Thai football rising
Pablo's state of play report on Thai football from the vantage point of his new home in Bangkok29 October 2017 | Pablo Bateson
Last Thursday here in Bangkok was the funeral of Thailand’s much revered and loved King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX) after one year of official mourning since his death. The unprecedented and immense outpouring of grief was truly humbling and moving to observe as the life and death of this visionary nation building leader was celebrated.
Football was entwinned with Thailand’s loss and sadness when the Socceroos scheduled World Cup qualifier in Bangkok on 15 November had been placed in doubt. However, the game went ahead which I attended along with over 36,000 other people at the Rajamangala Stadium. The grieving was turned into motivation culminating in a fine performance by 'The War Elephants' to grab a well-deserved 2-2 draw.
Meanwhile, the 2016 Thai League season was also suspended as part of a 30-day official period of respect to refrain from participating in “joyful activities”. The competition subsequently ended prematurely and Muangthong United was awarded the title.
Signs of progress
Since establishing my new base in Bangkok from June this year, I have gradually gained insights into Thai football. There seems to be little doubt that the overall standard is steadily rising, crowds are healthy, and money is flowing in from sponsorship, ownership of clubs and television rights.
For 2017, Buriram United looks set to regain their championship mantle after previously winning the title over three successive seasons (2013-2015).
In the Asian Champions League (ACL), Muangthong overcome a tough draw to progress from the group stage with the equal best defensive record across tournament. However, they were soundly beaten in the Round of 16 over two legs. Only three years before and the 'Thunder Castles' of Buriram reached the quarter final of the ACL, going out narrowly to Esteghlal from Iran.
Although Thailand failed to win a game in their World Cup qualifying group over 2016-2017, they were more than competitive for most of the games.
Technical development from junior through to elite youth and senior levels still has a long way to go, and yet the signs are promising. Thailand U16s, U17s and U19s male representative teams are frequently playing in tournaments.
Futsal and court-sized football is very popular especially in Bangkok where availability of open space for full size pitches is limited in this sprawling high-density metropolis.
Amongst the expat football media fraternity, Scottish-born Paul Murphy is consistently providing excellent news, reports and opinion pieces via ESPN and Hat-trick Magazine as well as via These Football Times and Back Page Football.
The women’s game in particular suffers from a lack of resources and funding, with little recognition in the mainstream media. By contrast higher profile female national teams like for volleyball seem attract considerable more attention and support. Such gender inequalities of opportunities for girls and woman are all too familiar across much of Asia and beyond. There is so much potential to grow this area of football if FA Thailand, major clubs and government commit to development and implementation of national strategy from grassroots level upwards.
Getting to know Thai League 1
In recent months I have attended three Thai League 1 matches, including two home games at the 'Thunder Castle' (New I-Mobile Stadium) and a local derby between Bangkok United and Bangkok Glass.
In the lead-up to the latter I caught up over coffee with the then coach Aurelio Vidmar and former Brisbane Roar captain Matt Smith (central defender) from Bangkok Glass.
At the time 'Viddie' seemed content with his tenure. However, by mid-July the club decided to part ways with Vidmar as the revolving door of Thai club coaches continued.
After his arrival in July 2016, Vidmar’s overall impression was of being “very surprised with technical levels of Thai football as being very strong”. However, he said that the physical conditioning levels needed to lift at Bangkok Glass through improved training, preparation and recovery programs.
Of concerns about limitations in Australia’s development of elite youth, Vidmar noted that “our boys don’t have enough international experience, while countries like Thailand and Vietnam are playing in a lot of international tournaments of the U17s and U19s and even against club teams from Europe.”
Vidmar, with a professional footballer career of more than 20 years, including a decade with the Socceroos says he was fortunate to “do something I loved, never a chore."
His advice for young Aussies aspiring to be pro-footballers is to “go overseas to the right environment (and country) to suit the style of player” with careful selection to ensure maximum game time and football development rather than “sit on the benches” for years.
Echoing that sentiment, Matt Smith revealed how he had wanted the “challenge of a different environment and culture in Asia” and that his young family had settled in well to life in Thailand including schooling for kids.
According to Smith the clubs in the Thai League top tier have operating budgets similar to the A-League. However, there is no salary cap and characterised by a lot more money changing hands through transfer fees for players, bringing in much needed revenue which Australian club owners can only envy.
He does not isolate any one single achievement as being a highlight of his career, rather that it is “all about the journey as there are so many highs and lows and experiences, that makes you experience the good times."
Smith believes “you need to have that mentality to keep pushing and trying, with continuous hunger and challenging yourself." Beyond life as a player, then professional coaching appeals and he has already started to gain ‘badges’ for this pathway.
A major issue that continues to perplex and frustrate most involved in the Thai professional leagues is the stop and start scheduling of rounds over the season which runs from February to November. There are breaks as well as fixtures congestion associated with extra mid-week games soon after the rounds resume. This increases risks of injuries for players under pressure that are not at peak fitness due to interrupted preparations.
I have not spoken with anyone who is happy with the arrangements, and surely it is time that FA Thailand made some long overdue changes for the benefit of players, coaches and fans alike.
A trip to the 'Thunder Castle'
Earlier this month, I was at the 'Thunder Castle' with my partner Kana and her niece and cousin all from a small rural village in the Isan region not far from Buriram. We enjoyed another convincing victory by the hosts, as they turned on a Brasilian samba party to demolish 5-2, including a hat trick by striker Jaja and brace from his fellow countryman Diogo.
The active supporter’s group known as GU12 under the slogan of “Strike Back” is led by Karuna Chidchob. She is the wife of the club’s Chairman and owner, the locally born Newin Chidchob.
Most impressive is the club’s official merchandise shop located on the edge of large open piazza, with wonderful staff on hand to guide and assist. Prices are kept low consistent through policies to make the wide range of high quality clothing and equipment accessible for most local supporters. For example, a high-quality replica team shirt is equivalent to only AUD$26 and tickets in the main grandstand just off the half way line mid-way up about AUD$6 each.
My plans for the remainder of the season include travelling about two hours by road to Chonburi for their final round game against Buriram on 18 November.
There is an exciting prospect of seeing the likely Thai league champions play in next year’s ACL, versus opponents from China, Japan and Korea in the group phase.
Western Sydney Wanderers support for Pakkred Home for Boys
Meanwhile, at the grassroots level, it has been a privilege to help broker the generous donation of football equipment and clothing by Western Sydney Wanderers FC for a local children’s centre. The Pakkred Reception Home for Boys (known locally as Baan Phumvet) is located near the banks of the Chao Phraya River on the northern fringes of Bangkok.
This wonderful organisation accommodates, educates and provides integrated health support for over 80 young boys who are either orphaned or separated from their parents. They come from many countries particularly Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar and Afghanistan. These include refugees and victims of human trafficking, domestic violence and abuse. Many are also being challenged with complex conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), learning and behavioural difficulties, attention deficit disorder (ADD/ADHD) and mild autism.
Football is a therapy as part of their recovery process as well as providing healthy exercise and enjoyment based around a shared passion in life. Kana is a full-time psychologist at the Home and we live less than two kilometres away. Although the facility is largely government funded it also relies heavily on additional assistance from volunteers, donations, and support from local businesses and companies.
A big thank you to Mark Jensen, the media manager of the Wanderers, who facilitated the packaging of equipment for transportation to Bangkok.
As an Aussie expat living in the “land of smiles”, I am looking forward to experiencing the ongoing rise of Thai football. It could well go on to become a regional powerhouse of Asian football.
There would be no surprise if the men’s national side qualified for the World Cup finals within the next 8-12 years under an expanded 48-teams format with additional spots for the AFC. Iceland showed just what can be achieved with a smart approach - and the opportunities for Thailand are immense with the right long-term strategy.
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