A few minutes into my chat with football agent Benni Lohwasser from FPS Management & Consulting, he reveals that, in his early days in Thailand, he once played for Port FC as a triallist. Yes, the man sitting opposite me once donned the hallowed orange & blue, albeit in a friendly, which of course only helps me warm to him even more. An energetic, outgoing German, Benni looks after operations in Asia & South America for Fair Play Sports (FPS), a sports agency with offices worldwide and who represent a number of players in Thailand including Buriram goal machine Jaja Coelho, Buriram midfielder Ko Seul Ki , Thai national stars such as Thitiphan and Sarach Yooyen, and our own Josimar Rodrigues. He also assisted Chanathip on his recent move to Japan.
I sat down for a chat with Benni to get the inside story on what it’s like managing players and dealing with club owners in Thailand. It was fascinating to learn about the experiences of a farang working at the heart of the Thai game….
Firstly, tell us how (and why) you became a football agent, and ended up here in Thailand…
I played football in the German 3rd division then moved over to Thailand 12 years ago. I had a few trials and played a few friendly games for Osotspa – and Thai Port! Couldn’t do it, I don’t know why, so I moved over to Indonesia for six months, then came back to Thailand and met my wife.
I had football connections in Germany, in Europe and Asia, so we opened an FPS office in Germany with a well known German agent first, then Singapore, and now we have become a global agency with a total of five offices. We look after some big players in Germany including Andre Schuerrle, and Stefan Bell who is captain of Mainz 05 and of course now several players here in Thailand and the region.
What makes Thai football attractive to agents and foreign players?
The lifestyle. It’s an easy life for players and their families, with nice weather and friendly people. And it’s not a secret – the money! Some of the players get double the salary they’d get in Europe or South America. That’s the main reason.
In your view, how about the state of Thai football – is it going forwards or backwards?
If you look at the quality of Thai players, it’s going forward, but in terms of the league, it’s not growing. It’s growing financially, but at the moment it’s stuck. One of the big problems is the long breaks for the national team. That is a big, big problem for the players and the supporters – they don’t know what’s going on and sometimes not even when is the next game. It’s just ridiculous. In Europe we have a FIFA rule on how long clubs have to release international players, so I don’t know why the league can’t do that here. Imagine, you have to keep the players happy, especially the foreign players. You also cannot just send them for vacation every time, because they need to keep focused and also stay in shape, so it is tough for players, coaches and team owners.
What are the biggest challenges you’ve encountered in handling players & clubs in Thai football?
At first when I came here the clubs didn’t see agents as partners, we had the feeling that they were scared of us. In Europe it’s different – no clubs sign players without an agent and they see the agent as a partner, as a help. That was a big problem at the beginning, but now it’s becoming more professional. The clubs we deal with, they understand, they take our advice, and now we are trying to explain to them that they need to fly out sometimes to watch games, to watch players before they buy them. Anybody can look good on a highlights video! The clubs have also the chance to buy scouting systems for a couple of thousand dollars a year where you can watch players for whole games and all their statistics before you buy them, so you’re 100% secure. Before we had the feeling some clubs would buy players without even seeing them. We try to bring quality players, we don’t bring in any player just to make money. We bring in players to make success for both players and clubs and that is working – look at Jaja and Ko at Buriram for example.
You handle many Thai players too. What are the differences between Thai & foreign players?
A foreign player who comes to Thailand has been transferred previously a few times, so he knows the process and what he has to be aware of. For Thai players, it’s different – the important thing is trust. Doy (Nonsrichai) from Tero, a long time friend of mine, has joined FPS now and will start at the end of the season with us. He’s well known in Thailand, everybody respects him and the players have confidence in him. You have to make Thai players understand what a contract is – the clauses, the details and the possibilities they have. Now they start to understand also the financial situation better, plus the options that they can go to other Asian countries now – before the clubs blocked it and stopped other clubs talking to their players , because the clubs from abroad did not know who to contact.
Why don’t European players do so well in Thailand?
I think it’s the professionalism. For example, I just spoke to one European player last week who is playing here, earning twice what he was earning in Europe, but he is thinking of moving back to Europe because he can’t handle it here any more! He wants to win even in training, if his team loses he’s sad, but the Thai players, if they lose, they are still kind of happy, at least they look happy – it’s a different mentality and he understands, which is also why we like the country, but for foreign players who are new here, it is difficult to understand and accept it. And for the players, if they move to Thailand, they are aware that their career in Europe is pretty much finished. So only older players can be convinced to move here, late 20s or over 30s. Players in their mid-20s still want to succeed in Europe and are difficult to approach.
FPS recently assisted Thailand’s star player Chanathip (although you are not his direct agent), and secured him a move to Japan. How far do you think he can go in his career?
Clubs in Europe are watching him and we want to see him there in the future – against Australia, he was up against Mile Jedinak, and he was massive, Jedinak couldn’t handle and follow him. He can do it, he has a different mentality to other players – he’s very focused on football. He does his thing, in Japan he’s unbelievable, nobody thought he’d be so successful, but he makes the country proud.
Is Chanathip’s move a one-off or is there growing interest internationally in Thai players? What options exist for them beyond Thailand?
We had calls already from Europe about Thai players. The interest is there. And Japan also – they have the ASEAN rule there too so they will take a few more in the future we believe. But we also understand it’s difficult for Thai players to go abroad – the lifestyle, the mentality, the training, the physicality, many things must be considered.
Next year the rules on foreign players change from 4+1 to 3+1+1, with the additional 1 being ASEAN. Do you think this is a positive or negative step?
Does it make sense? Thailand is the best national team in the region so for me it makes no sense. You’re blocking young Thai players from their first team to bring in ASEAN players (even if it is only one), for what? I don’t see any top players from Indonesia or Malaysia who are better than Thai players. And the money for local players in Malaysia for example is amazing, so there’s no reason for them to come here. We’re looking at players from ASEAN but we know what the clubs in Thailand need so I’m not pushing these players, we’d rather push the Thai players. And reducing the number of international foreigners to 3 is a bad thing, in terms of the quality of the league.
Finally, looking at our own club Port FC, I have to say personally our recruitment this season has been pretty catastrophic, particularly during the June window. Looking at our squad, what do you think needs to change for 2018, and how can clubs with smaller budgets like ours remain competitive against the likes of Buriram, Muangthong, Chiang Rai etc.
If you look at the top 4-5 teams in Thailand, they play with a foreign defender. They play with an Asian defensive midfielder who clears everything, and this is the key role here in Thailand – if you look at Buriram, Jaja or Diogo are important to win games, but it’s Go Seul-Ki who is the key in my opinion, and Port haven’t had a player like that for a few years. And you need a good attacking line up – Josi is doing well scoring goals but he should get more support. The Thai players at Port are good, nothing to change. Smaller clubs can get good players but it’s about trust – who’s buying players, who’s paying the players, who’s the agent, who do they trust.
Big thanks to Benni for taking the time to answer our questions. You can find out more about FPS at http://fps-management-consulting.com/en/.