Friday, April 08, 2011


Crossroads For Thai Football

For many 2009 was the year Thai football came of age. It was no longer the league of corporate and state acronyms. PAT, SET, KTB, PEA and such like were being consigned to the pages of history and a new breed of club was coming to the fore. Led by Chonburi these were clubs that sought to create links with their local community and draw on that local community for their support.

The Thais have long been top bunny in south east Asia and there have been times, most notably in the mid 1990s, Thai Farmers Bank, and early 21st century (BEC Tero) when, thanks more to luck than any grand design on behalf of the Football Association of Thailand, when its teams actually dined at the top table of Asian football.

They were never able to build on those isolated triumphs, to translate that continental success locally and the league withered and died as quickly as it had blossomed.

Even with stalwarts like Tawan Sripan and Kiatisuk Srimuang the league was never able to attract any interest and a whole generation of players was forced to head south to Singapore in search of decent pay and decent competition in front of decent support.

By 2008 the Thai Premier League seemed to be running out of puff. Goals were hard to find and fans didn’t seem overly interested in what was going on. The league was won by PEA but the real story wasn’t in the Premier League. It was the next division down when Muang Thong United etc, as their name was written in Thai, the etc referred to Nong Jork United, had won the 1st Division. The previous year they had won the second division. Back to back titles, and we all know how much people love a winner.

Muang Thong Thani was a building site during my time in Thailand. I would often see the cranes busy developing a new satellite for Bangkok, a self contained urban overspill where people could eat, drink and fornicate without ever venturing into Bangkok’s notorious smog.

A media company must have spotted an opportunity and Muang Thong United was born. Their stadium was tiny. A shed and not much else. Early 2009 Tampines Rovers, a Singapore team with a long association with Thailand, played a friendly there and their midfielder Mustafic Fahruddin recalls it being little more than a field.

Muang Thong though took the TPL by storm. Attendances started out at several hundred, became low thousands and never stopped climbing. With the increased interest from the fans the club built a number of temporary erections while developing one side enclosure with executive boxes. Within a few short months Thai football was booming and Muang Thong United, with their subtle aping of Real Madrid and Manchester United combined with big name signings were at the forefront.

It wasn’t just Muang Thong. Chonburi were still pulling the fans and, having had a head start on the other clubs in terms of identifying with the community and success, were taking fans to away games in large numbers. Teams like Thai Port were also adding temporary stands to accommodate the sudden explosion in interest.

A title decider a couple of weeks before the end of the season saw Chonburi take more than 3,000 fans to an away game against Muang Thong United. Even with the added stands the club couldn’t handle the large influx and there were frequent cases of fans spilling on to the field to escape overcrowding on the terraces. A new TPL attendance record was set with over 17,000 inside the Thunderdome to see the top two teams, Muang Thong the brash, cocky new money against Chonburi representing youth development and old money values. It ended 1-1 and Muang Thong went on to win the league.

Officials had noticed the sudden popularity in the game and rushed to take advantage. Within a couple of weeks of the season ending clubs were busy arranging friendlies and tournaments to try and build on the momentum the 2009 season had engendered. By the time Muang Thing travelled to Singapore to face SAFFC in an AFC Champions League qualifier they had already been playing two months and their season hadn’t even started. They lost on penalties.

When the TPL did start there were frequent fixture changes and rumours abounded over the influence of various figures and certain teams within the game and their perceived influence in the game.

Halfway through the season the TPL announced there would be a League Cup. To go with the TPL, the FA Cup and the Queen’s Cup. And all them pre season gigs. There were instances of crowd trouble as well, often involving fans from Thai Port while indiscipline on the field was frowned at yet continued apace. Thai football had become an express train which had changed drivers at the last stop only no-one had noticed. The brakes had been removed and no-one knew where the next station was. The biggest danger was that it would come off the rails if no-one could say enough.

No one did. The fixtures kept being changed, the relegation/promotion issued remained in abeyance, almost as if the league was waiting to see how certain teams performed. A convoluted play off system was finally announced but not tlll the season was all but over.

In the mean time there was the small matter of national pride at the ASEAN Football Federation Cup. 2009 had seen the Thais humbled at the SEA Games and it had hurt. 2010 they would fail to qualify from the group stage of the AFF Cup, a 0-0 draw against Malaysia proved decisive despite 30 odd chances on goal.

Now we’re in 2011. There are some cynics who think the TPL title has already been decided. PEA, champions in 2008, had been brought to Buriram by local godfather, politician, businessman Newin Chidchob. This is a man who doesn’t understand defeat and has gone to great lengths to avoid it in the past in his long, colourful political career. His team lost once last season and remain unbeaten thus far in the TPL. The season is scheduled to end on Christmas Day and who would bet against the politician giving his fawning subjects a present they will never forget?

Newin is thought to be a major player behind the Thai consortium that took over Leicester City. The minority shareholder is an Indonesian patriarch with similar views and ethics as the Thais.

2011 was supposed to see England play a friendly against Thailand in Bangkok as a way of saying thank you for the Thai supporting their World Cup bid. As it happened the Thais, through Worawi Makudi, reneged on that understanding and England subsequently pulled the plug on the tour, with the national team underperforming, with the TPL seemingly predestined, with uncertainty around fixtures someone at the FAT needs to regain control of Thai football or the boom of 2009 will soon be little more than a distant, happy memory.

Regardless of whether or not Newin has actually swayed the refs in his team's favor, you have to admit that so far this season his team has been the best in the TPL. I'd say they and Chonburi have been the most dynamic team offensively. And on defense, Buriram PEA has actually been much more solid than any other teams. They also have looked the fittest. If Buriram PEA can continue on this form for the rest of the season, I'd say they have earned their championship. And I'm sure other TPL fans would have to agree with me. Newin's TPL win wouldn't derail the TPL imo.

As for the Thai national team, I don't have any hope for them at all. The FAT has always been an abject failure as far as I can remember. And I don't see how this is gonna be changed any time soon.
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