Tuesday, February 05, 2013


Jakarta Globe Column

So it has finally happened. We've seen the likes of Phaitoon Thiabma, Suchao Nuchnum, Sinthaweechai Hathairattanakul and Pipat Thonkaya ply their trade successfully in the Indonesian league but no Indonesian has yet made the return journey.

That has now changed with Irfan Bachdim signing for Chonburi ahead of the new Thai Premier League season.

After unsuccessful trials with Persib and Persija Bachdim signed for unfancied Persema Malang back in 2010 ahead of the ASEAN Football Federation Cup. It's fair to say he was an unknown here having spent most of his life in the Netherlands but he set about making an impression and wooing a following of female fans who mobbed his early appearances for club and country.

Celebrity is a fickle beast though and it wasn't long before the glamour types moved on to the next big thing leaving Bachdim with his football. Last season with Persema, a pale shadow of their 2011 vintage, he was left with making cameo appearances off the bench in an underperforming team floating along just above mid table in front of crowds that could be counted in their dozens.

After a failed trial with another Thai side, BEC Tero, it looked like Bachdim was looking forward to another season in the Indonesia Premier League with a side short on funds and fans.

Then came Chonburi and he was finally on his way.

Much has been written about the Thai Premier League in recent years with many in Indonesia casting envious glances to their northern neighbours. But what can Irfan really expect in the Land of Smiles.

The TPL lacks the history and passion of Indonesian football for a start. The two big teams at the moment are Muang Thong United, who won the title last season, and Buriram United but both are relatively recent additions to the football scene there.

Buriram were crowned champions in their debut season in the TPL despite not earning promotion the previous season! The patriarch of Buriram province persuaded PEA, a nomadic club, to settle in his town for a season; he built an impressive new stadium and arranged for fans to fill it.

The gentleman concerned happens to be a prominent politician in Thailand who is currently serving a suspension from politics.

Muang Thong are also relatively new and possess their own rich backers, a media group, who have added a media savvy to Thai football Indonesia can only dream of.

These two clubs are the richest, biggest clubs (two adjectives that go together in Thailand as well as anywhere else in the world) in the country at the moment. For the really big games both are capable of pulling crowds of 20,000 plus; better than anyone else in Thailand but nothing special compared to the likes of Persib, Arema, Sriwijaya and others in Indonesia.

Chonburi are also a new addition to the Thai footall scene dating back to the end of the last century and they too have their own rich backers in the family who run the province of Chonburi as their own fiefdom. The brother of the Chonburi mayor happens to be the mayor of Pattaya and they are both highly visible in regional and local politics; indeed Bachdim may find not many people want to talk to him this weeks as news came out earlier of the arrest of the brothers' father after several years on the run!

As a league the TPL lacks the strength of the Indonesia Super League. Beyond the three named clubs only Bangkok Glass, another club with rich backers new on the scene, look to have the resources to compete with the big boys but are sorely in need of stability on the coaching front before realising any nascent potential.

BEC Tero make up Thailand's Big 5 and they too are a corprorate entity owned by a TV channel and despite some success in the AFC Champions League in its early days lack the fan base to provide any kind of atmosphere.

The rest of the TPL is a miss mash of older clubs who hang on with small crowds and big dreams. Thai Tobacco Monopoly are a frequent mover, last season in Chiang Mai, and are one of the relics of the old Thai league before big money entered the scene while other clubs from that era hanging on are Telephone Organisation of Thailand, Police United and Army United.

The power of a handful of clubs has strengthened the league at the expense of the national team as different factions jockey for power and influence, pitting their 'phuu yai' (person of power and influence), against their rival's 'phuu yai' in a mafiosi game of poker.

The supporters are much more twee than in Indonesia and probably much richer, more than happy to fork outh their cash in the official club shops on official merchandise. The atmosphere round a Thai game can best be described as fun as families and friends gather, have a picnic and take inumerable pictures of each other to post on the myriad message boards that cater to their interest.

They also drink their way through large amounts of beer which is freely available inside and outside the stadiums.

Given the sudden rise in popularity of the game no real rivalries have been established though relegated Thai Port, with their Millwall like following, do their best. There have been some incidents of crowd misbehaviour in recent seasons but nothing major and certainly for now there is no rivalry to match a Persija v Persib or Arema v Persebaya.

Bachdim seems to have chosen, or been chosen by, the right club. Chonburi are a club that try to do the right thing by both players and football unlike some clubs there run by egotistical owners whose views of the beautiful game, and motives, won't always coincide with a coach who has his own thoughts about football. Rumours of North Korean style restrictions written into players' contracts abound while some clubs spend an inordinate amount of time working on players' fitness.

But for all the baggage that makes Thai football seem like Indonesia lite on the field a lot of good work is being done. In Kawin they boast perhaps the best goalkeeper in the region while players like Adul and Teerasil proved their quality during the recent ASEAN Cup when the Thais lost in the final to Singapore.

The Thais face one other self inflicted hurdle. Every time they enter the SEA Games and ASEAN Cup they think all they have to do is turn up and they will win. These unrealistic expectations act as a millstone round the necks of all parties involved and act as a break on any innovative hinking or creativity that is surely needed to push Thai football on to the next level.

For Bachdim then he can look forward to some thrilling experiences in a league that is still doing much right. He can look forward to living in a nice place close enough to Bangkok to enjoy all its positives but far enough out for space. And also, perhaps most importantly for an Indonesian player, he can look forward to getting paid on time.

How he settles in will be interesting to see as will whether other players follow his trail andescaped the stifling, repressive atmosphere that is choking the Indonesian game.

COMMENT - first appeared in Jakarta Globe last week and is already date because Persema don't want to release him expecting him to honour a contract they don't even pay him for! Jokers these guys. One Persema official was quoted as talking about ethics! Are they taking the piss? The guy ain't been paid for about eight months!

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