Sustainable popularity or mere political tool?

There are still many challenges to overcome before the domestic league becomes truly professional

While a large number of Thais are big fans of the English Premier League, the Thai Premier League has become more popular over the past few years.

The popularity has raised several questions. Why has the domestic league become a big hit? Will the popularity be sustainable? Is the involvement of politicians in the competition more likely to help or hinder the sport?

RISE OF THAI FOOTBALL

"Ball Nork Kae Sa Jai, Ball Thai Yu Nai Sai Lued" (International football is just for fun, Thai football is in the blood) is the motto created seven years ago by Cheerthai Power Group, a Thai football supporters' organisation.

The motto has received attention from English football lovers in Thailand but the increase in the popularity in the domestic league only began in 2008.

The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) then instructed member countries where football was still underdeveloped, including Thailand, to upgrade their local leagues.

The AFC issued a number of guidelines for the members to follow, with one of the aims being to increase business potential, similar to professional leagues in Europe.

Among the guidelines was for the governing bodies and clubs in each country to become business entities.

The Football Association of Thailand (FAT) then established the Thai Premier League Company Limited (TPLC) to act as the local league organiser under the FAT while member clubs also became business companies.

From 2009, clubs in the Thai Premier League (TPL) must be business entities. Several teams have since also focused on the marketing side of football by creating their own brands of merchandise.

Big clubs like SCG Muang Thong United, Chonburi FC and Bangkok Glass FC enjoyed a bigger fan base, and many people thought the professional era of the TPL had begun.

PROFESSIONAL LEAGUE

In a sense, it may not be difficult to create a successful football league, with Japan a prominent example.

The Japanese football league (J-League) was established in 1994 with big companies playing a vital role.

Companies and local authorities joined hands in setting up football clubs with companies providing funds and local authorities providing other necessary facilities, such as long-term leased land to build stadiums.

At the beginning, J-League clubs hired old players and coaches from around the world who helped lay the foundation of the league. With the ageing, famous players, the league became well-known and has since been consistently popular.

"Football business should be run and developed mainly by the private sector. The government's role should be limited to only giving supportive policies or regulations," English Premier League chairman Sir David Richard told a seminar organised by the FAT a few years ago.

The AFC also has a similar view. It believes that for long-term development, football should be kept away from political influences and political involvement could affect the AFC's evaluation of leagues in member countries.

FOOTBALL OR POLITICS?

It seems that Thai football cannot go without politics. The most obvious case was the takeover of Provincial Electricity Authority (PEA) football club by Buri Ram's political strongman, Newin Chidchob, in 2010.

Newin was then suspended from politics but seen as de facto leader of the Bhumjaithai Party, then a member in the coalition government. The PEA is a state enterprise under the Interior Ministry, which was then overseen by the party.

Newin then moved the club's base from Ayutthaya to his home province of Buri Ram and renamed the team Buriram PEA (now Buriram United).

Sora Aoi

Buriram have since become a powerhouse in Thai football, thanks partly to sponsorship from Newin's associates, such as Samart Group's i-Mobile, duty-free retailer King Power, Air Asia, World Gas and Phillips.

The takeover received harsh criticism and the club's original fans in Ayutthaya staged a protest and burned Newin's effigy.

At that time, his wife Karuna ran the now-defunct sister club called Buriram FC, then in Division Two (now Division One or League One).

The 2011 season saw several other politicians, following in Newin's footsteps, become involved in every domestic league, from the top flight to Division One and Division Two.

Division Two is politicians' favourite league as it is divided into five regional groups _ the North, Northeast, South, Central and Bangkok Metropolitan _ and features 70 teams.

While politicians have the power to lure fans to the stadiums, their football knowledge is questionable. Many politicians have entered football because it is trendy and want to follow in Newin's footsteps.

To be fair, Newin is a devout football fan and has a clear vision in football business.

Apart from creating a strong football team, he has used several measures to promote his team, which is now hugely popular in the province.

He has built the club's own state-of-the-art home, called i-Mobile, which is the biggest privately-owned stadium, with a capacity of 25,000.

The club came close to winning trophies in their first season as Buriram PEA in 2010. The following season, they swept three titles _ the TPL, FA Cup and League Cup.

Although the Thunder Castle failed in the defence of their TPL title last year, they still won two trophies, the FA Cup and the League Cup.

Newin knows how to please his fans. Last Songkran, he hired Japanese adult video star Sora Aoi to perform a show at i-Mobile stadium. While the event was heavily attacked by conservative critics, it attracted a full house at the stadium, with a large number of spectators coming from outside the province.

NEWIN SETS THE TREND

Apart from Buriram United, several other clubs are run by politicians or their families.

TPL club Chiang Rai United are run by Mati Tiyapairat, son of the province's influential politician, Yongyuth, and Si Sa Ket FC, another TPL club, are supervised by the Kiatsuranont family.

Admittedly, these people know how to do football business and do not just try to seek publicity from their involvement in football.

It seems that politicians' involvement in football can be positive, provided they intend to make a profit and promote football. With their power, they can lure more investors to the industry.

But there have been some wayward politicians who have caused damage to football and its potential to grow.

One of Nakhon Pathom FC bosses created one of the most shocking scenes in Thai football history a few years ago when he threatened the referee with a gun following what he believed was unfair officiating.

The incident was shown on TV and Nakhon Pathom FC were banned for two years.

In the 2011 season, it was reported that politicians were involved in 57 football clubs in every league. The politicians were from both government and opposition parties _ Bhumjaithai (15), Pheu Thai (13), Democrat (12), Chartthai Pattana (eight), Chart Pattana (five), Palang Chon (three) and Matuphum (one).

In Thailand, politicians-turned-football executives prefer to sit on the substitute bench for several purposes. Apart from being the centre of attention, it is also believed that their presence on the touchline can put added pressure on match officials.

In major leagues around the world, club chairmen or presidents are normally seated in the VIP box _ the substitute bench is for players, coaching staff and other officials.

BOOM OR BUST?

In the TPL, a club's minimum fixed operation cost (salary and transportation) is around 40 million baht a year and it is many times that sum for the top teams.

The annual operation cost for a lower-league club may be 50 percent less or about 20 million baht a year.

Of the 18 TPL clubs, less than 10 have a substantial fan base and are capable of doing business. They include reigning TPL champions SCG Muang Thong United (owned by Siam Sport Syndicate), Chonburi FC (Wittaya Khunpluem and associates), Buriram United (Newin) and Bangkok Glass FC (Singha Corporation's Praveen Bhirombhakdi).

While the clubs are paying millions of baht annually, the domestic competition still faces several challenges, such as transparency in management.

Football Association of Thailand president Worawi Makudi seems to have the biggest say in running the TPL, instead of the TPL Co.

The TPL Co's financial status is still a secret, prompting Newin to ask TPL chairman Vichit Yamboonruang and Worawi, earlier last year, "where all the money has gone."

Other challenges include the condition of several stadiums which are below standard, poor broadcasting quality and alleged unfair officiating, which has caused several violent scenes.

So there is still a long way to go for the domestic football competition to become a genuine professional league.


Pinit Ngarmpring is chairman of Cheerthai Power Group

Buriram United chairman Newin Chidchob

Worawi Makudi

About the author

Writer: Pinit Ngarmpring