Setting a maximum number of six exercises, each between five and ten minutes in length, I improvised for a lack of equipment that I would normally have access to. Any tasks involving running were shorter than ball control exercises because of the impact of the hard surface on players’ legs. Everybody played without shoes, which to me represented resilience and aversion to pain. Also, there was no tackling. Firstly, the risk of injury was simply too great (although anybody who did fall and graze themselves or sustain a slight knock simply got up again); secondly, it went against the spirit of the game; but most importantly, for students to instigate confrontation and fight would make life in the dormitories exceedingly difficult and result in a loss of face.
In the open-aired environment, I felt no pressure to achieve miracles, as one would normally be expected when teaching English in a classroom. Whatever materials were available in the yard would become my coaching tools. To compensate for a whiteboard and marker, I would draw simple diagrams in the dirt with a stick, using x to represent a player, o for their opponent and a line to represent the direction of the ball or player in drills. This simple yet effective method provided the background for instructions such as “I want everyone in two lines”, or to highlight positioning. I picked out team members that I observed were confident with English speaking to take my simple instructions and translate them in Shan language for the benefit of everybody else, and demonstrated key terms in English such as pass, cross, shoot, 5 yards, man-on and one-two. Logs of firewood substituted for orange witches hats to practice ball dribbling skills and older students voluntarily offered their shirts to be used as goalposts. Players were even encouraged to choose their own nicknames in English so I could call them out and remember their faces.
Consequently, the team contained three members named Rambo, whom I labeled Rambo I, Rambo II and Rambo III.
This makeshift football pitch on a mountainside located in a village barely recognizable on the map was my de facto open-aired classroom, and the team of orphans were my students. A few months before, I had been working in South Korea as an English teacher, using my laptop to design lesson plans, play DVDs and prepare Powerpoint presentations for multimedia displays. I could not have picked two differing scenarios.
Although my textbook drills were not always working out the way I had originally planned, one of the best exercises I came up with to reinforce agility and quick movement of the feet also ended up being one of the funniest.
Laying eight logs vertically one after the other approximately half a meter apart, players ran through one by one and returned to their original starting point, starting with a slow jog and then gradually increasing their speed. Then I changed the nature of the exercise by slowing narrowing the gaps and reducing the time in which everyone had to pass through. “If I see anybody move any of the logs, the entire team stops and the offender has to sing ‘I Believe I Can Fly,'” I instructed, followed by an example where I deliberately tripped on one of the logs and proceeded to sing. Roars of laughter appeared from the squad, who were keen to see a foreigner embarrass himself and not feel so awkward in case they were caught out. Only three players made the same mistake as me.
Changing the emphasis to teamwork, everybody linked up in a circle and ran through the obstacle. Whenever somebody tripped up, squad members would quickly point out who broke the chain and subsequently call the guilty parties to the front to sing good-naturedly. This exercise created a bond between the players and myself, but in addition broke what I thought was a major barrier by overcoming hesitation to perform in public, a skill that is necessary for them to one day to speak out about the plight of the people living in the IDP camp.
The final 20 minutes before sundown would be devoted to a fully fledged game as a way of letting everybody play their natural game and serve as a reminder for everyone to feel comfortable, enjoy the experience and play their natural style. At the end of the game, I called everyone together for a group huddle.
I asked, “What do you want to call your team?”
Several suggestions came up, and finally everybody agreed upon Loi Tailang Tigers.
When I queried the choice of animal, ‘Rambo I’, who was 22 years old and completing high school, explained with the aide of a translator, “The Shan animal is the tiger. In life, we are tigers fighting the Burmese army. They have caged us, but we can still roar. One day, when we are free, they will run scared.”
Another player added, “Tonight we all study for Shan language exams, so we feel proud to learn our language and history, and practice our culture here.” I came to realize that everybody is making the best of their allotment in this less than forgiving environment that few people outside of their own village are aware of. Being part of this football team and partaking in drills and having somebody guide them, even if only temporarily, creates an identity that results in belonging to an association, much like the SSA band together for a common cause.
With a final shout of “One, two, three, TIGERS ROAR!” led by me and followed instinctively by the team, we all clapped to congratulate each other for finishing training, ran a lap together and then, with the sun fading behind the distant hills, the Loi Tailang Tigers transformed back into students, eating and washing dishes collectively, before settling down to study for the following day’s exam by candlelight in their dormitories.
In an ideal world, football would be their beacon of peace in a land seemingly hidden from the eyes of the international community, where far too many young people have been exposed to a lifetime of war and the trail of physical and psychological damage left in its wake. For these young men, returning home to find peace, loved ones, and freedom is the cup of life.