Pubs near the ground? Singing and chanting? Yobs? Service stations charging obscene amounts for a cheese sandwich? Just how similar is a game of premier league footie in Thailand compared to back home?
As any ex-pat will tell you, the This have their own way of doing things. Even when it involves foreign ideas or fashions that find their way to the country,the locals love to put their own spin on things. Football is no different, but the good news is that most of the differences are positive.
For football fans in the UK and most of Europe, a game of top flight football can be the focus of a whole day or even a whole weekend. For younger supporters, the day can involve travel (long distance travel for away games) , time lost at service stations, time drinking and eating before the game, a lot of shouting and singing and, sadly, the threat of violence. Luckily, that threat is far lower than it used to be, though a general culture of tribal hostility still exists, especially between local rival teams.
So just how similar is a day at the football in Thailand? Well, in all the important ways, it's very similar. When travelling to a Thai Premier League game - especially if it involves Muangthong United - you'll be in no doubt that there's a big match atmosphere. Thais love to take sides. This habit starts early at school sports days, where the wearing of team colours and yells of support takes far greater presidence than the actual sports themselves. It's a similar affair in the football, and you'll notice the ratio of fans wearing team colours is far higher than back home.
Likewise, you'll be in no doubt of the passion involved. Every team has noisy supporters, every team has its own song and every team has a unique badge and nickname. Though attendances in the TPL are around the same as the English League One, the fans are capable of generating a whole lot of noise when they want to. Admittedly, this is often done with the use of horns and drums, which are more welcome here than amongst most fans in the UK.
With so much partisan noise and displaying of colours, is there a threat of trouble? After all, only this year, the world witnessed scenes of red shirts and yellow shirts fighting over politics in the streets of Bangkok.
Well, here's the good news: Thai football fans must rank as some of the friendliest, if not the friendliest, in the world. The psyche of tribal violence that plagued English football in the seventies and still lingers in some places simply does not exist here. Away fans are treated as visiting friends and often exchange food, drink and conversation with the home supporters. It is customary for the visiting team to approach the home supporters and salute them at the end of a game, for which they receive applause. Imagine Manchester United doing this at Anfield!
EDIT: The paragraph you just read was, of course, typed before the dreadful events at Supalachasalai. The fallout from this event has been handled reasonably well and it seems likely that incident was a 'one off' rather than a change of culture. Time will tell.
Although very recent TPL rules state away fans must be segregated, it is still common to see visiting fans wearing their shirt whilst standing in the home end. Of course, any event involving thousand of people getting worked up cannot be said to have zero danger of trouble,but this is probably the closest you can get. Behave, join in the fun and you will be as safe as houses. Some fans might ask as I did at first: won't the friendliness of the fans might take a little bit of the intensity and passion away from the fans or the teams? The answer is no. One game should be enough to lay any doubts to rest.
There's more good news. Any followers of the English game will be all too familiar with the argument that the working class English fan is being "priced out of the matches". A family of four, going to a game in the EPL can easily, easily spend well over one hundred pounds on transport, food, parking, matchday programmes and of course the tickets. At Chelsea, the ticket prices alone can reach treble figures. Compare that to Thailand, where every TPL team charges......wait for this.....fifty baht (just under one pound) for adults and twenty baht for kids!
It's not just the tickets that are reasonablly priced however. Replica shirts - made by the usual big name brands - are also notably cheaper. For most teams, the shirt is about six hundred baht. And with Thailand being an inexpensive country in general, you won't need a second mortgage to get to the stadium. Back home in Southampton, a taxi to St Mary's Stadium from my home would cost me about twenty pounds for a journey of about eight miles. Here in Siam, the journey from home to stadium is about the same distance, and costs me about one hundred and seventy baht, or about three pounds fifty in British money. Matchday programmes weigh in at twenty baht, snacks and drinks (the same stuff that's priced at five quid back home) cost less than fifty baht. In summary, you can enjoy a day out at the football without even making a dent in your wallet.
Once you arrive at the stadium, pre-match build ups are very similar, though they can vary depending on where you are. Teams with bigger support (like Muangthong) have a lot of local amenities such as fast food joints, shops, places to buy drinks, and areas to simply wait around picking the next England or Thailand squad with your friends. Don't expect to find 'The Red Lion' on the street corner though. Although alcohol is available outside most grounds, the beer guzzling culture is not so popular in Thailand. Smaller clubs will be more likely to provide local food stalls selling Thai food next to plastic chairs and tables rather than greasy burgers.
Other differences between the two football cultures also exist. I'd say that the ratio of families and female supporters is slightly higher in Thailand, though that's based purely on observation and I welcome other opinions on this.
Thais seem to enjoy cheerleaders and 'cute' female guests as well as Thai style comedy for pre, half time and post-match entertainment. This is not to my personal taste and perhaps other foreigners will feel likewise, but of course this is not a negative point, it is simply different culture. The local teams play on Sunday, for reasons readers can probably take a stab at. They often kick off at five o'clock. Again, I'm sure readers can work out the reasons for that.
Are there any downsides to the Thai football culture? The one obvious drawback is the standard of football. I will expand on this in other articles but anyone going to a match expecting to see world class football will be left disappointed. I would estimate the standard of football in the TPL to be somewhere between League Two and Blue Square Premier standard in the UK. One side effect of this problem is frequent stoppages of the game and low standards of referring, both of which can be frustrating. But that's not to say there are no moments of skill or excitement, there can be plenty of both.
Other than this, and the aforementioned tendency for cheerleaders and local style comedy (which is my problem) it's hard to point out any drawbacks for fans. Perhaps some of this is down to my own personal feelings though. As a dedicated Southampton FC fan, it's just sheer relief for me to have a local team not plagued by successive relegations and boardroom negativity. As an ex-pat, it's nice to follow one of my home pastimes while enjoying local life.
Of course, many of the points I've raised here could change in the next few years, and I think some of them probably will. It's important to be aware that Thai football has recently seen an explosion of popularity, triggered by large sponsorship deals and reforms by the Thai FA. That explosion is still in its early days, and the biggest struggle for Thai football remains one of recognition. Many locals are blissfully unaware that they even have a local team, let alone the chance to go to a match. However, if current trends continue, support will soon become widespread.
That new interest will create changes. Most notably, more money is likely to pour into the leagues. That expectation is obvious from the check list of major businesses that have recently become sponsors of the TPL - Yamaha, Chang and Coca Cola to name but three - who will obviously expect returns on their investments. Now, Thailand is known to have problems with corruption and I fear that increased turnovers could attract interest from various unwelcome sources. Moreover, it is almost certain to cause a large increase in ticket and merchandising costs. When the league has attracted as many fans as possible, I fear it will then attempt to bleed them dry.
But those challenges lay in the future. For now, it's fun to be part of - and hopefully promote - a place where football is still affordable and fun. If you're an ex-pat in the land of smiles, get along and support your local team. If you're a tourist looking for an interesting aspect of Thai culture that is off the tourist trail, go along to see a match. Enjoy the game, and please remember not to spoil the friendly, welcoming atmosphere of Thai football.
Further reading: TLF's A-Z of Thai football.