Taking a League’s Pulse
by Absolute Thai Football
Scotland only store green or blue championship ribbons. The English Premier League has four options, but Blackburn ‘s light blue from 1995 is only recycling material for the team from Middle Eastlands. It’s not this sea of blue and red champions but the team in fourth place that reveals a league’s health.
Last season, most European fourth placed teams won around 60% of their games, but our AFC rivals tell a different story. In China Jiangsu Shuntian won 46% and finished 21 points behind the champions, Indonesia’s Semen won 43%,12 points behind, whilst Japan’s Vegalta Sendai won a mere 41%, 16 behind champions Kashiwa Reysol.
In the TPL Bangkok Glass won 44%, 31 points behind Buriram. The title was won by 15 points to explain this massive margin, but winning 4 out of 10 games for a “Champions League” spot is concerning. Their 1.6 points per game puts them sixth in England and Japan. Osotsopa, in sixth are not dancing in the streets and seventh placed BEC Terro plan a whole club overhaul. A large margin of error for a “successful season” creates complacency; defeats hurt less and bad habits are perpetuated.
The J League’s top four clubs qualify for the Champions League, keeping teams in the top half hungry all season with less “dead” games. Last season the title was won by one point and fourth sport secured on goal difference. It currently puts the TPL in the shade, but that was not always so. Before 1992 the Japan Soccer League (JSL), was amateur, fans were scarce, stadiums were poor and the national team was struggling. A professional league was created to address these issues.
But after a bright start, attendances declined rapidly,on average from 19,000 in 1994 to 10,000 in 1996. Rapid expansion didn’t help; eight clubs were added in four years from 1994 to 1998. High salaries plus low crowds equalled big debts and spooked sponsors. The situation seemed terminal.
To address this decline, the league boldly restructured in 1999 with its Hundred Year Vision, aimed at creating 100 clubs by 2092 (their hundredth season) and encouraging clubs to cultivate local sponsorship, build good relationships with their local areas and get support from local government, companies, and fans rather than national sponsors.
Maybe less wins for top teams is healthy, showing a genuinely competitive environment . The Japanese champions lost 8 games last season and, half way through this season’s Bundesliga, the league leaders have already lost four games. More likely, in less mature leagues teams from fifth to last don’t have the resources to put sustain a meaningful challenge. That the only TPL end of season drama this year concerns relegation , not the top, indicates a race from the bottom rather than to the top.
The EPL is an intimidating case study, but the eleven year J League project is a fascinating insight into what a nation less passionate about football than Thailand can achieve. Imagine if Thailand had a plan…