Thai football bolstered by 'God,' Africa and a former politician in Isaan
Global football fans were rightly surprised earlier this month when legendary English player Robbie Fowler announced his signing with Muangthong United, a Thai Premier League team.
Though Thailand welcomed "God" with cheers, Australian football aficionados likely spat the dummy when last week he took a swipe at the A-League and his former team, Perth Glory, telling reporters, “Thai players have more technical skills than the Australian [players].”
For the 36-year-old former Liverpool star with 26 England caps to his name, the move to the Thai Premier League, a footballing hinterland, is part of a final bid to salvage the twilight years of his flagging career.
But for the kingdom itself, becoming a hinterland that now attracts the sport’s falling stars is a step up on the international scale. And there are changes afoot that may well turn the trickle of international talent coming here -– which has included former England players Peter Reid and Bryan Robson as somewhat unsuccessful managers of the Thai national team -- into a more steady flow.
Buriram: The epicentre of Thai football?
This Saturday’s 2014 World Cup qualifier between Thailand and Palestine is unlikely to go down in history as the global sporting event of the year. It is not the match itself, however, but where it is being played –- Buriram in Isaan -- that will prove to be of more interest.
The i-mobile Stadium is home to two clubs, Buriram PEA, aka “Thunder Castle," and Buriram FC, “The Volcanoes," which are in Thailand's Premier and First divisions, respectively.
It is an unlikely setting for a sleepy provincial town. On the rural outskirts of Buriram, an area typically home to smallholdings and rice fields, where scrubland runs into thicker jungle and cicadas compete with grunting buffalo for sonic dominance, sits an international standard football ground.
The 23,000-capacity stadium, which hosted its first match last month, is one of three “proper” football grounds in the kingdom, the others being Bangkok Glass Leo Stadium and Muangthong United’s Yamaha Stadium. What is more impressive is the fact that the grounds were built in just 251 days at a cost of about US$20 million (600 million baht), according to its owner, Newin Chidchob.
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Politics, power and passion for the beautiful game
It comes as no surprise that Newin is a man who gets things done given his history as a political strongman from Isaan who served as a cabinet minister in former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s government.
He was banned from politics for five years in 2007 when the Thai Rak Thai Party was broken up by a court order, and then turned his back on Thaksin, uttering a teary-eyed “it’s over boss," as he instructed the Bhumjaithai Party to join the Democrat-led coalition in December, 2008.
His catalytic role in developing the game in Thailand becomes more apparent a few kilometers up the road at the Buriram Academy Football Training Center. The US$8 million development, complete with full training facilities, dormitories, a sports science team, medical support and spa will be home to some 70 trainee footballers.
Beyond building the capacity of Thai players, the underlying concept is to attract talent from other countries in Asia and Africa, build up their skills and sell them to European clubs.
Newin has drawn on his connections with the King Power-led Thai consortium which purchased a controlling stake in Leicester City FC last August to gain technical assistance from the Championship League club which has its own award-winning football academy.
Further support comes from Rainbow Sport, a pan-African consultancy which owns two teams on the continent and has been working with Buriram PEA for the past six months to find new talent for the team.
The alliance already has its first success story with 19-year-old Buriram PEA star Frank Ohandza, from Cameroon, who will be playing for his national team in the under-20s World Cup.
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'Somebody has to have a vision'
While the Buriram facilities do not match those at Europe’s best clubs, they are impressive.
“It is a great place,” says Peter Odemwingie, a Russian-Nigerian striker with West Bromwich Albion who visited the academy on June 26 along with other African players from the English Premier League, Sébastien Bassong and Benoît Assou-Ekotto, both from Tottenham Hotspur, and Leicester City manager Sven-Göran Eriksson.
“Football is growing all over the world and I’m sure Thailand wants its team be represented well on the international level -- for that to happen somebody has to have a vision, build a better infrastructure,” says Odemwingie. “If you want a team that will be competitive in five or 10 years you need to start now with 10-to-12-year olds playing at a junior level, then from that develop a senior team.”
“At the same time, when African players come here they also teach the African style of football which will help the Asian boys improve their game,” says Odemwingie.
'Goo Rak Mueng Wa'
Newin says he is fulfilling a “childhood dream” by supporting the Buriram teams and the academy with the ultimate goal of improving “the standard of Thai football and making Thai players better known internationally."
To further that goal, he says he plans this year to purchase a club in Spain’s second division to help channel Thai and African players from the academy into Europe.
On face value, it is hard to see Newin’s involvement as purely altruistic. He is evasive about where the US$28 million financing came from, says he is not thinking about a return on investment and claims, “Politics is over now. 100 percent. It is football from now on.”
It is clear that Newin is building a powerful personality around the two clubs, along with a veneration of Isaan culture writ large on posters stating “I Love You” in salty Thai: “Goo Rak Mueng Wa."
His ultimate aims may be unclear, but the passion both he and his wife, Kanika, president of Buriram FC, have for the game is palpable.
Whether or not the final whistle has really been blown in Newin’s political career, his financial and strategic support in developing Thai football will undoubtedly yield positive results for the sport in Thailand.
Whatever the outcome, you can be sure it will be a game worth watching.