คนข่าวของหนังสือพิมพ์ Straits Times ของ
The Straits Times
An ongoing diplomatic row appeared to be on the verge of worsening after Singapore beat Thailand in the first leg of the Asean Football Championship final.
At the National Stadium last Wednesday, a controversial call by Malaysian referee C. Ravichandran handed Singapore a penalty in the last eight minutes of the match.
Singapore went on to win 2-1, but not before the Thais staged a 15-minute walkout.
If Thai media reports were anything to go by in the days that followed, that was one angry nation. They accused Singapore of cheating and robbing Thailand of victory.
It all pointed to potential trouble in Bangkok for the second leg of the final on Sunday night.
Some Singapore fans dropped plans to go and support the home team. I too was spooked by thoughts of what if.
We need not have worried.
The first sign was at Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport on Friday, soon after the Lions landed. The Thai porter handling their luggage broke the ice with the perfect welcome, drawing laughter all round.
'You Singapore, no worry,' he said. 'We Thailand, friend-friend. No problem.'
Still, security was heightened. The Lions had a police escort at all times, and were advised by officials against leaving their hotel. At Supachalasai Stadium on Sunday night, there were over 1,500 policemen present during the match.
But aside from the motorist who drew alongside the Lions' coach and made some not-too-friendly gestures, there was no unfriendliness to report.
Those of us who went were treated to glorious, incident-free football. There was no hostility, no tension.
Yes, there were boos for the Lions during the match.
But when the Lions came on the field and applauded the fans, the Thai spectators returned the applause.
And when Majulah Singapura rang around the stadium, in the heart of Bangkok's shopping district, the sea of yellow-clad Thai fans stood up in respect.
Singapore defender Daniel Bennett said afterwards: 'Maybe we were a bit overcautious. If you look at the three days we spent in Bangkok, there was not one unpleasant incident.
'When some players went out for a while after the game, the Thai people we met were happy for us.
'In the end, I think people realised that we were here to play a match, nothing else. And I think people respected that.'
Skipper Aide Iskandar, a regular in the national team since 1994, said this trip was no different from the many others he had made to Bangkok for football.
'There was some verbal abuse during the match, but you expect that anywhere when you're an away team,' he said.
'But generally, the Thais were as friendly as everyone knows them to be. From hotel staff to fans we met, everyone had a smile to offer.'
In the group of about 100 never-say-die Singapore fans who showed up at Supachalasai Stadium was Madam Rosminah Ahmad, 53, an administrative assistant.
Despite being outnumbered by the Thai fans all around them, the Singaporeans sang and cheered with gusto, dressed in Singapore red.
It helped that there were more than 20 policemen around them, but there were no unpleasant encounters with the Thais.
'Some of us went shopping before the game with our red tops and Singapore flag and we still did not face any problems,' said Madam Rosminah.
'In fact, it acted as an ice-breaker, with shopkeepers talking to us about the game and telling us not to worry. 'Politics never mind, football for fun', they said.'
That was the mood when I interviewed Thai fans before the match too.
They knew I was Singaporean, but not one reacted in a negative manner. All were more eager to talk football, predicting that Thailand would win.
So you bet the Thais were disappointed when the night belonged to the Lions in the end - Singapore drew 1-1 to win 3-2 on aggregate.
The spectators cleared out of the stadium quickly, and when Aide lifted the trophy, a light chorus of boos was the worst it got.
For the average Thai, it seemed, Sunday's game was not so much about getting back at Singapore.
As Thai fan Eddy Pleusamorn, 29, an office worker, said afterwards: 'To us, the match was important because we wanted to show that as a nation, we were one.
'Because of the events before the match, this game became more than just a football match. It was more of a unifying thing, with all of us dressed in yellow, the King's colours.
'I don't usually follow Thai football but, today, it was important that I was here, to support my country.'
Back in Singapore, I can almost taste Sunday night's tom yam supper at Sukkumvit, where I engaged a few Thais in a friendly post-mortem of the match.
They, like everyone else in the Thai capital, showed amply that, on the ground, their country was still the Land of Smiles.
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