When soc­cer jer­seys are the only goal

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - TOM GILLING

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.)

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