Saturday, 30 April 2011

Just how good is it?

“What’s the standard like?” is probably the question I’m most frequently asked by my friends and family in the UK when I mention footie in Thailand. It’s a query I’ve only addressed cursorily in the past, so here’s my attempt at a better answer.

Comparing Thai football to its English parent is tough because it’s almost like comparing Rugby Union to Rugby League. At the very top level - say the top ten TPL teams - the game is very often quick and has many moments of skill. At lower levels the pace and standard drops off accordingly but even at Division 2 level there are moments of excitement.

So why then, is it hard to make a comparison? And since the Thai national team have achieved nothing, isn’t that a good indicator of the low league standard? Those might seem straightforward questions, but they aren’t. The game is different in several ways.

Thai footie is far less physical than in Blightly, even in the modern days of protective refs in the UK. In Siam, players can often be penalised even for making innocuous physical contact with an opponent. This all makes for a lot of “stop, start’ officiating.

Perhaps part of the reason for this difference is the physical makeup of the players. Thai players of the current generation are still slightly smaller than your typical Italian or German player and play the style of football to suit their stature, with teams employing a quota of foreigners - most of them African - to bring a different dimension to the game. Perhaps the lower average weight of Thai players helps their stamina, because many games are played in temperatures not far from those nations will face in the Qatar World Cup, and look how much concern that's causing already! It’s a great credit to players in Thailand that they usually keep the games fast-paced throughout, even in the searing hot-season.

Tactics are different, too. Thai teams in general play a slightly more attacking style of football which is exciting, though sometimes the amount of golden chances that go begging would tempt most EPL managers to smash a teacup or three. Sadly these tactics also include a level of time wasting, back-chatting and reaction that probably would not be tolerated in European leagues, so once again, the symmetry is not perfect.

All these reasons should partly explain why it’s not fair to use the national team as a measuring stick for the Thai league: Thai players have different types of experience and expectations.

There are other factors on top. While the Thai league has seen a lot of investment, growth and publicity - creating fast change which is yet another reason why the comparison is a difficult one - the national side have not really seen much knock-on effect. Lack of organisation (this is also an internal problem but almost every team suffers equally), lack of infrastructure and other factors have also been a burden. In short, don’t be fooled into thinking the league and the national team are identical.

Enough excuses, the big question is: how far down the English league would we need to go to find a team that Muangthong, Chonburi or PEA could give a run for their money? Solving that riddle is the only way to clearly answer our main question.

I recently attempted to find an answer by attending two games involving my local sides back home: Southampton Vs Bristol Rovers in League 1 and Eastleigh Town Vs Hampton and Richmond in the Blue Square South League.

Southampton are one of the better teams in League One and players such as Jose Fonte, Rahdi Jaidi, Ricky Lambert and goalie Kelvin Davies would probably be a little too much for most Thai teams to bear, particularly when Jose and co. (League One’s better defenders) denied them the glut of goal-scoring openings they are used to. Even in a game played with a Thai style ref, I think they would be edged out, even by Bristol Rovers.

Eastleigh Town play a similar standard of football to most Thai teams but the one-two’s and triangle passing from the Hampshire side is not quite as quick and crisp, and players don’t have quite the same level of pace. However, both BSS sides were allowed to perform fair and well-timed physical challenges that would have TPL players hurling themselves to the turf as though they had been executed, probably earning the offender a red card. If Eastleigh were to play Chonburi or Bangkok Glass with an English ref, the physical battle may result in a win for the ‘Spitfires’, but if played to Thai rules, I’d bet on a two goal win for the Thai side.

So going on intuition, experience and a little research I’d say the level of the TPL is somewhere between League one and Blue Square regional leagues. Let’s conclude by saying it’s probably League Two level, and moves down accordingly for lower league teams. Phew!

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