Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Reflections on Thai football 2009 - part 2 - the challenges ahead

Part two of three. Part one is here.

One of those challenges is safety. As I left the Thunderdome yesterday I realised that my disappointment at the season's finish was tinged with a little relief. The excitement at high crowds and high stakes of the last few weeks  also had a nervous edge to it. Authorities had to deal with numbers and situations they had no experience and probably no training for, and several events made me worry.....

My shock at the MTU fans who let off fireworks aimed at the pitch while the game was still being played elicited very little reaction from security. The sight of the Samut Songkhram coaches throwing bottles at MTU fans after the former group had ran on to the pitch to intimidate officials was a highly tense showdown. This week at Rajpracha, the game finished in the dark because Samut Prakan players had - not for the first time - walked off. During an away game at TTM Sakorn, Muangthong fans had to stand in the aisles because more fans had been allowed in than the number of seats in the stand.

In countries with well respected football leagues, many of these situations would have resulted in serious consequences for the fans or clubs involved. This is because they could very easily lead to violence or a serious accident. If Thai football wants to develop further, the clubs must all work together to set and meet safety standards, study and apply methods of crown control and apply a code of conduct that involves set punishments for certain offences and an independent tribunal panel to deal with such events.

Another challenge is the amount of money flowing into the game. With the game set to attract more interest and exposure, big money sponsors are being joined in their interest by the likes of Newin Chidchob. While the extra income for the league can be a massive aid to its development, it also brings concerns, especially in Thailand. Aside form the cruelty of clubs like TOT simply 'uping and moving sticks'   and depriving fans of their team, you have the worry that referees or players may be 'got at' or, even worse, all out match fixing may occur. This is a particular concern in certain countries because many people feel that even when watchdogs or "independent" bodies are set up to prevent these events, they are often the people benefiting from them.

We also have the moral concern that as clubs and sponsors naturally look to recoup their investments, the fans will be the ones to pay. Part of Thai football's magic right now is that prices are so low (50 baht for a ticket, 400-700 baht for a shirt) that working class fans can go to the games with their families. I do hope that price increases are not so huge that these people are priced out of the game. I understand that Muangthong will be charging 80 baht per game next season, that seems a good compromise.

Finally, the rules of the games themselves need to stabilise. As part of its evolution, the Thai league system has seen a large amount of chopping and changing. Teams have been bought and sold (Pattaya United simply purchased their TPL place), the number of teams per league have been changed frequently and, worse still, rules of promotion and relegation are changed at little notice. What the leagues need now is stability with regards to structure and rules. Rumours that the TPL will be extended to twenty teams are not good. The league and clubs are clearly not ready for a league that big and income for certain parties can be the only factor in favour of such an idea.

That said, a little more maturity in team names would help. With so many teams calling themselves 'United' it would be nice to see a few more names such as 'Wanderers', 'Athletic', 'Rovers', 'City', 'Town', 'Province', 'Rangers', etc. perhaps mixed in with some uniquely Thai names to add some balance. A final disbursement with anachronistic names like 'Army' and 'Police' would also improve respectability for the league and probably attract more support for the clubs in question, too.

Those are the challenges that lay in wait for all fans across the nation. From a purely Muangthong United perspective, the task ahead is clearer.

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