In defense of Thai football

Thai football is back with the opening weekend of the season just concluded.

I was at the Rajamangala University of Technology Lanna Stadium out in the far east side of Chiang Mai at Doi Saket where rebranded Chiang Mai United hung on to beat Nakhon Pathom United 1-0 in their opening Championship match.

Meanwhile Chiang Mai FC opened their campaign with a 2-2 draw at Samut Sakhorn; all of the best action coming in injury time. Do not leave early!

In League 1 Buriram and SCG Muangthong both lost to newly promoted sides suggesting that this year will see a very competitive league.

But on twitter today a couple of comments on Thai football caught my attention:

@ajarncom posted a simple note that “I totally forget that United played Chelsea last night. When the Thai football season starts, I lose almost whatever interest I had in the English game. And it’s purely because Thai football I can ‘reach out and touch’.”

The first reply commented that: “Even though it’s ten times more corrupt than the English game? I have problems with that myself!”

Another said : “I tried but failed. Tried to convince myself for a season that I was enjoying it but nah. The lack of quality along with everything else was too much. Bring on the Villa survival scrap fight any day of the week over Thai football.”

Some thoughts – and up front let me say I am with @ajarncom on this.

Thai football is a reflection of the nation. It is not owned by, or dependent on, either the deep pockets of foreign owners and oligarchs or a legion of football mercenaries. There is a happy simplicity, eccentricity and even warmth (in every way!) to the sport here.

It is simply daft to suggest that Thai football can be 10x more corrupt than “English” football – daft on a number of levels – including the fact that there really is no such thing as English football anymore.

Football, particularly in England, increasingly appears to be a sport played by mercenaries and financed by betting companies or uber-rich oligarchs sportswashing appalling human rights abuses.

But not in Thailand – sure the clubs are run by businesses or wealthy benefactors; sure there are allegations of clubs making arrangements with referees. And of course it makes no sense for the same owner to have two teams in the same league as was the case with the two northern sides last year. But does that make Thai football corrupt? No. It makes Thai football Thai. The league structure is arguably the best organised and supported in South East Asia.

Can Thai football be 10x more corrupt that Manchester City and their powerful UAE owners? Of course not.

This week UEFA found that Manchester City did mislead UEFA by overstating their sponsorship revenue, principally from the Abu Dhabi state airline Etihad, between 2012 and 2016.

UEFA’s fair play compliance is overseen by the UEFA club financial control body (CFCB), two semi-independent panels of distinguished lawyers, politicians and professors yet to City UEFA had run a “flawed”, “consistently leaked” and “prejudicial” process, which was totally biased. Billionaires no not like being found guilty.

The trouble with the UAE oligarchs is that the only rules and authority that they recognise is their own.

City were found to have overstated their sponsorship revenues to UEFA and in their own accounts between 2012 and 2016, because the club’s owner, Sheikh Mansour of Abu Dhabi, was largely funding the stated £67.5m sponsorship by the country’s airline, Etihad. That was a breach of trust under UEFA’s FFP rules, which limit how much an owner can put into a club to bankroll losses.

Abu Dhabi’s ruling family is unable to untangle its own finances from those of its airline; an airline that has lost close to US$5 Billion in the last five years. A business that with those losses would be out of business if it was not for state /ruling family support.

I should note here that City have denied throughout that Etihad’s sponsorship is subsidised and said they are to appeal against the UEFA CFCB conclusion and penalty to the court of arbitration for sport.

Meanwhile other English clubs sign up questionable sponsorship deals with Chinese backed betting companies leaving their ethics and decency trailing far back in the distance.

Finally Premier League teams are charging gbp50 plus to sit in the pouring rain and freezing cold. The best seats go to corporate prawn-sandwich munching sponsors not to long suffering fans.

I pay 120 baht for a seat in the stands with a decent view of the game; I take a beer and some food to my seat from the vendors outside the stadium; a cold Leo and some deep fried quails’ egg wontons. Very fine. The crowd is a mixture of old and young, families and couples and a decent smattering of foreigners. We know the names of the players. We quietly stand for the King’s anthem. We applaud the opposition at the end of the game.

The quality may not be great – especially in League 2. The pitches are poorer. The stadiums smaller. But the commitment and effort is always there. As is the relationship between the team and their supporters.

I could send a message to an English player on twitter or instagram and be ignored. But I can have a whole conversation in Thailand. Keep it polite and respectful and everyone is happy to engage. I can be away at Prachuap and taken by a local fan to meet his team after the game; they are as much fotball supporters as are the fans.

I can see Mustafa Azadzoy, two years a Chiang Mai favorite, now at Nakhon Pathom before his game at Chiang Rai United and we can shake hands and wish eachother well. I can send a message to Carlos Pereira, wrong team, right city, and wish him all the best at his new club.

I do not keep the connections to the UK that many people do. I left there 30 years ago. Sure I followed Watford; my schoolboy team; but I would be as happy for them to be playing in League 2 as in the Premiership. It really does not matter.

And it is not as if I am going to Vicarage Road every other week to watch them. Maybe that is what I do not understand – the depth of feeling for English clubs that have been long left behind by people that have settled in Thailand. Time to shake off the old country and embrace the new.

The Thai League is what we have. It has more than its own share of drama and excitement. Last season the League had been won by Buriram until five minutes from the end of their final game of the season at Chiang Mai. It was a wild finish.

The Thai League also ensures that there is a solid nucleus of Thai players that feed into the improving national team structure. Thai league teams are limited in the number of foreign players they can add to their squad. It is a good rule mirroring similar systems from Europe but not in England.

I can travel across Thailand to follow my team. I do not need a ticket – I can turn up on the day. I can park at or near the stadium. I can walk to the ground with more chance of being offered a drink than showered with abuse. There is something appealing about a weekend trip from Chiang Mai to Ranong or Sisaket.

I may not always understand what is going on – but football is football – a wonderfully simple sport that needs goalposts and a ball. And I am thrilled to be able to follow the joy and sorrow of a new Thai season.

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