before we met the players, we took a tour of the stadium. Dave White, our tour guide from the club, led us to the pitch and the dugout. We were warned not to step onto the field or touch the grass. Staff were cutting the grass to a precise 75 centimetres to prepare for the match on Saturday.
Then we headed to the changing rooms. White took us to the away team’s changing room first. It was very small with only two massage beds in the middle. All the facilities were noticeably plain, small, old, and visibly arranged to be obstacles for the away team.
Shirt hangers are hung very high up while players’ lockers are small and low. As a result, the visiting footballers are forced to stretch up with their arms or bend down low, maximising the stress on their backs, ankles or knees. The two simple tables in the room are also worn. And there is only one shower and four toilets.
A board for the team manager is installed on the wall next to the room’s only door, which doubles as a fire exit and needs to be kept open. This makes it difficult for the manager to explain tactics to the players on the board.
Another “powerful weapon” aimed at the enemy team, says White, is a mirror near the door that makes people look slimmer than normal.
“Should Cristiano [Ronaldo] plays here, he would be fixated by his image in the mirror. He will lose concentration and lose focus about the match. In contrast, [Wayne] Rooney will not want to look at himself in the mirror, because nothing can change the way he looks,” White joked.
Next on the itinerary was the home team’s changing room. When the door opened someone exclaimed “Wow, what a difference!”
This home-team’s headquarters are very spacious when compared to the visitors’. Divided into several sections, it’s full of gleaming, modern facilities. There are six massage beds, big shower rooms, and a metal ice tub, where the players can lie back and speed their recovery from injuries.
Every player has a large, private locker with a safe-box to keep their rings and earrings. A home-theatre system with LCD screen is installed in the middle of the row of lockers. The home team’s briefing room (where the manager explains his tactics to the players) is almost as big as the entire away changing room.
The differences in the changing rooms are part of the home club’s bid to gain a psychological advantage over their rivals.
White said Chelsea haven’t lost at home for 86 games since setting up the two rooms in 2004.
“What about Raul Meireles’s match-winning goal for Liverpool at Stamford Bridge on Fernando Torres's Chelsea debut in February 2011?” piped up a member of our group.
“Okay, there’s been a few defeats,” White conceded.
No stadium tour would be complete without sitting among the fans and soaking in the atmosphere on match day. Luckily, we got the chance to see four goals from Chelsea and one goal from Norwich City last Saturday. The tickets were sold out and 41,085 spectators packed the arena. Away fans started arriving at the ground at noon. As a global partner of Chelsea, Singha organised Thai cultural shows in front of the stadium to keep fans entertained.
Although I missed my beloved team Liverpool play Stoke on Sunday, I got a pleasant surprise as consolation. I spent my flight back watching “Will”, an inspirational movie about an orphaned Liverpool fan who journeys across Europe to see his team play in the 2005 Champions League Final. It is a must-see movie for all Reds, who can relive their own journey to that great day in Istanbul.