Blemishes in the beautiful game

Blemishes in the beautiful game

Accusations of fraud and illegal profiteering in the Thai Premier League were answered last week, while multiple other allegations of corruption, cover-ups and conflicts of interest continue to dog football in Thailand

The findings of an ongoing parliamentary investigation may threaten the existence of the Football Association of Thailand (FAT), said the spokesman of a committee on corruption last week. As a public organisation under royal patronage and a recipient of public funds, the FAT is not allowed to seek profit, but evidence that the Thai Premier League (TPL) runs on a profit-making model could lead to court-ordered sanctions including dissolving the body that runs football in Thailand.

UNDER PRESSURE: Football Association of Thailand (FAT) president Worawi Makudi strongly denies charges of illegally profiteering from the Football Association of Thailand, fraud and financial mismanagement.

FAT president Worawi Makudi is no stranger to controversy, having been implicated in accusations of bribery in his role at Fifa, the world football body, where he is an executive committee member. He has denied wrongdoing in the past, and last week held two press conferences to deny charges of illegally profiteering from the FAT, fraud and financial mismanagement.

Spectrum spoke to many people involved in football in Thailand, including players, coaches, agents, a supporters' group president, the head of the parliamentary investigation into FAT finances and Fifa itself. Whatever the outcome of the latest investigations, allegations of corruption, unethical profiteering and conflicts of interest can be found at every level of the game in Thailand.

PARLIAMENTARY INVESTIGATIONS

Worawi Makudi, FAT president and a Fifa executive committee member, was asked by the House of Representatives Committee on Corruption Protection and Suppression last week to explain FAT financial transactions over the past five years.

Suphachai Jaismut, spokesperson for the committee, told Spectrum the committee has asked the FAT to disclose financial documents, including minutes of meetings regarding formation of the Thai Premier League Co, bank accounts and tax records.

"[The FAT] is a public, non-profit organisation; the Thai Premier League Co was set up for profit, making it illegal," he said, adding that the FAT had no authority to appoint an individual or organisation to do the duties of the association. Setting up the TPL Co, whose profits go to shareholders, or offering companies such as Siam Sport or Dae-un 21 concessions was a contravention of the FAT's status. Any revenue from sponsorship, television rights and such should benefit the association and clubs, not the shareholders of the TPL Co, he said.

The FAT is a body under the Sports Authority of Thailand (SAT), which would normally be expected to provide oversight of FAT financial activities, but the SAT had told the committee they leave those matters to the FAT.

The responsibility for managing the FAT's financial affairs was handed to Siam Sport Syndicate for several years until they withdrew from the role in April after several clubs questioned the arrangement. For clubs, there did not seem to be a way to tap into TPL Co profits except at the discretion of the FAT, and how much money came in for the FAT was never disclosed to them. By comparison, the English FA receives about half of English Premier League revenue to invest in the national team and grass-roots sport, while the rest is distributed to the individual clubs.

"Today we decided to send another letter warning Mr Worawi to provide all the documents we already asked for," Mr Suphachai said.

If profiteering and tax evasion could be proven, one potential outcome of the investigation might be dissolution of the FAT, although he added that Mr Worawi would be given time to produce the required documents and clear the allegations.

At a press conference on Wednesday, Mr Worawi replied, "The news that the association may face disbandment is very damaging. The association did not do anything against the laws and regulations."

FAT lawyer Veera Khammee added that the establishment of the Thai Premier League Co complied with Thai laws and the requirements of Fifa and the Asian Football Confederation (AFC).

However, Mr Suphachai said that it clearly operates in contravention of Thai law, and that Mr Worawi himself holds 5,625 out of 12,500 shares in the company, with several other association members also invested in its profitability. As the FAT is owned by the clubs, any profit should be shared among the clubs and directed back into the game, he said, not merely benefit a few individuals.

In another case, Dae-an 21, a South Korean company, is in the process of suing Mr Worawi for failing to honour a contract allowing the firm to oversee FAT commercial rights. It claims it had transferred US$900,000 to an FAT bank account and that the FAT had failed to meet its obligations.

Mr Worawi admitted on Thursday that the FAT had signed a four-year contract with the company, worth $9.6 million from 2007 to 2011, but said Dae-an 21 broke the contract when it stopped making payments.

''It is part of an effort to discredit myself and the FAT. The FAT will sue back to protect our reputation,'' he said.

Mr Suphachai said that according to transaction records, more than 29 million baht was deposited by the Korean company into the FAT's Kasikorn Bank account and that a few days later it disappeared. ''So who got the money?'' he said, adding that the committee would seek more details. If no tax was paid on the income, that would make it doubly illegal, he said. Cases of tax evasion would be brought to the attention of the Revenue Department.

FIFA INVESTIGATIONS

HIGH HOPES: Former England manager Sven-Goran Eriksson is announced as technical director of BEC Tero Sasana earlier this month.

In 2011, Fifa launched a formal investigation after Mr Worawi was accused of spending US$860,000 in Fifa football development grants for grass-roots projects on land he owns. It is understood the matter was dropped after Mr Worawi produced a ''letter of donation'' to transfer ownership to the FAT. How legally binding this arrangement is is unclear, especially as the land in question was under mortgage and transfer of ownership would require bank approval.

Original land title deeds seen by Spectrum indicate that several plots of land in Nong Chok district bought between 2000 and 2009 were in Mr Worawi's name (surrounding a larger plot apparently used by BEC-Tero Sasana), all under mortgage with Kasikorn Bank.

Mr Worawi showed the title deeds for several plots at his press conference to prove they had since been cleared of mortgage.

The plots of land were earmarked for a training centre and pitches for use by the national team, although the facilities have only very rarely been used for that purpose. One former player told Spectrum that the facilities were often used by Mr Worawi's relatives and players felt they were intruding. Additionally, the location was too remote to be convenient for use as a National Training Centre.

When contacted for comment, Fifa's media department referred us to a previous statement made following a Fifa executive committee meeting in December 2011: ''The committee reviewed the investigations involving Mr Makudi [Worawi] regarding real estate and Goal projects, and all was found to be in good order. The necessary documents were provided from Bangkok, so the case is closed.''

Allegations against Mr Worawi were also made to the British parliament by David Triesman, former head of England's World Cup 2018 bid and the English FA. He said that four long-standing Fifa executive committee members, including Mr Worawi, engaged in ''improper and unethical'' conduct in the bidding, which was won by Russia. He accused Mr Worawi of demanding TV rights to a proposed Thailand-England friendly match in exchange for his vote, as well as other irregularities Mr Triesman likened to asking for bribes.

Fifa issued a response on May 30, 2011: ''Having received and analysed the report from the FA regarding the allegations made at the House of Commons on May 10, 2011, by Lord David Triesman against four Fifa executive committee members (Nicolas Leoz, Worawi Makudi, Ricardo Terra Teixeira and Jack A Warner), Fifa has found no elements in this report which would prompt the opening of any ethics proceedings.''

CONFLICTS OF INTEREST

Mr Worawi has close to a 50% stake in the Thai Premier League Co, with a number of FAT colleagues also invested in the TPL's profitability. Mr Worawi has been FAT president since 2007, as well as one of 24 executive committee members of Fifa, the global football body, since 1997, able to vote on World Cup bids. He is a member of the Asian Football Confederation.

Suphachai Jaismut.

He is also a founder of BEC-Tero Sasana, whose chairman, Brian Marcar, is also a member of the FAT. TPL president Vichit Yamboonreung is considered a close ally, as was former FAT president Vijit Ketkaew. Mr Worawi is also on the executive committee of the ruling Pheu Thai Party and a trade representative of the government.

Siam Sport Syndicate, which had a contract concession to financially manage the TPL until it pulled out in April, is also an owner of Muangthong United.

Mr Suphachai, head of the ostensibly non-partisan parliamentary investigation into the FAT's financial dealings, is also spokesperson for the Bhumjaithai Party, whose de facto leader is Newin Chidchob, also chairman of Buriram United FC and tipped to be in the running for Mr Worawi's position should he be forced to step down.

Pinit Ngarmpring, president of Cheerthai Power, a national team supporters' group with over 20,000 registered members, explained to Spectrum that to become a member of the FAT, two nominations by FAT members plus approval by the FAT president are necessary. Thus a president can ensure his own continued support by populating the association with close allies.

THAI PREMIER LEAGUE

Thailand's most popular sport, football was introduced in the Kingdom in 1897. In 1916, King Vajiravudh founded the Football Association of Thailand Under Patronage of HM the King. The association joined Fifa in 1925 and the AFC in 1957. For many years the FAT was largely controlled by the army.

A case could be made that the health of club football in Thailand is now stronger than at any point in its history. Three years ago the TPL, originally formed in 1996, was revamped, with 18 top-flight clubs, dozens of new sponsors on board, better marketing and a broader fan base. Last year, crowds averaged nearly 5,000 a match, totalling close to 1.5 million over the season, with every game screened on television. Clubs such as Muangthong United FC, Chonburi FC and Buriram United FC have had strong marketing drives and an influx of sponsorship capital in the last few years to become regional powers. Foreign players entering the league such as former Liverpool FC forward Robbie Fowler have raised the league's profile and standards. Buriram United held its own in the Asian Champions League earlier this year, winning its first two games against two of Japan and China's best teams before losing momentum. Sven-Goran Eriksson, former manager of the England national team, just signed this month as technical director of BEC-Tero Sasana FC, another of the ''big four'' clubs.

Money from sponsorship and TV rights alone is thought to run into the hundreds of million baht a year, but how this money, which Mr Suphachai said should have been shared with clubs, has been used is unclear and under investigation by the committee.

Without being able to depend on profit-sharing by the FAT, and ticket or merchandise sales insufficient to cover costs, most clubs rely to an unhealthy degree on revenue from club sponsorship deals. Fluctuations in economic conditions could leave them unable to pay players wages, and this has been the case at some clubs in recent years.

PROBLEMS AT CLUB LEVEL

One pressing issue that players and coaches have raised is that contracts aren't adhered to by Thai football clubs, as they are largely protected from litigation by the FAT.

David Booth, former coach of Sisaket FC before it became Esan United this season, was awarded US$222,500 plus interest in a contract settlement case by Fifa. The organisation gave the club until February to pay Mr Booth or face sanctions, but the deadline passed with no sanctions imposed.

On Aug 14 the Fifa Disciplinary Committee sent a letter to the FAT to be forwarded to Esan United. The club was urged to transfer 485,000 baht to an account in Switzerland within 30 days or face a six-point deduction, followed by enforced relegation or even exclusion of all Thai teams from international competitions. No deduction has yet been enforced.

Regarding such disputes, one former TPL player commented to Spectrum, ''The Thai FA have stated they will not punish clubs for non-payment or contract cancellations _ that's crazy; it's their job to manage and govern the players' interests, especially with clubs who are members of the Thai football league who are ruled under Fifa.'' He added that any player or coach who complains may encounter problems ''distracting his career''.

Emmanuel Obinna Nnodim, a former footballer and current players' agent in Thailand, concurred. ''Clubs like to avoid paying players and coaches and at the end nothing is done about it. There is a lot of breach of contract by clubs and they usually get away with it.''

Another issue in the league, he said, is the problem of agents bribing coaches.

''There is something like agents bribing coaches to sign their players. It's more of a business than a real sport at times. And some players take up blind contracts and don't have anyone to guide them, and some clubs take advantage of that.''

The former TPL player said, ''I have seen agents involved with coaches and most know it goes on ... you see the good players who did not get signed and questions are raised.

''It comes back to the coaches' lack of professional education or the money men being involved with football decisions,'' he said. ''From a local player development view, surely having better players who perform or are more experienced and professional is more beneficial to Thai football in the long term.''

Another former TPL footballer, Stuart Kelly, once a Scotland youth international, terminated his contract with Khon Kaen FC earlier this year.

''Management and higher up decisions were terrible and I knew they would be detrimental to the team _ which they were, at the end of the day,'' he said.

He said the club initially tried to terminate his contract without following Fifa rules on compensation but that they came to an agreement after he invoked international football law.

''In the end the club acted very professionally and we parted ways with no bad feelings.''

He said he remains grateful to the club for giving him the opportunity to experience Khon Kaen and Thailand.

Kelly, 31, had assumed it would be possible for someone of his ability and experience to find another TPL club, but after several months no offers came. Currently he plays for Finnish club PK-37.

Of Thailand, where he hopes to return to play, he said, ''Away from football it's a great place to live, with nice people away from football decisions and good fans, stadiums and media.''

As a former youth player at Rangers in Scotland, Kelly has been following the swift decline of what was once one of Europe's powerhouses, and while he said it is possible some Thai clubs could follow suit and collapse financially, it isn't easy to compare.

''When I signed, Rangers were financially bigger than any English club _ before the Sky TV deals. No Thai club has that fan base, global appeal or 130-year history.''

Here, ''clubs are funded by sponsors'' rather than gate receipts, he said, with salaries not always sustainable. ''Already the bubble has burst at some clubs.''

He said Thai football should develop the quality of coaching in the country and add transparency to the league. ''This will develop the talented youth they have and they can go on from there; however, the corruption will always hamper things.''

RESTRUCTURING THE FAT

On the possibility of disbanding the FAT, Mr Pinit, the supporters' group president, said, ''I cannot agree or disagree. It's a matter of law enforcement and fact finding. The association can't make profit and share it among the members or executives.

''The FAT should maximise its revenues, of course. However, it should spend the money on developing Thai football, including the national team, clubs' competitiveness and youth development.

''I think disbanding the FAT would come at the cost of ... more democracy, transparency and a public-oriented management. I can't agree if we disband the FAT just to remove Mr Worawi and promote a new figurehead.''

Mr Pinit said there are three options _ the FAT electing a new president, the court disbanding Mr Worawi if found guilty, or the court disbanding the FAT if the executive board and members are found guilty.

He said the first option was preferable, although it was unlikely as Mr Worawi was allied to the majority of FAT members.

He was also confident that a shake-up in the FAT wouldn't unsettle the national team too much. ''The Thailand national team can't get any worse,'' he said of the team ranked 131 in the world. ''We've had nothing but setbacks under Mr Worawi's management. Changing the FAT would see a vacuum period of up to four to six months but we could move very fast with better management.

''Worawi could have used his role as a Fifa executive committee member to benefit Thai football,'' he said. ''But he cares about himself more than Thai football. He is the CEO of a company with no competitor. A leader needs good governance, vision and responsibility. When he first stepped into the position, the fans were very positive and put high hopes on him. He has let them all down.''

INFURIATED FANS: Thai football enthusiasts stage a protest in May, 2011, demanding that Mr Worawi resign as president of the Football Association of Thailand.

SETTING GOALS FOR A BETTER GAME

As a journalist, Pinit Ngarmpring, now head of the Cheerthai Power supporters' group, once interviewed the former president of the Japan Football Association, Saburo Kawabuchi, who told him that Japan would develop the J-League in a manner similar to the country's successful automotive industry: "We will study the best aspects from all over the world, 'Japanise' them, and then we'll export it all over the world." The fruits of that philosophy are now being felt, with Japanese players successful in most of the top leagues in Europe and the national team ranked highest in Asia and 23rd in the world.

By comparison, "the FAT doesn't have any vision", said Mr Pinit.

Pinit Ngarmpring.

He has no problem with the appointment last year of Winfried Schaefer as national team coach, however. "Schaefer is a good coach with experience. I saw he was training the team with good technique and devotion that excited the players."

He argues that four structural changes need to be implemented by the FAT to improve grass-roots and club football in the Kingdom and raise the quality of the national team.

The association needs transparency and effective management, the lack of which is hindering the game at the moment, he said.

Secondly, a technical development strategy is needed, from grass-roots, through youth, to national team level. This would develop off-the-ball movement and technical ability, as well as a "national style" that could be honed from youth level, whose benefits would later be felt in the national team. A unit is needed to prepare the national team for upcoming fixtures. By comparison, Japan has a 20-member committee to deal with national team preparation, getting supporters to away games, and scouts to prepare dossiers on opposition players and teams from three months in advance.

"It's a kind of like an intelligence unit that deals with risk management. It's not only the 11 players on the pitch; you need a backing team." He pointed to a World Cup qualifying match in February, 2008, against Japan in snowy conditions at Saitama Stadium when the Thai players weren't prepared enough for the cold, taking off their jackets 10 minutes before kick-off and losing valuable energy.

Thirdly, the FAT needs to develop the quality of competition, he said. Warm-up games should be prepared in advance with reasonable opponents in the pipeline. "There also need to be 10-year plans and targets such as a competitive strategy to improve sports infrastructure."

The FAT also needs its own stadium. The stadiums it currently uses, such as Rajamangala National Stadium, are rented from the Sports Authority of Thailand.

Fourthly, the FAT should develop marketing and public trust. "This is not just about money, but rebuilding public trust in the Thai game," he said.

The fan base should be increased, supporters' groups promoted and the profile of the national team raised through advertising and information drives. "This doesn't have to be exclusive of the financial aspect, as the national team logo can be used on sponsors' products, for example, and people can help the national team by buying affiliated products. So a broader fan base will draw more corporate money in a positive cycle."

Above such structural changes, he said the organisation needs real elections and accountability. An independent body should provide oversight, and Fifa and the Asian Football Confederation, which donate money to the FAT, should have the right to check accounts.

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