January 21, 2011 1 Comment
The 2011 Thai Premier League gets underway on February 12th amid unprecedented levels of popularity. The huge wave of interest in the TPL generated by the 2009 relaunch shows little sign of slowing: attendances are high, half a dozen TV channels offer TPL coverage, big-name sponsors have got involved, new stands and stadia are springing up and the game has never been so awash with cash. And the game has never been so awash with cash. That fact is a double-edged sword. Money builds new stadia and buys quality players; money also creates vested interests. The concern is, and with no little justification as we shall see, that the waterfalls of money that have been pouring into the game will influence decision-making by those in power whose impartiality should be unquestionable. And whose decisions should be influenced solely by doing what’s best by Thai football. Doing what’s best, for example, by the national team.
The Elephants have been making headlines recently for the wrong reasons. Rather embarrassingly, they failed to make it out of their group in the AFF Cup in December. This tournament, contested by the eight best footballing nations in Southeast Asia, has been dominated by Thailand over the years. But in the 2010 competition, they didn’t manage to win one of their three group games and needed an injury-time equalizer to avoid what would have been a shocking defeat to Laos. The players complained of fatigue brought on by a hectic domestic league and cup schedule for their early exit. It’s not in my nature to indulge the complaints of the modern player; but this time he should be listened to.
Unbelievably, just three days before the first group game against Laos over half the squad had been involved in the FA Cup final between Muang Thong and Chonburi: a gruelling, physical match which went to extra time. ‘Why play the FA Cup final just before jetting off to Indonesia for an important regional competition?’ you may well ask.
The final should have been played on October 2nd but fixture congestion kept pushing back the date of the final until it ended up being held on November 28th. According to FAT chief Worawi Makudi – on the defensive from an accusatory media – this congestion was caused by postponed matches owing to the Red Shirt protests at the start of the season. Well, he would say that: the truth would shine an uncomfortably bright light on his role in the fixture pile up, especially as the demonstrations were confined within a couple of square miles in downtown Bangkok. The easily verifiable truth is that the mid-season break in June was used to catch up on nearly all the postponed fixtures. The log jam at the end of the season was clearly caused by (a) the FAT’s self-serving decision to play vanity friendlies against Atletico Madrid and Leicester City and (b) the introduction of the league cup two-thirds of the way through the season. Leicester City are now owned by the King Power group and were therefore obliged to play a match here. So because of the link between one Thai company and one English football club, a whole weekend’s worth of fixtures was wiped out. Atletico at least provided a decent workout for those of Bryan Robson’s squad who were included in the TPL All Stars Xl, but still it meant another round of league fixtures being delayed.
The new league cup competition was announced after more than half the season had elapsed, and got underway in August – just eight weeks before the scheduled end of the league season. To make matters worse, the competition was two-legged and there wasn’t even an AFC Cup (Asia’s equivalent of the Europa League) place at stake. The FAT sanctioned those friendlies and the league cup; they didn’t have to. Khun Worawi need not look beyond himself and his association for the causes of the fixture congestion, and for the reasons why the national team travelled to Indonesia in a state of minimal preparedness and, in many cases, physical degradation.
We may never know for sure why the FAT decided to allow the introduction of the league cup so late in the season. What we do know is that the competition is sponsored by the most powerful, most influential and biggest-selling car manufacturer in Thailand: Toyota.
Eyebrows were further raised when just a few days before the final weekend of the season it was announced that instead of the bottom three going down automatically, as planned, there were going to be relegation play-offs between the bottom three in the TPL and the teams ranked fourth, fifth and sixth in Division 1 instead. Two of these six teams would join the top three from Division 1 in the 2011 TPL, so expanding the division from sixteen teams to eighteen. The argument was that the division needed to be expanded as a response to the increased popularity of the TPL. Many inside the game believe it was nothing more than an elaborate way of trying to keep Bangkok United and Sisaket – who had finished second and third from bottom respectively – in the top flight. One of United’s main investors is TV and Internet giant True who, so the story goes, weren’t too keen on seeing their investment drop into the relative obscurity of Division 1. Sisaket, meanwhile, are the TPL’s breakthrough club. The first Isaan side to be promoted to the TPL, they have a large support and they broaden the appeal of the traditionally Bangkok-centric TPL. Not the kind of club the top flight wants to lose. Again, we’ll never know for sure. But the fact that the relegation play-offs were only announced once it was mathematically certain who was going to finish in the bottom three is very suggestive.
Incidentally, at one of the crucial play-off games between Nakhon Pathom and Sisaket, some of the home supporters, and members of the home club’s staff, were so incensed by the referee’s performance, that they ran on to the pitch at the final whistle and started to attack him. The poor man – whose bloody face was splashed across the front pages of all the following days newspapers - was given no protection by the local constabulary and had to run into the stand populated by visiting fans in order to escape a severe beating, or worse. One of his attackers, a Nakhon Pathom FC employee, was actually brandishing a gun. The adverse publicity caused by the incident, and the resultant press coverage on the main Thai TV channels, resulted in Nakhon Pathom being banned from competing in the league for two years. A ruling that some consider too harsh but one that has been applauded by others for sending out a clear message to those who may feel compelled to behave in the same manner at a future date.
So far, we’ve looked at politics with a small p: vested interests, back-scratching and so on. But if we are to look at politics in the domestic game then it would be negligent not to write something about Buriram PEA and Newin Chidchob: Politics with a big P.
Khun Newin moved PEA FC from Ayutthaya to Buriram after the 2009 season had ended. He also took over Regional League side Buriram F.C at the same time. He threw up a brand new stadium in double-quick time and seemed to produce 20,000 fans almost out of nowhere. It soon became clear that many of these fans had been attracted by free tickets, free merchandise and food vouchers. And there were cash incentives to encourage fans to travel to away games and help create an “atmosphere” at home. This artificial way of creating fan loyalty, and the atmosphere of manufactured enthusiasm whipped up at the i-Mobile Stadium, isn’t to everyone’s taste, but it was certainly effective as PEA finished second in their first season in their new incarnation. Inevitably, there have been dark whispers about Newin’s involvement in football. About how he may use his power, wealth and influence to his teams’ advantage. It’s plausible, but he also has a great many enemies only too keen to accuse him of every crime under the sun. There will undoubtedly be a conflict of interest, though, should Buriram F.C ever make it into the TPL, and all the signs are that they will do sooner rather than later. Two clubs both owned by the same massively influential politician playing in the same division should not be countenanced by any objective and sensible governing body. Qualities one hopes in vain the FAT may discover in 2011.