For the briefest of spells, Thai Premier League action did finally descend on Chiang Mai. Only it was the orange and black of near neighbours Chiang Rai United that was flying from the TPL mast at the 700 Year Stadium, not the royal blue and white of Chiang Mai FC.
The evolution of professional football in Thailand has been a slow one and in Chiang Mai, excessively so. While teams such as Buriram PEA and Muang Thong United walk tall at the top of the Thai Premier League (TPL) in custom-built stadia packed with fervent supporters, Chiang Mai FC are scuttling around on all fours locked in a fight to avoid the ignominy of finishing at the foot of Division 1 – the nation’s second-tier league competition.
Yet the recent fortunes of Chiang Rai United, challenging in the top-half of the 18-team TPL in this their maiden season in the Kingdom’s top flight, shows footballing success and the north need not be strange bedfellows.
A falling out with Mae Fah Luang University, where Chiang Rai United normally play their home games, resulted in a 150k decampment south to Chiang Mai for a run of five games that ended without defeat for the Fighting Beetles (a 3-4 penalty loss after 120 minutes to Chainat in the Thai FA Cup aside).
Despite this fortunate streak, players, coaches and fans were not happy at making the long journeys south to honour ‘home’ commitments as a club, still relatively in their infancy, seeks to establish a fan base that will allow them to be major players in a burgeoning league, beginning to find its feet after decades of poor attendances, amateurism and, as ever, cronyism.
“The most important thing at any club is the fans,” says Chiang Rai United striker and recent Thai national team call-up Wasan Nathasan. “If they can’t come to the game because it is too far then there are less fans, which means less pressure on the opposition team.”
This is a sage judgment of a league where money may well talk, but fan-power holds a sway far more powerful than witnessed in many of Europe’s top leagues. While English Premier League side Chelsea, for example just breaks into the continent’s top 30 of average attendances, they can yet claim to rival teams like Barcelona, Manchester United and Real Madrid through the financial largesse of billionaire owner Roman Abramovich.
Thailand’s Premier League may not have that level of investment but it is all the better for it in a competitive sense as teams seek to gain an advantage through the level of fervency of their home support.
But in Chiang Rai’s case it is their support who have landed them in hot water. The rather conservative powers-that-be at Mae Fah Luang University balked at the beer drinking culture which accompanies most football matches – worldwide, it must be pointed out – and were decidedly unimpressed by the drunken nature of the gatherings in addition to the vast amounts of garbage and conspicuous stench of urine left behind when fans departed their campus following home ties.
As a professional footballer of some 12 years, Wasan is keenly aware of the role alcohol plays in an average fans’ match day routine and while not seeking to dampen their fun, he does, in the contemporary manner of large liquor brands, urge fans to ‘drink responsibly’.
“Everybody in the team doesn’t like to play in Chiang Mai. The players, the coaches, the fans. We all have to sit in a car for a long time,” he said.
“But for football fans drinking is part of going to the game, I don’t want to take that away.
“But maybe, they should try to control themselves.
“They can drink before the game, come to the stadium, have a good time, sing, dance and then after the game they can go crazy.”
To the relief of all associated with the club, Chiang Rai United have returned to their provincial home as a truce was brokered with their university hosts. The caveat being that any further fan behaviour deemed unacceptable by Mae Fae Luang will result in the Fighting Beetles looking for temporary shelter once more.
A new stadium is “coming soon” according to Wasan with official estimates being no more optimistic than sometime next year. Located next to Chiang Rai international airport Wasan hopes the club’s new home will have at least a 7,000 capacity. Enough to ensure capacity crowds for the majority of games as long as the club remains on an upward curve.
Progress is not just the watchword of Chiang Rai United however, it is one shared by both player and the league as a whole.
Wasan’s career had stalled somewhat after being a 17-year-old hot property debuting for the Thai Under-18 national side. With many clubs vying for his signatures the Mae Sai-born striker opted to sign for a Bangkok Bank side which was, at the time, a major player in a “semi-professional” era, according to Wasan.
“12 years ago there wasn’t really the fan-base to support a professional league,” he explains.
But following stints at then Bangkok-based Osotsopa and a short spell at Indonesian side PS Mojorkerto, a return to Chiang Rai resulted in an upturn of form good enough to earn a call from the Thai national squad.
“I feel like I am good enough to play [for the Thai national team], not just the squad but for the first eleven. But, you know, I play for [what is regarded] a small club so maybe I won’t always be selected,” said the as yet uncapped Wasan, who maintains his game is benefitting from working with Chiang Rai’s Brazilian coach, Alessandro ‘Teco’ Rodrigues.
“I like the coach. I like him better than our last coach.
“Sometimes, under the last coach, training could get a little lazy but now we fight hard.”
“The coach always speaks English and there are translators to translate everything he says, but really, there are no problems. There is a football language. Passing, pressing, goal. These are words in the language of football so there is no problem.
“I think having foreigners in the Thai Premier League makes it more professional, especially having foreign coaches.
“Previously, if a player knew he wasn’t going to be playing in the next game then he would go off on his own, his level of training would drop. It wasn’t good. Now, we are more of a group, a team.
“Now we’re more professional in the TPL, I feel that in three to four years time it could become as strong as the K-League (South Korea) or the J-League (Japan – Asia’s two dominant leagues). The support is there.”
Wasan’s optimism is one not always shared by Thai football in general despite the large strides made by the TPL in recent years.
The nation has received a raft of negative publicity in recent months due to allegations lodged against the Football Association of Thailand (FAT) president, Worawi Makudi. The most recent of these claimed that the country’s national football training centre was built with money from Fifa’s Goal programme on a plot of land owned by Worawi, and that he owns other plots of land around the centre.
Worawi has been dogged by controversy since coming to office in 2007 and presiding over a fairly dismal spell in the history of the Thai national side, the nadir being failure to qualify from the group stages of the 2010 Asean Football Championships.
The immensely wealthy Worawi owns nearly 50 per cent of the Thai Premier Co., Ltd., the private company to which the FAT signed over all rights relating to their country’s flagship league.
The league is effectively run by Worawi and the influential Siam Sports Syndicate, a company owned by Worawi’s close associate, business tycoon Ravi Lohthong.
The fact that Lohthong is also the owner of TPL champions of the past two seasons, Muang Thong United, appears not to be a conflict of interest serious enough to provoke anyone but the fans’ suspicions.
But for Chiang Mai FC there is the more immediate worry that Chiang Rai United’s series of successful raids on the city’s 700 Year Stadium could result in a proportion of the emerging club’s fledgling fans flying the nest in order to take roost with the Premier League club.
“Have we won over some new fans in Chiang Mai? For sure, I know it. I have met people who say they are happy to follow Chiang Rai,” says Wasan.
Another hurdle then, but having come so far in a relatively short space of time, professional football in Thailand’s north can surely come to support at least two premier outfits, given time.