“A running track separates fans from footballer; supporters want to be as close as possible and with a running track you cannot provide this. If any club in England is thinking of doing this, I would say to them: Don’t!” Markus Horwick, Bayern Munich Club spokesman.
You can always trust a German to express matters in an efficient, succinct manner; even if their words are longer than most, it is the sentiment that counts and leaves you in no doubt about the message delivered. Horwick had written this a year after Bayern Munich’s move from the Olympic Stadium to the Allianz Arena in 2015. The following season, their attendances near trebled and it was the higher quality of the viewing experience and the improved atmosphere which fans quoted as the main reason for their renewed interest in the team. Obviously, the fact that they were a highly successful club playing attractive football must have counted more than a little. However, most of us who suffer the long view nearly every other week at T1 League football grounds, will agree with Horwick’s appraisal.
This second part of my article is about watching football in Thailand and, in its assessment, the running track will never be far from our thoughts. If you have read Part One you will know that I grew up watching football in the 60’s and 70’s on the terraces, from Luton to Liverpool, often amongst huge, passionate crowds. Without getting into the debate about safe-standing and, as a Liverpool fan, this is a very emotional issue, I have to declare now that one of the reasons I love going to Port is that I can stand up. I can also jump up and down, wave my arms, hoist my Sivakorn scarf, sing, scream and shout and often go completely bonkers, with my mates in Zone B. When you have up to 12,000 people doing this at the same time, it creates an ATMOSPHERE. This ATMOSPHERE is enhanced by the fact that we virtually overhang the pitch. The opposing goalkeeper feels our uncomfortably hot breath on his neck and an opposing full-back taking a throw-in might receive a gentle, slightly mocking, pat on the back (Air Force 2014). We can also see, even from behind the goal, WHAT IS GOING ON. This to me is the complete viewing experience and goes some way to recreate those halcyon days of mullets, obscenely short shorts and pissing in someone’s pocket.
Before we take a look at those Thai grounds, and they will be restricted to the T1, here is a bit of global history.
According to my research, the oldest football ground in the world is Field Mill (now the One Call Stadium), the home of Mansfield Town, with the first game being played there in1861. Bramall Lane (Sheffield Utd), was the first ground to see the use of floodlights, in 1878. However, it was not until 1950 that they were officially endorsed by the ‘enlightened’ Football League and the FA; the Dell, Southampton being the first ground to have them permanently installed.
The Maracana stadium in Brazil holds the record attendance of 199,854 for the Brazil vs. Uruguay match in the World Cup Final on the 16th June, 1950. This is the biggest attendance at a sporting event held in an enclosed stadium and was a bit of a tight squeeze. Galatasaray’s home ground stadium, Turk Telecom Arena, is claimed to be the loudest football stadium in the world, in 2011 reaching a deafening noise of about 131 decibels. All those mobiles going off at the same time must have helped.
Football was introduced to Thailand in 1897 and the Thai FA formed in 1916. The first stadium was Supachalasai, the old National Stadium, built in 1935. PAT Stadium was built in 1967, the year the club was officially formed. The highest recorded attendance at a Thai Stadium outside of an International was 34,689 at the 80th Birthday Stadium, Nakhon Ratchasima in July 2015. With the official capacity set at 24,641, this was even more of a tight squeeze than the Maracana and potentially lethal. Still, as their safety conscious chairman proudly remarked as he watched the traumatized, wheezing fans staggering out of the stadium, “Well, at least we broke the record.”
So, let’s have a look at those Thai Stadiums, and for this purpose I have rated them in four categories.
Grounds For Approval
There are certainly some decent grounds in T1; the Thunder Castle at Buriram, for obvious reasons, being the pick of the bunch. Bearing a close resemblance to the King Power Stadium, Leicester, it is all-seater, covered and the atmosphere, although somewhat manufactured, is stirring on big-game nights. The first time I went, it even had turnstiles FFS, although I believe they are now a thing of the past. It is a PROPER STADIUM. Running it close, is the three-sided, plastic-turfed, Leo Stadium, home of Bangkok Glass. It’s three-tiered terracing behind the goal, ever so slightly reminiscent of La Bombonera of Boca Juniors, would be scarily intimidating if it was ever full. Its spacious bar and glamorous Glass Bunnies are added bonuses.
Although different in size and appearance, Chiang Rai, Ubon UMT, Pattaya Utd (?), Ratchaburi (new stadium) and Sukhothai (impressive setting) would all squeeze into this category, mainly because, I believe, although I haven’t been to all of them, there is NO RUNNING TRACK. Well done, lads.
The SCG Stadium of Muang Thong aspires to be in this group but it seems to have been dumped in the middle of a building site and should be condemned. Like these below.
Grounds for Condemnation
Basically, however posh you think you might be, with your huge stands and towering floodlights, you have a running track and therefore NO ATMOSPHERE and, half the time, NO FANS. Are you listening Bangkok Utd, Chonburi, Suphanburi, Nakhon Ratchasima? You need to take a lesson from Bayern Munich. Then, there are your slumdog compatriots who have shitty grounds and a shitty view (can you detect my rising anger?): Police Tero, Sisaket, SuperPower, Thai Honda and Thai Navy, although the latter must be slightly excused for having the consolation of Ban Chang on its doorstep ☺. One might argue that our cause is not helped by being dumped in the often, dilapidated away end behind the goal, while the empty sides might afford a better perspective on proceedings.
I reserve especial opprobrium for Thai Honda. You have situated yourself (and BEC Tero before you), in the middle of a sea of rice paddies, which nobody can ever get to, or leave. Our side-view might be slightly better because you don’t have the decency to have any proper ‘ends’ but, and I suppose this is the biggest source of my recurring nightmare, we always lose! If ever I had a powerful but malevolent Uncle who might gift me a drone strike for a birthday present, it would be unerringly employed against the 72nd Anniversary Stadium, after clearing it of human habitation of course. I am not a violent man.
Grounds for Optimism
Of course, most of us know why there are so many grounds with running tracks; they were built for institutions such as the Forces, Universities, etc, to cater for a community and a variety of sports, all before professional Thai football became more popular than Match of the Day. In Bangkok, especially, there is very little space to build a new stadium. But, out in the provinces, blessed with a little bit of spare land, things are on the up, as it were.
Ratchaburi have already opened their new ground, which many of us will look forward to visiting on the last game of the season, while Chonburi, Pattaya, Sisaket and Suphanburi all have highly creative, almost futuristic images of supposed new stadiums in the pipe-line. Whether they are ever built is a different thing but at least it shows a growing recognition that football should be played in a proper football stadium with no running track and an ATMOSPHERE, which brings me to….
I stumbled upon an interesting quote about PAT Stadium, “It is rarely used to at least half full capacity, topping in 2011 at 6,916.” The author had obviously been reading the official attendance records because many of us have enjoyed Port brim-full, under the lights, the gates locked, fans clambering up the fences and floodlights, seeking any foothold they can gain, or gap through which they can peer, to get a view of the action. Buriram, with their huge, raucous travelling support, have mostly been our opponents on these momentous occasions when the ATMOSPHERE has been truly, and I know it is old cliché, electrifying. One extremely well traveled, visiting English fan, who had seen football at grounds, large and small, all over the world, compared it to Sao Paolo. Now, I have googled the Cicero Pompeu de Toledo Stadium of Sao Paolo and it is nothing like PAT, so he must have been referring to the fans. Certainly, on capacity-full nights, under the lights, the mist rolling in from the klongs, gazing across at the orange and blue sea of shirts massed in Zone C, a tingle ripples down my spine.
Zone C is where I started my Port career, as it were. It was a little more sedate in those days and I felt that entrance to Zone B, the traditional ‘behind-the-goal’ position of my youth, was a rite of passage that I had yet to earn. But, I was eager to join. They looked like they were having so much fun. Seven years later and Zone B is a second home, a place where I would almost feel comfortable with a pipe and slippers, probably not on Buriram days though. After an enforced footballing absence of a month, walking up to my usual spot behind the goal for the friendly on Wednesday night and seeing the boys from the Sandpit already in place, induced a warm and cuddly feeling, enhanced by the rare treat of having a beer in my hand. PAT Stadium may be a little worn at the edges, it would never win the Gaudi prize for innovative architecture, but for us, it is, to paraphrase Sir Alex Ferguson, a Colosseum of Delights. Roll on Sept 10th.
(Header image courtesy of John Parbury)