I was born and raised in a centuries-old slum in the heart of Cairo, Egypt, where young kids and youth did not stop playing football. I played football in a narrow alley, in a youth center, and in a schoolyard. I even played in a field surrounded by armed soldiers during the Egyptian revolution. I played it with a well-made sock ball, a plastic ball, and one bearing the flags of all teams participating in that year’s World Cup. Sometimes, I played with small tin cans.
I had repeatedly claimed that football is the simplest game on earth. I believed the ball is the single most important tool in the game. I was ignorant of the fact that there is no football without a solid surface carrying the game and its players.
That fact became most evident the day I arrived at a small island in Thailand. A floating village had been built, overthrowing the dreams of its children to play football, and depriving them of any chance of a solid surface to play on.
They had no option but to circumvent the nature of their village, and from there, they made history.
From Indonesia to Island of the Flag
As their homeland tightened around them, and their livelihood became scarce and barren, three families sailed out from their homeland, Indonesia, in search of new land, hoping to evade misfortune.
They dispersed in search of a dreamland, with a pact that whoever finds a viable place first will go to the top of its highest summit and plant a flag, declaring to the others the location of their new habitat.
The waves led one of the immigrants to a small island in Thailand, and he climbed its highest mountain and planted a flag on its summit. The three families reunited and named the island “Koh Panyee,” the Island of the Flag.
Migrant families found their way to the new island, settled in it, and began the journey of building a new city on the Island of the Flag. The years went by, the island’s population grew, as did the need to build more facilities – huts, a mosque, a floating market, and a school for the young children.
Those who left the island for the bigger cities of Thailand, such as Phuket and Bangkok, brought their degrees back to where all their dreams began to teach the new generations, back to where their ancestors had once day taken up the only available profession, hunting.
World Cup Fever Challenges Nature
Little by little, the dream city came together, and 1986 brought the world cup fever that struck people east and west. The evolution of broadcast media allowed everyone everywhere to watch football and introduced the children, who had never left their island, to a new game around which millions of people gathered.
They fell for the beautiful game, and like all children, they wanted to play it themselves on the ground. They wanted to play football.
They found the ball, but their dreams collided with the fact that there was no surface on their island suitable for football. There was no solid ground to bear the weight of their young running feet.
They had to find a way around Nature’s challenge in their floating city. They collected the wood and rusting nail of old fishing boats, and as if by magic no less than that of football itself, the children Created a floating field that bore their matches and the dreams of inaugurating “Panyee FC” Soccer Club.
Overnight the islanders found a new piece had been added to their city, in which children gathered, running barefoot kicking a small ball among them, and when one of them shot it into a small goal to score, he ran like mad in celebration. And if he missed, he threw himself in the ocean to retrieve the ball then retry all over again.
Better than they think
The children’s skills improved on this dilapidated wooden playground. They learned to dribble, pass, and kick. Even the instability of their pitch was an asset – it taught them to centralize and to disperse evenly on the floating pitch rather than congregating around the ball, to maintain the balance of the platform rather than taking their game to the bottom of the ocean.
News floated in from the big cities that a one-day youth football tournament was planned. The team decided to participate, despite their doubts about their ability to compete against a real football team that had trained on a real pitch on solid ground. But fate had already made up its mind that it was time for these people to test their credibility as a soccer team. Their boats sailed from the island towards the championship stadium, and they were followed by the inhabitants of Koh Panyee prepared to support their local team.
Those who had never worn a sneaker or a uniform with a team’s colors launched their very first match.
As soon as the referee whistled, the children of the floating playground dominated the green pitch. They found out that scoring was much easier when the goal was larger than the handmade one with an ocean behind it. They won one match after the other, and they came to realize that they were better even than their own expectations.
The team paved its way to the semi-finals, but their opponent was not easy. Despite Koh Panyee’s dedication, they finished the first half with two goals for naught. And their situation became more complicated when a heavy rainfall showered the stadium. And because the wet muddy pitch was completely different than the wet wood platform they were used to, they lost their control over the ball. Everyone believed that this was the match that would eliminate the team from the floating village.
Yet again, they outsmarted Nature; they refused to end the match without a final battle of wills. One of them took off his sneakers, and the rest followed suit. Thus, they were used to playing, and thus they regained control over the ball, and it was only minutes before they returned the match to the starting point, scoring two consecutive goals, they ran celebrating, their faces touching the sky.
Although their opponent scored the winning goal one minute before the end of the match, the Koh Panyee team, which came third in the tournament, won everyone’s respect. The islanders stood chanting the name of their small village, which became a name adorning the jerseys of a football team that practiced for the first time on a floating field, and went out to the big city, enchanting the minds of its citizens and forcing them to applaud their magic.
From Zero to Hero
The story of Koh Panyee bounced around Thailand, and football became the top passion for inhabitants of the Island of the Flag. They built a more advanced pitch, one that did not bounce with the movement of the players nor bother them with rusty nails. However, the old wooden field was left untouched, a monument to their past and to the legendary story in which football took over the minds and hearts of the children of the floating village and inspired them to make history.
In 2011, the “Panyee FC” Club was named the most successful youth club in Southern Thailand. it won the South Thailand Youth Championship for the years 2004, 2005, 2006, 2008, 2009 and 2010.
As for the builders of the original wooden field, they are still well respected by everyone. They are called the Original Eleven. And they can be found in the stands, supporting the team they created from scratch, coaching different age groups of the Panyee FC, and in team management and directorship of the Panyee Sports Association.