When soccer jerseys are the only goal
For some it’s the great cultural sites, such as the Forbidden City, the Great Wall of China or Borobodur. For others, it’s the exotic food.
For my two sons, it’s soccer jerseys. We have never returned from a holiday in Asia without a suitcase stuffed with genuine knock-off soccer jerseys: Tottenham Hotspur for 60,000 rupiah from a barrowman in Yogyakarta; Manchester United for 250 baht from a market stall in Koh Samui; Borussia Dortmund for the equivalent of $2 from a department store in Sanur.
From time to time I try to interest the boys in more “authentic” souvenirs, meaning the sort of things I would take home for them if they weren’t here. “What about something local?” I ask my youngest, pointing at a shelf of traditional Balinese souvenirs: hand-carved wooden ducks, garuda birds and komodo dragons.
But it’s too late. He registers mild curiosity in the carved lizards but I realise his head has been turned by the Bayern Munich jersey across the road. And the Real Madrid one hanging next to it.
My eldest, meanwhile, has found an interloper on a shelf of three wise monkeys: a chimpanzee with his third finger raised (perhaps at the stallholder across the road, who, besides soccer jerseys, also sells baseball caps that say “F**K’’). At least the cheeky chimp isn’t wearing a shirt that says “Ronaldo”.
Soccer shirts are more than just souvenirs: they’re a lingua franca that speaks across all ages and all conti- nents, and a global currency immune to the vagaries of foreign exchange. The price of a Barcelona soccer jersey in a Thai bazaar or a Balinese street stall pegs the value of your money as accurately as any money changer’s blackboard. And unlike that other universal currency, the pirated DVD, you won’t get home to find the dialogue in Mandarin and the last episode missing.
Satellite TV has taken the English Premier League and Spain’s La Liga into the humblest Javanese village. Pre-season tours by the top European teams draw tens of thousands of fans to games in Bangkok and Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur. Messi’s Barcelona shirt is an introduction to a thousand friends you never knew you had, especially if you are 10 years old and don’t feel self-conscious about walking around a foreign country in orange polyester shorts.
The first time I went to Indonesia there was no electricity in Ubud and many of the losmen owners still spoke Dutch. Thirty years ago I flew back to Australia with a few pieces of batik and some ikat woven cloth.
Visiting Bali earlier this year, I fend off street vendors selling penis-shaped bottle-openers (haven’t they heard of twist tops?) and trick wallets that burst into flames when you open them (haven’t they heard of airport security?).
I’m coming round to the idea that, as souvenirs, soccer jerseys are as authentic as anything else. If the point of buying a souvenir is to remind yourself of the place where you bought it, our family collection of pirated soccer jerseys certainly ticks the box, which is hardly surprising, since we spent almost as long combing the markets of Yogyakarta for Gareth Bale’s 2016 Real Madrid shirt as we did admiring the 1000-year-old reliefs at Borobodur.
Flying back to Australia, I experience the usual cold sweat as the cabin crew hands out customs declaration forms. But this time I’m in the clear. No wood products, no skins, no shells, no ornaments made from endangered animals. Just a suitcase full of shiny polyester.
Tom Gilling’s latest book is Grog: A Bottled History of Australia’s First 30 Years (Hachette; $32.99.)