Dead End: The Dark Side of the Football Dream

by Absolute Thai Football

Last month’s suicide of nineteen year old Cameroonian footballer Eric Dzetzam from Sawan FC whilst trialling at fellow regional league team Kamphaeng Phet highlighted the vulnerability of young men as economic migrants. The player had told other foreign staff that he only had forty Baht to his name and was having problems with his last landlord. He felt he had nowhere left to turn.
The glamour of football success suggests their plight is less traumatic than a sweatshop slave or trafficked sex worker, but players are just as powerless. Like an imported “hostess” forced into a massage parlour, lying to proud families back home is as painful as the truth that you play to a handful of people for a pittance in a regional league. The amount of money sent back to support the family masks the fact that this is all there is, not a percentage for the folks back home. Another phase of vulnerability sees choices continue to narrow.

Players coming to Thailand, particularly from Africa, often give everything to their families before they arrive. Any money they have, mobile phones, even clothes are often left behind making them open to poor treatment, but unable to buy a flight back home. Three years ago I gave an old pair of boots to Yaya, now playing for KAA Ghent, because he had nothing to wear. They were far too big for him, but he had no choice. Now he has boot deals and a good living in the Belgium top league, but the line for him then was very fine indeed.
Players arriving on spec are the most vulnerable, but contracted players from Africa receive the worst treatment in poorly run clubs. One Thai team had them sleeping on a mat in a rifle range and, when a player’s wife and child joined him, was told they would also stay there. He was lucky that his ability allowed him to leave and join another club, but he is a rare breed.
Last week the Thai FA openly admitted there are no sanctions for clubs who don’t pay their players. Even after due diligence, a contract and the correct visa, there is no pay guarantee and no right of recourse. Returning home with the shameful sting of failure makes him feel compelled to agree if they tell him to join a lower league club on the other side of the country.
So what can be done? Having the same foreigner ratios as the rest of the AFC should make it easier to compile a database of foreign nationals in all the leagues. Overseen by the players’ home embassy, a minimum standard of treatment needs to be drawn up in line with the J and K Leagues. As the status of Thai football continues to rise within the AFC, players should not be able to arrive on a wing and a prayer. For a UK visa players must have played at least 75% of his home country’s senior competitive international matches (where he was available for selection) in the previous two years for a top 70 FIFA ranked country or he won’t even get into the country.

Thailand needs to apply the same foreigner rule to academy teams as the senior set up so that the filtering process of talent is more based in a player’s country. If a club brings someone over who has no chance of a career in the game, they have used up a valuable space. Once an academy player has been selected and brought over, he should be given a two year contract to settle, learn Thai and show his abilities rather than being sent home in short order if the potential for stardom is not spotted immediately. The English FA foreign player rule ensures that a “home grown” player may be foreign, but they will have received plenty of support and an education that gives them other options in the future:

“irrespective of nationality or age, {they} have been affiliated to the FA or Welsh FA for a period of three seasons or 36 months prior to {their} 21st birthday”

In England, a Tier 5 (from teams that must play in the FA Vase rather than the FA Cup) player doesn’t need to show English skills, but they can only move up to Tier 2 once they have passed an English language test. If, after 12 months, he can’t meet the English requirement, he must return home and reapply for Tier 5. So there is a clear process rewarding players for getting the skills needed to assimilate more easily into the country.

We are all economic migrants, moving to where the work is, protected by labour law and embassies, able to get visas that protect our interests and supported by employers. Unfortunately, the safety net of protection and legislation is enjoyed by an articulate minority whilst the voiceless majority have only the choice between a rock and a hard place. Many of us have the added support of a union. The Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) is a trade union with 4,000 members that has a long history of staunchly supporting the rights of players. As well as helping injured and former players gain training and employment, they collectively bargain agreements to ensure the best deals for the often forgotten players in lower leagues who undertake potentially short careers earning less than the average wage.

The glamour of football is a heady brew. In Thailand the top players are famous and command salaries even higher than leagues like Australia and Singapore. But below this glamorous, glossy surface are players hungry for a chance. The African regional league player sleeping outside the team hotel when Muang Thong travelled to Buriram last season was, as a father, the saddest sight to see. There has to be a better way to help the talented foreigners succeed, but also stop the dreamer sleepwalking into a situation that becomes a nightmare.