Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Reflections on Thai football 2009 - Part 1

It probably seems strange to call someone a football veteran after just six games, but that's how I feel right now. You see, Thai football is a bit like Thailand itself - fast changing, exciting, intriguing, infuriating and downright incredible, often all in one go. With so much going on, I've experienced almost as many memorable moments in those seven games as I have in my twenty five years of supporting Southampton FC up and down England, from Old Trafford to Lincoln, Newcastle to Bournemouth.

I discovered Thai football after seeing an advertisement for Bangkok United in the 'Bangkok Post'. To see a team with a real name and real kit made me realise something had happened to Thai footie. A little on-line research revealed Muangthong United as my local team in Nonthaburi and I decided to chat with a few fans online then attend the next game. Later I would find out that in fact Rajpracha Nonthaburi FC were even closer to my home, and I pledged to follow them, too.

My experience was probably not unique as I entered the football fray during an explosion in popularity of Thai football. Before then, I thought of the Thai leagues as Sunday league standard affairs with no supporters, no merchandise, no team badges, no local affiliations and no marketing. With team names like 'Stock Exchange of Thailand FC' and 'Bangkok Bank FC' how could this country - with so many passionate football fanatics living here - expect to attract fans?

It seems someone finally realised that and set about changing things.The man with the vision set about encouraging clubs to become real clubs  with proper strips, replica shirts, nicknames, websites, mascots. badges and, most importantly, local names. All the things that draw people to feel an affection and identify with a club came into existence. No doubt the Thai FA spent a long time and a lot of money on consultants for that project. I - and any other English football fan outside Portsmouth - could have given them all the advice they needed for the price of a meat pie.

The results were immediate and attendances rocketed. Fans of Muangthong United, Bangkok Glass, Navy Rayong and all the rest flocked to their home stadiums in replica shirts, transforming the venues into seas of colour and waves of noise.  My own experience began with a Muangthong home game against Bangkok Glass. What I remember most about this event is the passion and noise of the fans and just how damn friendly they were.  I quickly learned that supporters of opposing teams often cheer each other and the players, and mix freely outside the ground without trouble. On the pitch the football is fast and flowing, though tempered with frequent stoppages, theatrical dives, regular 'walk offs' or mass scuffles and a mass of squandered chances. It gets scrappy on a regular basis but there are few goalless draws and the errors often add to the excitement.

 It was fantastic to mix in with a Thai crowd that truly didn't care who or what you were as long as you came to cheer. So many fans seemed to be young people only now learning that no matter how great the likes of Beckham, Owen and Ronaldo look on TV, nothing compares to the buzz of going to a live football game. By now I had seen enough to know that I would attend more games.  For the next two months I followed Muangthong United to the TPL Championship whilst making many new friends on the way.

So now, as  the season closes, I can finally take stock. As I  look back to the first article I wrote about Thai football, I think my first assessment of pros and cons was pretty accurate. Thai football is set to witness some further massive growth in the future and there will doubtless be a whole lot more classic moments and excitement to come, but there will also be a large number of challenges to overcome.

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