Why Thailand is becoming a new football destination

Why Thailand is becoming a new football destination

North America remains the destination of choice for big-name players past their prime looking to prolong their careers in a new environment. China has tried to muscle in on that market and has even enticed several big names in their prime, but the USA remains a big draw for British players in particular.

Major League Soccer has seen some top talents moving across from the English Premier League over the past few years, including Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, David Beckham and Robbie Keane.

These players had played for some of Europe’s biggest clubs before crossing the Atlantic on the wrong side of 30. But for less gifted players, who are past their best and looking for a decent pay cheque, the options are limited.

British players are notoriously reluctant football travellers but even some of them have managed to go east rather than west as the so-called Land of Smiles has become their Land of Opportunity. Thailand now has an established professional league and salaries that can more than match lower level teams in Europe.

Robbie Fowler was expected to be a trailblazer when he rocked up in Bangkok to play for then champions Muang Thong United in 2011. At the age of 36, Fowler was more than a decade past his thrilling early career best at Liverpool but there was confidence that, at this level, he would still be able to do it.

Things didn’t quite turn out as planned for Fowler and he scored just two goals in 13 Thai Premier League as Muang Thong relinquished their title. He stepped into the role of head coach for a spell before leaving the club in 2012.

Sceptics suggested that the signing of Fowler was more about generating publicity than helping the team develop. The striker’s Liverpool connection was always going to be well received in a country where Liverpool have a huge following. If Fowler’s experience didn’t exactly open the floodgates, the years since have seen a steady stream of former Premier League players make the move to Thailand with varying degrees of success.

The most recent addition is Frenchman Florent Sinama Pongolle, once a FIFA Golden Ball winner and a promising youngster at Liverpool before embarking on a career journey taking in many different countries.

A brief and injury-plagued spell at Dundee United in the first half of 2016 would not exactly have had clubs fighting over the 31-year-old’s signature. After his spell in Scotland, Sinama Pongolle would have struggled to find a club playing at a decent level and offering a good salary. But, once again, the Liverpool connection counted for much and Chainat, struggling to stay in Thailand’s top tier, turned to Sinama Pongolle for inspiration.

In a recent interview with France Football, Sinama Pongolle admitted that he had no other options but also suggested that he would have struggled to earn a third of what the Thai club offered him elsewhere. He has repaid their faith by quickly surpassing Fowler’s scoring record, despite playing with a club at the wrong end of the table, and is enjoying a career renaissance of sorts.

Sinama Pongolle will always be best remembered in Liverpool for playing a key role in the 3-1 victory over Olympiacos in the Champions League group stage in 2004-05. The Reds would go on to win the tournament without the French striker in the side but his appearance and equalising goal as a substitute against the Greeks helped turn the game in Liverpool’s favour when they were 1-0 down.

He will never again reach such heights, but he is at least enjoying his football again. However, Sinama Pongolle did touch on one of the main barriers for British players – language. Despite having a knowledge of five languages, Sinama Pongolle admits that it can be difficult to make himself understood in Thailand, particularly with Chainat being rather provincial.

Another former Premier League striker, Jay Bothroyd, also tried his luck in Thailand when his career was at something of a dead end at Queens Park Rangers. Bothroyd had enjoyed his best years at Cardiff City and won his one and only England cap in 2010. At the beginning of 2014, at the age of 31, he had been out of the game for six months, having been released by QPR.

Fowler’s former club Muang Thong United offered him a trial and a deal was subsequently done. Things started reasonably well and he quickly got off the mark in an Asian Champions League qualifier. But his star soon began to fade and he left the club later that year, having found the net six times in 16 league games.

Things have worked out better for Bothroyd playing in Japan’s second tier but his Thai adventure does not bring him happy memories and his departure was rumoured to be a result of a poor attitude and missed training sessions.

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Read  |  How Robbie Fowler became Liverpool’s God in red

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Kalifa Cissé has not enjoyed the success of Fowler or Bothroyd as a player but the French-born Mali international did briefly appear in the Premier League. Cissé showed promise with Boavista in Portugal before Reading signed him in 2007. The defender played for one season in the top tier but the Royals’ relegation saw him play in the Championship for two years before falling out of favour. Spells with Bristol City, New England Revolution and Derby County followed before Cissé made the move east.

In his time in Thailand, Cissé spent two years with Bangkok United before a move across the city to Bangkok Glass earlier this year.

A more recent addition to the Thai league is the man whose transfer to Newcastle United infamously led to the end of Kevin Keegan’s second coming at the Magpies. Spanish striker Xisco Jiménez was apparently signed without Keegan’s consent back in 2008, leading to his resignation. Xisco then endured a difficult time on Tyneside, scoring just once and was loaned back to Spanish sides several times before settling at Córdoba.

Xisco was performing well in the Segunda when Muang Thong United came in for him in July. The Spaniard has proved a useful addition to the side, netting some important goals as Muang Thong close in on the title. He is playing alongside another Spaniard, 34-year-old defender Mario, once a loan signing for Barcelona and boasting significant experience with the likes of Real Valladolid, Getafe, Real Betis and Real Zaragoza.

Another Englishman, Rohan Ricketts, was touted around several Thai clubs at the beginning of 2014. The attacking midfielder won the FA Youth Cup twice with Arsenal before crossing the North London divide to join Spurs in 2002. Ricketts was briefly a first-team regular but, after falling out of favour, he was loaned out a couple of times before embarking on a journeyman career.

Ricketts finally landed a deal with newly promoted PTT Rayong in 2014, with Aston Villa legend Peter Withe in charge of the club. But the former England under-21 international made little impression and soon moved on.

Former Ireland international striker Andy Keogh had an even more disappointing spell when he made the move to Thailand. Keogh had been a solid player for several years in the Championship with Wolves and managed a single season in the Premier League. But, never a prolific scorer, he found the A-League more to his liking and made a strong impression with Perth Glory before earning a lucrative move to Ratchaburi.

Keogh never found his feet in Thailand and failed to score a goal in eight games, while his Brazilian strike partner Heberty Andrade was one of the most prolific strikers in the league. Keogh soon headed back to Australia where he has rediscovered his scoring touch.

Keogh was signed on the back of his strong performances in the A-League but players with more to prove often need a trial first. This was the case for Bothroyd, having been out of the game for a while, and was also the case for Jermaine Pennant – twice. The former Liverpool and Birmingham City winger attempted to earn a deal at Muang Thong but on both occasions it didn’t work out. Pennant is now in Singapore with Tampines Rovers.

Irish striker Caleb Folan, who played in the Premier League for Wigan and Hull City, failed to work out a deal after a series of trials this year, following a spell in Myanmar.

Given the status of football in Thailand, it is not surprising that the number of players with experience of the top European leagues is limited, but Bas Savage made the move at the age of 30 following a solid career in the lower English leagues, which included spells at Brighton and Tranmere Rovers.

Savage spent four years as a utility player at TOT SC before financial problems pushed the club out of business. He remains well known in the UK as something of a cult figure for the moonwalk goal celebration that was featured on Soccer AM.

Former Crystal Palace and Bolton Wanderers forward André Moritz briefly appeared and then disappeared as neither player nor his club, Buriram United, found reason to prematurely end their relationship.

In addition to some of the better-known names, some players from the UK have managed to build unlikely careers in Thailand.

Welsh midfielder Michael Byrne was a non-league player with Northwich Victoria and briefly with Stalybridge Celtic before taking up an offer at Nakhon Pathom in 2009 at the age of 23. Byrne quickly impressed other teams and he moved to bigger clubs in Chonburi and Bangkok Glass before going to Sinama Pongolle’s current club Chainat in 2011.

Unfortunately, Byrne’s career has gone into decline and he left Thailand in 2015 following the collapse of Hua Hin City – the regional league team he had joined.

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Read  |  The unrelenting rise of Buriram United

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A more successful Welshman has been Mika Chunuonsee. Like Byrne, he left the UK at a relatively young age but Thailand had been home for the first 10 years of his life. Mika has a Thai father but when his parents separated, his mum took him back to her Welsh home.

Mika made excellent progress in his teenage years and was selected for the Wales under-17 side, lining up with the likes of Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey and Chris Gunter. A midfielder at the time, Mika didn’t make the grade at Cardiff City after being taken on as a trainee. He then played in the Welsh league and combined football with his studies before moving back to Thailand in 2009, at the age of 20.

Mika has since had some ups and downs but more ups since 2014 when he found the right club and the right manager. Under head coach Mano Polking at Bangkok United, Mika has established himself as a first-choice central defender and become part of the Thai national set-up, winning his first cap this year.

Lee Tuck is another Englishman who had just non-league experience before making the move to Nakhon Pathom, and he spent several seasons in the second tier before earning a transfer to Nakhon Ratchasima in the Premier League. Tuck’s strike partner last year was sometimes Dominic Adiyiah, the Ghanaian whose header was infamously handled off the line by Luis Suárez in the 2010 World Cup semi-final.

Tuck has since moved on to Bangladesh but, along with Byrne and Mika, represents a great example of how a brave move can make football into a living.

An even more circuitous route from non-league English football to Thailand’s top division has come from Matt Smith. The centre-back was released by Portsmouth at the age of 19 before spending time studying and travelling, while playing for Chichester City and Cirencester Town. He eventually moved and settled in Australia, where he managed to build an impressive professional career in his mid to late-20s, culminating in captaining Brisbane Roar to three A-League Championships.

Now a naturalised Australian, Smith even earned three caps for his adopted country due to his impressive form. Now 34, he has spent the last two seasons with Bangkok Glass, quickly establishing himself as one of the top defenders in the league.

In addition to players from the Premier League and the lower leagues of England and Wales, a number of players have found themselves in Thailand after experience of Scotland’s top tier.

Former Celtic and Scotland striker Mark Burchill followed the more established route when he moved to Thailand at the age of 31. He spent one year at the now defunct Esan United before a player/assistant manager role at Livingston tempted him back to Scotland.

Burchill played with Danny Invincibile at Kilmarnock and the midfielder followed him to Thailand in 2012. The Australian had two seasons at Army United before injuries took their toll and forced him into retirement at the age of 34. Invincibile remains in Bangkok, overseeing the academy at Bangkok United. His fellow Aussie, Erik Paartalu, ended up at Muang Thong United alongside Bothroyd in 2014, having played in the Scottish Premier League with boom-and-bust club Gretna when he was just 21.

Former Dundee United and St Mirren winger Steven Robb had two good years at Thai Port, but another former St Mirren man, Billy Mehmet, did not last long in Thailand before moving on to India, Malaysia and Singapore, where he now plays alongside Pennant.

Frenchman Christian Nadé is another player with significant UK experience, playing for Sheffield United and Hearts before moving to Thailand via Cyprus. Nadé has since returned to Scotland, recently turning out for Dumbarton. Dutch striker Melvin De Leeuw swapped Ross County for Army United in 2015 when he was signed by former Spurs and England defender, Gary Stevens.

While many of the players who have swapped British football for Thailand may not be household names, some well-known coaches have had spells here. Peter Withe presided over the national team during the best period in its history, from 1998 to 2002.

England legends Bryan Robson and Peter Reid have also had spells in charge of Thailand, while Sven-Göran Eriksson had a brief spell in charge of BEC Tero Sasana, with one of his successors being Avram Grant. Stevens’ predecessor at Army United was former Leicester City and Scotland defender, Matt Elliott.

The Thai game has made huge progress in the past decade as it has moved from a Bangkok-based semi-professional league to a national professional league. There remain many problems of governance, conflicts of interest and financial regulation. However, there is money to be made as evidenced by the players who choose to travel to the other side of the world to make their living here.

The success of British players has been mixed, with Brazilians and Spaniards by far the most successful imports. The climate and lifestyle is easier for the South Americans and Spanish to adapt to but, as certain British players have proved, a failure to make it big in the UK is no barrier to making a good living in the Land of Smiles.

By Paul Murphy. Follow @PaulmurphyBKK

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