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The (Orange and) Blueprint: 10 Ways to Fix Thai Football

 

On the surface of things, Thai football is doing pretty nicely. The quality of play has improved dramatically since I started watching in 2014, with better domestic players, better foreign imports, and teams like Buriram Utd and Bangkok Utd bringing international levels of professionalism to the Thai game.

But look a little bit closer, or talk to anyone who watches Thai league football week in week out, and the picture is less rosy. The biggest indicator? Attendances. Overall, attendances were down 3% on 2017 (when attendances were down a staggering 15% on 2016), with 11 of the 18 teams taking part showing a decrease in attendances. This might be expected at the bottom end, but it’s happening at the top too – 4 of the top 5 teams suffered a drop in crowds, with even leaders Buriram losing 10%; Port, despite their best ever season, losing 5%; and Chiang Rai, who made both cup finals and won the FA Cup, dropping by an incredible 46.4%.

The domestic game is haemorrhaging fans at an alarming rate, and when even the top clubs can’t hold fans’ interest, something is wrong. So here’s my look at the biggest turnoffs in Thai football, and how to fix them…

Announce the Full Fixture List – and Stick to It!

Before I started following Thai football, I thought fixture lists followed a fairly standard procedure worldwide. You draw the whole season’s fixtures, you announce them, and – barring natural disasters or fixture congestion – you stick to them. But not in Thailand, where the first week’s fixtures are announced some time in January and the rest of the list kind of dribbles out at random intervals after that, with fixtures rearranged at the last minute to accommodate breaks (and more on those later) for international tournaments, however trivial they may be.

How many times have we booked flights and hotels or arranged minivans only for the FAT to move the fixture to avoid clashing with the U12 Girls’ ASEAN Shove-Ha’penny Finals? Too many to mention. So solution no1: announce the whole fixture list a month before the season starts, and stick to it.

No More Long International Breaks

If there’s one thing, more than any other, that annoys everyone involved in Thai football – fans, players, coaches, journalists – it’s the long international breaks. In Europe, we have a 1-week break for international games, no more. And if a tournament clashes with league games, you don’t pause your entire season; you either carry on without the players involved, or the clubs refuse to release their players. And if you absolutely still insist on having breaks, announce them at the start of the season – these tournaments don’t just happen on the spur of the moment, they’re arranged years in advance. The league does not exist solely for the benefit of the national team, and given Thailand’s performances in the last year, notably the recent AFC shambles, it’s clear the long breaks are of little benefit anyway. Solution no2: no breaks longer than a week, and no long breaks for tournaments.

Fan-Friendly Kickoff Times

There’s no point complaining that fans aren’t coming when you’re arranging games at 17:45 on a Wednesday. But that’s what happened to Port last season, when two of our biggest away fixtures – Buriram & Chiang Rai, games that would normally attract big crowds – both kicked off at that time in front of largely empty stadiums. Noone benefits from an early evening midweek kickoff – not the fans who go to games, nor those watching on TV. Everyone’s on their way home from work. And who says all midweek games have to be played on a Wednesday? So here’s Solution no3: play midweek games on Tuesdays & Wednesdays, with no game kicking off before 19:00.

Separate the Cup Competitions

I may be wrong, but I doubt any other country in the world plays its two big knockout competitions concurrently. Running the FA and League Cups at the same time waters down the identity of both tournaments, with fans not always sure which tournament they’re watching, and having both cup finals played a few days apart is ridiculous, especially when the same team is involved. Solution no4: Start the League Cup early in the season (as they do in England & France to name but two), and have the final as the climax of the first leg of games. Managers get the chance to try out fringe players early in the season, the league gets a mid-season showpiece game, and you reduce fixture congestion – and injuries – in the second half of the season.

More Respect for Referees

Being a ref is a thankless task in most footballing countries, but few refs are shown as little respect as those in Thailand. Games are routinely delayed for minutes at a time whilst players argue against decisions; refs are routinely manhandled by players; and the recent introduction of the ludicrous VAR technology has diluted their authority even further. Admittedly a lot of Thai refs don’t help themselves by being either incompetent or corrupt, but players need to take responsibility here too – diving, cheating and playacting are routinely cited, particularly by farang fans, as the main thing that turns them off Thai football. So Solution no5: better training for refs (bring in foreign referees if necessary); a campaign for more respectful player behaviour (the captain-only rule would be a start); and scrap VAR, which has no place in Thai football in particular or in the game as a whole.

Clamp Down on Club Relocations

Tradition is very important in football. Parents take their kids to games, then those kids take their kids. Club nicknames, colours and badges gain value – both emotional and financial – the longer they exist. In England, only one club has been uprooted in my lifetime – Wimbledon to Milton Keynes – and it caused an absolute uproar. In Thailand, it happens every season, most recently with a successful and popular Pattaya Utd side wrenched out of their home city and moved to Samut Prakan, and it seems the authorities are powerless to stop owners doing whatever they want with their clubs, whether it’s moving them, renaming them or changing their colours. Even Port, a model of stability by Thai standards, have had four names since I started supporting them. Solution no6: tie club licences to a specific location. If you change that location, you lose your licence & have to start from scratch. And no name or colour changes unless the majority of fans approve!

More Foreigners

Ask any fan who the biggest stars in T1 were last season, and they’ll likely name the likes of Diogo, Heberty, Boskovic or Reis. They’re unlikely to name any Thai players. Quality foreign imports, especially strikers, put bums on seats. They provide the on-pitch leadership sorely lacking in Thai players. They provide a positive influence to young domestic players (well, most of them do). So it makes little sense to reduce the global foreigner quota to 3, especially when the new ASEAN rule threatens to flood the league with cheap, substandard imports. This theory that too many foreigners limit chances for domestic players and affect the national team has been proven, time & again, to be bollocks. Look at England – in the 1970s, there were virtually no foreign players in England and the national team were rubbish. Today, the Premier League is full of ’em, and England are the best they’ve been for 30 years, as English players have to be so much better to get first team football. Solution no7: Increase the foreign quota to 5 global, 2 AFC, 2 AFF. Make it harder, not easier, for Thai players to get T1 games and the cream will soon rise to the surface.

Introduce Sartorial Standards

By which I mean, sort out shirt sponsorship guidelines. Thai football shirts are, frankly, a mess, with even the best designs ruined by far too many sponsor logos. By way of reference, here are the English FA’s rules for shirt sponsor logos:

On the clothing of a Player on the field of play, the following areas shall be permitted to be used for advertising

  • One single area not exceeding 200 square centimetres on the front of the shirt
  • One single area not exceeding 100 square centimetres on the back of the shirt; and
  • One single area not exceeding 100 square centimetres on the back of the shorts.
  • Once only on each sock tie-up providing it does not exceed an area of 100 square centimetres.

Now look at the 2018 Port shirt:

That horrible, garish MTI logo in the middle with superfluous text underneath; the random Leo patch above it; and that Air Asia logo slapped on at the last minute. What a mess. Having proper sponsor guidelines would improve the aesthetics of the Thai game & give us shirts that people would actually be proud to wear. Look at the MLS – the football may be shite, but pretty much every team has a shirt of enviable quality. Solution no8: adopt Premiership-style guidelines for shirt advertising.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stricter Rules on Running Track Stadiums

If I had to name my biggest pet hate with Thai football, then it has to be running track stadiums. I’m not opposed to them per se – Berlin’s Olympiastadion is one of the greatest places to watch football on the planet – but they simply don’t work in stadiums with low-rise terracing, as anyone who’s tried to watch a game from the away end at Chonburi or Bangkok Utd will testify. Obviously it’s unrealistic to expect them to be phased out overnight, with most clubs lacking the means to build their own stadiums, but the likes of Ubon have shown that it is possible to build compact, fan-friendly football stadiums without spending billions of baht. Solution no9: Set a 10-year deadline for all T1 stadia to be running track-free. And in the meantime, ban clubs with running tracks from sticking away fans behind the goal where they can’t see a thing.

Bench Ban for Club Owners

One of the more bizarre sights in Thai football is certain club owners – and we all know who they are – sitting next to the coach on the bench, giving pre-match pep talks, and even on occasions entering the field of play. Whilst such a thing would be unacceptable in Europe, Thai club owners seem to think that owning a club means they can do whatever they like. This creates pressure on coaches, players and officials, and further damages the already wobbly credibility of Thai football. Solution no10: owners to stay in the director’s box where they belong.

 

Will any of these happen? Who knows. Most of them require little or no radical changes or big investments, just a bit of common sense and a willingness to learn from countries with successful domestic leagues – so the answer is probably no. But there is so much to love about Thai football – the friendly atmosphere at the grounds, the affordability, the relentless attacking play, the close-knit expat fan community to name but four – that it’s a shame to see such small crowds at games when the causes could so easily be fixed. Let’s hope common sense starts to prevail in the coming years and we get a league we can all be proud of following! And in the meantime, please let us know what suggestions you would add to the ten above.

 

 

 

Tim Russell

Tim Russell

The founder and editor of The Sandpit, Tim has been in SE Asia since 2003 and in Bangkok since 2012, where he runs a travel tech business. Tim has followed Port FC since 2014, and is also a fan of his hometown club Coventry City, and French club AS St-Etienne. He has written for the likes of Football365, ITV.com, NME and The Quietus, and is a regular contributor to God Is In the TV. He's a keen photographer and his work can be seen on his website.

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