Thursday, October 29, 2009
Duplicate leagues in Thailand and a real Asian final
This column on Asian football goes to a corner of the continent it has never visited before - to exotic Thailand and its re-vitalised football scene, before heading over a short stretch of sea to Japan, where the final of the Asian Champions League will be played on November 7.
Unfortunately, though, for Japanese fans there will be no home team represented in Tokyo after Nagoya Grampus received a comprehensive 8-3 aggregate thumping at the hands of impressive Saudi Arabian side Al Ittihad. The result means there will be a non-Japanese champion in the competition for the first time since 2006, which is something of a poignant disappointment in the year of the Tokyo showpiece.
Still, after reaching the semi-finals in their first crack at the competition, Grampus can be somewhat content with their continental performance. That much cannot be said for any Thai team in the competition. The reason for this is probably that there was no Thai team in the Asian Champions League this year. With chaotic conditions ensuing in the South-East Asian country's football scene, the AFC decided not to grant Thailand any starting berths for this year's revamped continental showpiece.
So what exactly prompted this football exclusionism? Well, imagine following two competing national leagues in your country at one time. With all those clashing fixtures, scores and tables you would go absolutely crazy. That horror scenario prompted Thai football fans to choose the lesser of two evils; to stay away from domestic football and watch the English Premier League instead.
My Thai football sources tell me that English football is wildly popular in the country, perhaps one reason why the newly unified Thai football league has been named the Thai Premier League.
But let's take things one league at a time. The schism in Thai football led to two duelling leagues in 2006-07; one featuring clubs attached to government entities, such as the creatively named Provincial Electricity Authority or Tobacco Monopoly (imagine the ecstasy of telling your friends that you just signed for one of those teams), and the other made up of provincial sides with bigger fan bases but less professional structures.
When Thai clubs were excluded from the Asian Champions League late last year, the Football Association of Thailand quickly sprung into action to merge its two leagues into the newly named version. Some, like Pavin Bhirombhakdi, the chairman of league side Bangkok Glass FC, even called the AFC decision a catalyst for positive change in the country.
"The key to the success of this year's Premier League is the professional structure and regulations that the AFC insisted upon," Pavin said. "Because of this, the Thai media has taken greater interest in the league. It is receiving more publicity and many other club leaders are investing in their teams to help them improve."
This investment and renewed fan interest has led some football observers in the country to dream of repeated continental successes such as that of Thai Farmer's Bank, who were among the leading clubs in Asia in the early 1990s. Among the new arrivals in the Thai Premier League, Pattaya United are one of the sides that enjoy massive regional popularity as well as an interesting fusion of local and international club identity. Only clubs which followed the commercial and professional guideline set out by the AFC were admitted into the new look Thai Premier League.
There may still be a relatively long way to go for Thai football, with a recent pitch invasion by Chonburi fans showing that there is still room for improvement on the organisational front, but the country is making steady progress. Newly crowned Thai Premier League champions Muang Thong United have been granted a play-off berth to make next year's Asian Champions League, provided they can brush aside the likes of Indian league champions Churchill Brothers SC.
But those are still songs of the future, because this coming week the continental showpiece final is taking place, and all eyes will be firmly focused on Tokyo. Al Ittihad surely look like the favourites going into the final against the Pohang Steelers, but the Koreans are not to be underestimated after they saw off Qatari surprise packages Umm Salal with a 4-1 aggregate win in the other semi-final.
It promises to be an inspiring final, pitting two teams from the geographical extremes of the Asian continent against each other. Expect a hard-fought clash of footballing styles in this final, which is already having welcome repercussions across Asia. Club sides from the entire continent, like the buoyant Muang Thong United, are already plotting their own run at Asian glory.