I’m a massive football fan (Manchester United since you ask) but I’m constantly embarrassed about my lack of knowledge when it comes to the beautiful game in Thailand. I know virtually nothing about it. So I’m going to have a chat with Dale Farrington, who runs an independent English language Chonburi Football Club website, and get myself an education. He’s a man who knows things.
Hiya Dale. Welcome to the ajarn hot seat. I’m looking forward to this chat immensely because I’m going to come out of it a much wiser man I hope.
First, let me take you back to the mid-90s, when I was working at a private language school. I remember teaching a bunch of Thai guys in their early 20’s – all keen football fans. When I started asking questions about the Thai premier league, they all howled with laughter. And I clearly remember one guy – a fanatical Liverpool supporter – saying “who cares about the Thai premier league?”
And fair enough, it did seem to have a somewhat negative image combined with a complete lack of interest. However; twenty years later – and I appreciate that’s a decent length of time – Thai football seems to be on the up and up. It’s far more popular than it was back then. What do you attribute that rise in popularity to?
There’s no doubt in my mind that it can be traced back to Chonburi’s Thai Premier League (TPL) title win in 2007. We were the first provincial club to win the title and this inspired other provincial sides to take the domestic game a little more seriously.
Prior to this, the league was very much a Bangkok-based affair and was full of teams allied to companies or branches of the armed forces. In my opinion, it’s much easier to form an attachment with your local town side than get excited about the fortunes of the likes of Krung Thai Bank FC.
Let me get a bit of background from you then. How many divisions are there in the Thai football league? How many teams in the premier league?
There are three divisions in the Thai football league; The TPL, Division One and Division Two. However, Division Two is split into five regional leagues. There are currently twenty teams in the TPL but this will be reverting back to eighteen for next season – long story!
Which of the premier league teams do you support and how did your love affair with that club start?
I support Chonburi FC and I attended my first match in 2002, after seeing a fixture list in the back of one of the Thai football magazines.
I’d supported the national team since arriving here in 1997 but was desperate to find a local team to follow. It wasn’t easy getting information in those days so I had to call one of the players to get updates on the fixture list and kick off times, etc.
Thanks to his help, I went occasionally in that year and the following year. I was still playing football most weekends myself in those days – but started going to watch Chonburi FC regularly in 2004, after I “retired”.
Age catches up with us all eventually Dale. Do you follow Chonburi FC both home and away?
Yes. I’ve only missed three home matches since 2004 and a handful of away games – usually the midweek trips to places like Sisaket and Songkhla, when I have work the next morning!
Tell us about your home match-day ritual. I bet it’s not a pre-match ‘chips and curry sauce’ eaten off a polystyrene tray with a wooden fork, and a rolled -up programme in your back pocket?
Funnily enough, you can buy chicken and chips served in a polystyrene tray at Chonburi, though sadly, no curry sauce. And we do have a programme.
My matchday ritual usually consists of me driving up from my home in Sri Racha and arriving at the ground a couple of hours before kick off. I then meet up with a group of mates before the game and we have a few beers, whilst putting the world to rights.
After the match, a few more beers are consumed, and a post match post mortem is carried out. For away fixtures, the routine is pretty similar, it just takes us longer to get there!
Who are the biggest supported club in Thailand (presumably a premier league team) and what would be their average attendance for a home game?
Buriram United are currently the best supported team in the TPL but Muang Thong Utd, Suphanburi and Chiang Rai Utd are also capable of attracting five figure crowds.
Special mention must go to Nakhon Ratchasima in Division One, who regularly record the biggest attendance in the country. They’re averaging about 15,000 this season. Buriram United’s average gate is 18,625.
I can't believe it. If you had pushed me for an answer, I would have thought some teams maybe get 5,000 - 10,000 spectators. But 18,000. Wow! Half the teams in England's Coca-Cola Championship would be happy with that.
What fixture would you class as ‘the fiercest of local derbies’ and you would be perhaps well-advised to hide your club colours whilst walking to the stadium?
None of the rivalries are particularly “fierce”, although some matches do have a bit of an edge to them.
Our home games with Buriram Utd can get quite tasty and Singhtarua v Muang Thong Utd is a fixture with a bit of history.
I don’t wear club colours, so I’ve never had cause to hide them, but by and large, you’re OK going to any match dressed from head to toe in your team’s replica gear and leisurewear, without any fear of getting a kicking.
So you never get crowd trouble at Thai football matches?
It occasionally flares up and has been known to get nasty. However, compared to what I experienced on the terraces in England during the 70's and 80's, it’s all quite tame and will fizzle out quite quickly.
It helps that the fans tend to be self-policing, as the real police and official club stewards are usually nowhere to be seen if there is any trouble.
When I glance at the odd Thai league game on the television, I see quite a number of African players playing. What percentage of players in the Thai premier league are foreign?
Clubs are limited to the number of foreign players they can have in their squad, and on the pitch during the match. Most, if not all of them, use up their full quota so, using a simple mathematic formula, I would say there are 140 foreigners currently plying their trade in the TPL – give or take.
Who are the superstars of the Thai premier league at the moment and I’ll let you choose one Thai and one foreigner?
There are now quite a few players playing in the TPL who have appeared in the top English leagues – Jay Simpson, Jay Bothroyd and Anton Ferdinand among them. However, the first two haven’t really set the world alight and Ferdinand is yet to make his debut. But I wouldn’t really class them as “superstars” anyway.
Usually, Buriram Utd and Muang Thong Utd lead the field in signing quality foreign players so you can take your pick from any of the names off their squad lists – Bothroyd and Simpson aside.
As for Thai players, I’m going to be extremely biased and say our very own Therdsak Chaiman. He is a legendary Thai international, with experience of playing overseas, and even though he’s now in his forties, he’s still as fit as a fiddle and has the ability to run a game.
I was lucky enough to attend last Sunday’s match (v ToT) with someone who coaches at an English Championship club and he said that “Na Terd” could have played in the EPL during his younger days – and that was based on a thirty-minute match saving cameo appearance! Those of us who watch him regularly knew this already.
Liverpool legend Robbie Fowler had a season or two with a premier club recently didn’t he? (see, I’m not utterly clueless) but it was very much at the ‘fag end’ of his career. Does that still tend to be the kind of big name foreign player the Thai league attracts?
Yes. He was a player and then player manager at Muang Thong Utd.
The TPL does seem to be attracting – and I hesitate to use this expression – “bigger names” but as with Simpson, Bothroyd and Rohan Rickets - who had a short spell at PTT Rayong – none of them have made much of an impact.
Others like Emile Heskey and amazingly, Italy's Del Piero have been linked with a move to Thailand recently but I take stories like this with a pinch of salt.
Del Peiro gets me excited. Emile Heskey certainly doesn't. He didn't excite me even at the height of his playing career.
An obvious question - and it probably won’t happen in our lifetimes - but seriously, could Thailand ever get to the football world cup finals?
No. They’ve no chance with this current lot in charge.
I was lucky enough to be following the Thailand national team when Peter Withe got them through to the qualifying stages for the first and only time. It’s hard to see that ever happening again, unless there are drastic changes.
I live in Samut Prakan and I know we have a local football team (the mighty Samut Prakan FC) because every time I go into my local Tesco Lotus, there is a Samut Prakan FC souvenir franchise and a dreadfully bored shop assistant trying to shift replica shirts, scarves and mugs.
Now you’re going to tell me they’re in the bottom division and watched by the proverbial ‘one man and his dog’ I suppose?
Not far off. They are in the Central and East section of Division Two. You should get yourself along, and take your dog. You’d double the crowd and have a good time.
The regulations regarding what you can and cannot do in stadiums lower down the pyramid are much more relaxed and this is quite refreshing.
It also reminds me of what things used to be like when I first started going to games. I always look forward to these kind of trips when Chonburi are drawn away in one of the cups.
Any good Thai football websites or regular columns I should be reading if I really want to become serious about adopting and following a Thai team?
Er…well…there’s mine: www.clubwebsite.co.uk/chonburifc .
I try to update it every day and keep it entertaining and informative. I usually get positive feedback so I must be doing something right! Otherwise, Thai Fussball is a good site and they post in both English and German. Even though Sven – the webmaster – lives in Munich, he’s passionate about Thai football and usually has articles of the type that nobody else is doing.
The once excellent Thai League Football website seems to have tailed off to virtually nothing recently but their Twitter feed is a great source of information.
I’d love to accompany you to a match some day Dale but I have been known to get carried away at times. Even if I knew how to shout “get some bloody glasses linesman” in perfect Thai, is it perhaps something I should keep to myself?
You’d be very welcome, as long as you got your round in. And there’d be no need to keep your mouth shut. There are lots of Thai fans who use language that would make a docker blush!
Thanks a lot for that Dale. I can now join in a conversation when talk turns to all things Thai football. And it's certainly given me the enthusiasm to get along to a game.