by Absolute Thai Football

As we celebrate fifty years of the English Premier League, the days of fans been herded like cattle into ramshackle stadiums to be treated like criminals is a mercifully distant memory. More recently, I remember when we had a Premier League in Thailand. It started only four years after its English namesake, but the early days were pretty amateurish affairs. Then, following expansion in 2007, came a huge surge in interest. Sponsors threw money at it, fans came in droves and the AFC gave its champions direct entry into the Asian Champions League. So why did it fold?

The problems started in the 2011 season. As wage bills spiralled out of control, local governments started questioning the huge funding directed to football clubs instead of the community. Phuket FC were the first club under the microscope, but other local treasurers got spooked, particularly as the highest outgoings were for foreign players. At first this went unnoticed, tending to be in regional, lower league teams. But clubs began forfeiting promotion places and fans lost faith in the system.

Attempting improve home grown players by dropping to five squad foreigners and three in a team in 2013, only one foreigner was allowed in 2015. Former famous players on long and lucrative contracts sold shirts, not dummies. Fans and sponsors dwindled whilst the “marquee” players bled clubs to death. With a top player commanding more than the rest of the squad, Thai players became resentful of aging, fading players and sponsors only wanted a profile with the glamour clubs. Siam Cement Group decided, to abandon Samut Songkhkran for the Muang Thong United. Of course Samut folded,setting off a chain of events that, ultimately, lead to the slow and painful death of professional Thai football.

Franchising teams went down very badly with the AFC. Moving around the country, and through the leagues, the TTM and PEA brands were ruled as shortcutting natural club development and, particularly as one of the brands was for tobacco, the AFC outlawed the selling of top flight places to the highest bidder. Ultimately, in 2014, they revoked the entry of Thai teams into AFC competitions, perpetuating a vicious cycle of lower revenue and profile, but spiraling wages.

Television coverage was a double edged sword for the TPL. Initially it developed the league’s profile. Players became household names and neighbouring countries like Singapore showed Thai matches on their screens, but it highlighted the rampant simulation, time wasting and basic refereeing errors that remained unchecked in the teenage years of the century. The touch of a button compared it to its English namesake. The comparison was not kind.

Thai fans remain football crazy, but it’s EPL matches packing out bars and roadside stalls. The meaningless marketing exercises of English clubs playing here is greeted like water in the desert, with capacity crowds watching players pretend to care. Sometimes we might see a TPL shirt, but they are mostly second generation hand me downs. Imagine how it could have been…