NESTLED IN NORTH EAST THAILAND, 400km from the gleaming skyscrapers and tourist traps of Bangkok, at first sight Buriram seems an unlikely place for a football revolution to be taking place.
The north east of Thailand is considered the poorest part of the country, with many internal migrants heading to the capital in search of job opportunities. Buriram has a large Khmer influence, bordering Cambodia to the south. The province’s biggest tourist attraction is Phanom Rung Historical Park, a complex of Khmer temples set on the edge of an extinct volcano.
But now there is a new attraction that brings in thousands of football fans every year. Buriram doesn’t just have the most successful football team in Thailand. It also has a 4-star Buriram United-themed hotel next to the stadium and an international Grade A motorsport track.
When Thailand’s Premier League (TPL) began to include provincial teams in 2007, the club didn’t even exist. In US sports style, Buriram effectively took over a ‘franchise’ club when PEA FC (Provincial Electricity Authority) moved to the north east from Ayutthaya in 2010.
Backed by the financial clout of local politician Newin Chidchob, a brand new stadium was built just outside the city centre. On the pitch, the club soon made a big impact, winning the domestic treble in 2011, when still known as Buriram PEA.
Incredibly, after a rebranding as Buriram United in 2012, the upstarts caused some upsets in the AFC Champions League. The Thunder Castle defeated Japanese champions Kashiwa Reysol and Chinese champions Guangzhou Evergrande in the group stage. The winning goal against Guangzhou was scored by Frank Acheampong, a Ghanaian winger who had previously been on trial at Manchester City and Celtic.
The Thai side lost the other four games and finished bottom of the group but these victories served notice that they would no pushovers. Acheampong’s potential was noted by Anderlecht in Belgium and they signed him on loan before making the deal permanent. He has since gone on to establish himself in the Belgian top flight.
Buriram failed to retain the TPL title that year but they were the best supported team in the league, with average crowds of approximately 15,000.
Having lost the title, the club soon hatched plans in place to win it back. Just as they had discovered a gem in Acheampong, Buriram’s scouting network scoured the world for talents that would take the team to the next level.
After the successful capture of central defender Osmar Ibáñez in the middle of 2012, Buriram looked to Spain again. In came Spaniards Javier Patiño, a 25-year-old striker from Córdoba in Spain’s second tier, and Carmelo González, a 29-year-old playmaker from Sporting Gijón, who had represented Spain 12 times at under-21 level.
Despite having to qualify through a playoff, Buriram would enjoy an even more successful Champions League campaign in 2013. The Thais progressed from the group stages and defeated Uzbekistan’s Bunyodkor in the last-16 before succumbing to Iranian side Esteghlal in the quarter-finals.
Former Real Madrid assistant manager Alejandro Menéndez replaced Englishman Scott Cooper as head coach late in the year and the Spanish signings inspired Buriram as they regained the title from increasingly bitter rivals Muang Thong United, before sealing a domestic treble with victories in the FA Cup and League Cup.
When Venezuelan international defender Andrés Túñez was signed from Spain’s Celta Vigo in the summer of 2014, the Spanish speaking influence was peaking and the end of the season would see some changes. Buriram would again be champions but failed to win a cup competition and fell at the group stage of the Champions League, winning just once.
Menendez left, while Patiño’s fine form had caught the eye of Henan Jianye in the Chinese Super League and he signed for them early in 2015. González was allegedly told he was ‘too old’ at 31 for the Champions League and was allowed to join TPL rivals Suphanburi.
Brazilian head coach Alexandre Gama arrived and immediately made his country’s influence felt. In a league in which clubs cannot have more than five overseas players in their squads, the departures of González and Patiño made space for Buriram’s most audacious signing yet – Brazilian striker Diogo Luís Santo.
Diogo was once hot property and several big European clubs were weighing up a move for him before Olympiakos took the then 21-year-old to Greece for €9 million in 2008. Unfortunately, the move did not really work out and the striker has ended up in Thailand via loan spells and short-term deals back in Brazil.
There had been similarly high hopes for former Arsenal starlet Jay Simpson when he arrived at the start of 2014 but the striker never settled and scored just one league goal before returning to England to play for Leyton Orient. But Diogo has grasped the opportunity in Thailand with both hands. Unlike failed marquee signings like Robbie Fowler, Jay Bothroyd and Roland Linz at Muang Thong United, Diogo has knuckled down and is top scorer in the league, with a goal almost every game.
To partner Diogo, fellow Brazilian Gilberto Macena arrived from Hangzhou Greentown in the Chinese Super League. Macena has also given value for money with an impressive all-round game in addition to a fine goal tally.
The form of both was particularly significant in this year’s AFC Champions League group stage. Between them, they scored seven goals in six games as Buriram finished level on 10 points with the more fancied Gamba Osaka from Japan and Seongnam FC from South Korea. Unfortunately for the Thais, they lost out on the head-to-head rule despite having a superior goal difference to their two rivals.
Despite the disappointment, it was further evidence that this team from Thailand could compete and thrive at a higher level. The club are now on course for another domestic treble, though a tight TPL run-in with Muang Thong lies ahead.
Although the club’s success has put Thailand and the province on the map, Buriram United’s success has also created some resentment.
Newin is not the most popular figure in Thailand and some question how his personal wealth has been ploughed into the club and lament the lack of financial transparency in the game. The fact that Buriram and Muang Thong have formed a duopoly at the top of Thai football in a short space of time is evidence of the financial mismatch between them and other clubs in the country.
Going to a game in Buriram offers a different experience from many other teams in the country. Unlike many other clubs who are forced to lease the provincial stadium from local governments, Buriram have a new purpose-built stadium that holds over 30,000. Outside the ground on match days, there is vast open space where families picnic and friends gather for pre-match beers. The atmosphere is convivial, relaxed and welcoming. In the true spirit of football, the club clearly acts as a focal point for the local community.
Inside the stadium, spectators can get a reasonable view from any angle, unlike at many other clubs where stadia cater more for athletics than football crowds. From my complimentary seat, courtesy of the club hotel, I recognise other hotel guests in the same section. There are couples, groups of elderly expats and sometimes four generations of the same family sitting together.
Before the match there is the unusual sight (for those not familiar with Thai football) of the club chairman and benefactor leading the team talk instead of the head coach. Newin stands in the centre of a circle of players and is very animated as he tries to demonstrate what victory means to him.
Once the action gets underway, the most striking feature is the choir in the enclosure singing and dancing their hearts out in careful choreography. Fans of rival teams have often complained about this choir, suggesting that they are not real fans but cheerleaders on the payroll of the club owners. You cannot help thinking that they have a point when you see this group, numbering in the thousands, going through the songbook in unison, with what appears a complete lack of spontaneity.
While the choir is one thing that Buriram United may not have got right, there is no doubt that they have done plenty of other things well. Buriram have facilities that would put many European clubs to shame. As well as the new stadium, they also have a purpose built training ground a few kilometres down the road.
In the Thai context, it is a club ahead of its time and rivals are disappearing into the distance as the Buriram juggernaut drives on. Only Muang Thong United have remained capable of challenging them this season but most pundits believe that Buriram will eventually prevail.
From a standing start, Buriram United have become the best team in Thailand and have their sights set on becoming one of the best in Asia. In the most recent AFC club rankings, the club rank 17 in the region but the ultimate aim is to be a fixture in the top five. Given that they started from next to nothing just a few years ago, it is an ambition that has to be taken seriously.
By Paul Murphy. Follow @PaulmurphyBKK