The rapid rise of the Thai Premier League

In 1996, few people knew much about the Thai Premier League (TPL) and even fewer cared about it. From Bangkok to Chiang Mai, it was all about English giants Manchester United and Liverpool, and, to a lesser extent, Arsenal. Following the Thai league just struck most as a waste of time – what was the point in bothering with that when there was plenty of live coverage of the English Premiership?

Fast forward to July 2015 and the Isan (north eastern) derby between newly promoted Nakhon Ratchasima and Buriram United, the defending champions, is taking place. The TPL is now a victim of its own success as a reported 34,689 spectators squeeze into a ground designed to hold at least 10,000 less. Fortunately, there are no injuries despite the negligence and the game ends in a 1-1 draw.

Buriram United are missing their star player, 28-year-old striker Diogo Luis Santo. The Brazilian was once watched by many of Europe’s top teams and was bought for €9 million by Olympiacos in 2008. Diogo had lost his way before arriving in Thailand via several loan spells and short deals back in Brazil. But the striker has found his feet again in the TPL, netting almost a goal per game.

Nakhon Ratchasima’s Dominic Adiyiah has a similar background to Diogo. Once on the books of AC Milan, the Ghanaian played in the 2010 World Cup and it was his header that Uruguay’s Luis Suarez infamously handled on the line, denying the Black Stars a place in the semi-final. Adiyiah’s spell in Thailand has yet to take off in the same way as Diogo and he was replaced by English striker Lee Tuck.

While Diogo and Adiyiah may have been ailing stars in need of a second chance, the TPL has seen some more illustrious names in the past few years. Former Liverpool and England striker Robbie Fowler had a brief and undistinguished spell at Muang Thong United in 2011. Fowler was even pressed into service as player-manager for a short period before being replaced.

Former Cardiff City and QPR striker Jay Bothroyd, who won an England cap in 2010, had a similarly indifferent spell at the same club, though has since found the J-League more to his liking. Sven-Goran Eriksson and Avram Grant have both had very short stays as technical director of BEC Tero Sasana; the latter taking on a full coaching role in time to lead the side to a League Cup victory last year. Another familiar name to fans of a certain vintage will be former England and Spurs defender Gary Stevens, who succeeded Leicester City legend Matt Elliott as head coach at Army United in 2014.

There have also been lesser known names with significant experience of British football. Australian Danny Invincibile – who played for eight years in the Scottish Premier League with Kilmarnock – spent two years with Army United in 2012 and 2013. Malian international Khalifa Cisse, who had five years in England with Reading and then Bristol City, has been a regular starter with Bangkok United for the past two years.

The league has certainly come a long way in a short time.

The TPL was launched in 1996, featuring only Bangkok-based teams with uninspiring names, affiliated to companies or the police or armed forces. The top four in the first season were as follows –

  1. Thai Farmers Bank
  2. TOT (Thailand’s national telecommunications company)
  3. Bangkok Bank
  4. Stock Exchange of Thailand

Other clubs included Royal Thai Navy and Tobacco Monopoly. It is hard to think of team names that could be less engaging to all but the most loyal company men. Where was the sense of local pride or identity in a league that sounded like a listing on the stock exchange?

The league trundled on like this for a number of years, with low crowds and low interest. The arrival of BEC Tero Sasana, however, sparked a change. Emerging from a high school former players’ team, BEC-Tero Entertainment Company took ownership of the club and the team won their first championship in 2000 under Jason Withe, son of Aston Villa legend Peter. Withe Senior was Thailand’s national coach at the time and enjoyed much success there. Tero retained their title the following season and, as a result, gained entry to the inaugural Asian Champions League in 2002-03.

Tero were not among the favourites in a competition featuring teams from stronger and more established leagues in East Asia and the Middle East. However, the round-robin games all took place in Bangkok, giving the Thai side a huge advantage. Inspired by the brilliant playmaker Therdsak Chaiman, BEC Tero came top of a group containing South Korean, Chinese and Japanese opposition.

The Thais then went all the way to the final where they were beaten 2-1 on aggregate by Al Ain from the United Arab Emirates. It is fair to say that the format of the tournament did not encourage all teams to take it too seriously. Nevertheless, BEC Tero’s success raised the profile of the Thai game in its home country and demonstrated that Thai teams could be competitive on the continent.

Tero have not won the league since. However, their thrilling run to the final of the AFC Champions League was one of the catalysts for the future changes to the TPL.

There was still time for Krung Thai Bank and Tobacco Monopoly to claim a title each before the ‘road show’ initiative in 2006. Games were held across the country to gauge popularity in the provinces. One match in this year featured a 15-minute cameo from former Sunderland and Republic Ireland striker Niall Quinn in the colours of BEC Tero. Bangkok University won the title that year, but the road show was a success and, as a result, the TPL merged with the provincial league and the modern nationwide TPL was launched in 2007.

Somewhat fittingly, it was a team from outside Bangkok that claimed the first title, as Chonburi, located about 90 kilometres south east of the capital, won by nine points from Krung Thai Bank, with BEC Tero in third. Apart from the champions, the league was still dominated by Bangkok-based sides, with PEA (Provincial Electricity Authority) based in Chonburi at the time, the next highest provincial finisher in 8th place.

But PEA made a rapid improvement and, after moving to Ayutthaya, pipped Chonburi to the title the following year. Since then, the TPL has turned into a duopoly between Muang Thong United, a side based just outside Bangkok and who won the title in their first year in the top tier in 2009, and Buriram United (the club formerly known as PEA and moved up country).

While the league has perhaps become more predictable, its popularity continues to rise mainly due to the influence of sides from outside Bangkok. Buriram and Nakhon Ratchasima average home crowds of approximately 20,000, while Suphanburi regularly get above 10,000. This may seem unimpressive in comparison to some of the world’s major leagues, but it is a huge achievement when you consider that crowds would have been in the hundreds just ten years previously. The TPL is now a cosmopolitan league with enough cash to ensure it can attract some headline hitting names as well as solid European and South American professionals in their mid-late twenties.

The bigger names have tended to prove less successful but Nakhon Ratchasima’s Bjorn Lindemann, now at his third TPL club, arrived in Bangkok three years ago after a modest career in the lower divisions of the Bundesliga. The 31-year-old German has now played more than 100 TPL games and has made a name for himself as one of the best goal scoring midfielders in the country. Muang Thong United’s Mario Gjurovski has a similar story.

The 29-year-old Macedonian international playmaker has also passed the century of appearances in the TPL after three years in Thailand and is another successful import. Lee Tuck’s rise demonstrates how persistence can take you far. The Englishman started his career in non-league football before taking the trip to Thailand in 2010 at the age of 22. He has worked his way up from the lower divisions to playing for the TPL’s 2nd best supported club.

As clubs and players get richer, stadiums improve and professionalism is on the rise, continued progress may be hampered by a lack of good governance. The farce that allowed Nakhon Ratchasima to oversell tickets against Buriram is symptomatic of a league in which standardised rules are hard to come by, conflicts of interest are rampant and refereeing can be abysmal.

TPL games are often cancelled at the last minute due to scheduling clashes with other events that could have been foreseen months in advance. The Football Association of Thailand has prioritised progress for the national team at the expense of the TPL, resulting in a ridiculous stop-start season in 2015. Between May 10th and June 20th, the TPL season came to a halt to allow the Under-23 side to participate in the South East Asian games and for two World Cup qualifiers. The Thais won the SEA title and the two qualifiers but at the expense of the TPL clubs.

It is also feared that the strict limit on the number of overseas players may hamper the development of the game. Teams can have just five foreign players in their squads and just three from outside Asia on the pitch at the same time. While protecting the opportunities of local players is understandable, this ruling is a little extreme. Some clubs have started to look for more dual nationality players to get around this rule, with Bangkok United’s Mika Chunuonsee being a good example. Chunuonsee was brought up in Wales and played for the Welsh Under-17 side alongside Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey. Earlier this year, the defender earned his first call-up to the Thai national side.

Trigger happy chairmen can also be a problem as a short run of poor results often results in knee-jerk sackings. Gary Stevens, for example, was sacked twice in the space of three months this season by two different clubs. This inevitably prevents sustained development at clubs as short-term thinking wins out over long-term planning.

While the TPL can perhaps ride such problems out in a period of progress, such governance may eventually alienate fans. The problems at the top of the game can best be summed up by Lee Tuck’s recent tragicomic post on Instagram.

He explained how he had been told that Nakhon Ratchasima’s home match with Suphanburi had been postponed due to a waterlogged pitch. He stopped off for pizza on his way home and was then called to be told that the game would actually go ahead. His resulting dash back to the stadium must have done him good as he scored the only goal of the game after just four minutes. However, the match proved to be a farce as the players splashed about in puddles for 90 minutes.

Despite the ongoing issues, overall, the story of the TPL’s rise over the last 15 years – and particularly in the last six – has been a heart-warming one for football fans. When you travel to provincial towns on match days, you no longer see many people out and about in Man Utd and Liverpool shirts. It seems that everyone is out to see their home town heroes and wearing the shirts with pride.

Outside stadiums before games, fans mix happily over beers and snack food and inside the stadium there is colour and non-stop drumming and chanting. For the uninitiated, the Thai football experience is almost universally positive. If governance can improve, the TPL has the potential to be one of the top leagues in Asia.

The Author

Paul Murphy

Paul Murphy is an independent football writer based in Bangkok. He was formerly a freelance sports sub-editor with UK newspapers, including the Sunday Express and Metro. He now writes regularly for ESPN's South East Asia blog about Thai football and writes a monthly column for Hat-Trick magazine in Thailand.

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