You can feel that something is amiss when driving through the provincial capital of Chonburi. Despite being in a region earmarked as a cornerstone of the nation’s economic development, this town continues to claw on to its old identity. A few scattered high-rises and an imposing bridge jutting out into the Gulf of Thailand seem almost uncomfortable sharing a block with ancient shophouses and humble seafront homes.
Unlike their seemingly modest surroundings, Chonburi FC were once the unparalleled giants of Thai football. In 2007, the Sharks became the first provincial team to lift the Thai League title, and managed to finish in the top three for each of the following seven seasons. During this time, the club also made an AFC Champions League appearance, qualified for the semi-finals of the AFC Cup, and lifted the Thai FA Cup in 2010.
However, just like the city, Chonburi appeared to be a club attempting to maintain its identity while being buffeted by the sands of time.
The atmosphere is completely dead for a derby day. The comforting, fading light of the seaside sunset is slowly giving way to an uneasy grey. With those donning football kits being outnumbered by people out jogging in the Chalerm Phrakiat public park, which surrounds the arena, one would be forgiven for not realising that they were standing in the home of one of Thailand’s most successful teams.
“The way we were back then, I can tell you there was nothing like it in the league,” says Dale Farrington, a long-time Chonburi supporter who’s been running an independent English language website covering the team for the past nine years. “We used to have fans from all over the place come and watch Chonburi. I can show you a picture of me with over 40 or 50 fans that used to come to every game 10 years ago. You won’t find more than two or three of them coming by now.”
“Supporting Chonburi in the great days were really something special,” reflects Kevin Aamlid, another long-time supporter, “but generally not because of the football, but because the atmosphere at the stadium was always great. The fireworks, the flares, the picnics in the stadium and of course the fans coming to the ground were always a joy to be around.”
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It was clear that the club which stood before me was nothing but a shadow of its former self. Former Thai greats such as Therdsak Chaiman and Pipob On-Mo, who had once graced the brilliant blue of this club, and more recently the likes of Pokklaw Anan and Nurul Sriyankem, who have become key players for the national team, now seemed a world away.
As with many clubs, the story of how it went so wrong for them comes down to those sitting at the top. Chonburi was originally owned by Somchai Khunpluem, a prominent politician known as the “Godfather of the East” for the vast influence he was able to exert on one of Thailand’s most economically vital provinces.
The Khunpluem family sought to monopolise football in the province, with Chonburi, Sriracha FC and Coke Bang Phra FC all part of a larger portfolio of clubs owned by one of Thailand’s most renowned families. “In my opinion, and I said this at the time, is that it was a big mistake, because we spread ourselves out too thinly,” Farrington recalls, as if it were yesterday. “Instead of just concentrating on one club and making us a big club, and investing, they tried to do too much to soon and it backfired.”
With the family embroiled in the changing political climate of the country, it became clear that such a lavish portfolio would be impossible to maintain. “I think it’s down to the finances,” Farrington says of the club’s rapid decline. “Without getting into too much detail, when things changed for local governments in how they had to handle their finances and their budgets, the club suffered. The club has strayed as for as possible from what it was. It is completely unrecognisable now.”
If the big brother club was suffering, the feeder sides in the Khunpluem’s growing empire were suffering even more. Bang Phra FC had moved to Pattaya, the province’s biggest city and one of Thailand’s largest tourist attractions, chasing further growth and expansion in Chonburi FC’s heyday back in 2008.
Pattaya United was formed under the ownership of Ittipol Khunpluem, the mayor of the city and younger brother of Chonburi chairman Wittaya. The club grew in size and stature in its new surroundings, but clearly acted as a feeder club to their more established local rivals.
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Despite the dizzying initial success, it became clear that the Khunpluem’s footballing empire was too diverse to be sustainable, and tight budgets began to strain all three clubs. Sriracha became the first to fall when they were sold in 2014 after a relegation to the third tier, with bankruptcy and expulsion from the Thai league system soon to follow.
After a relegation and failed promotion campaign in 2014, the Dolphins were the next to stare down the barrel of financial ruin. “The big worry was that the club would disappear,” claims Pattaya supporter Robin Lennon. “The impression was that they had run the club down, and they couldn’t afford to keep both clubs, so they chose to put the money into Chonburi.”
“When we got relegated, it looked like they were putting money into Chonburi and holding money back from Pattaya,” recalls Wilf Barker, another Dolphins fan.
“In my view, you can’t have owners in charge of more than one club. It’s just not a healthy situation to be in,” Lennon interjects. “[The owner] always said he wanted to make Chonburi like Buriram,” Barker adds, alluding to Thailand’s most successful club, claiming that it made fans of Pattaya “feel like second-class citizens.”
With the funds and structure needed to fulfil that ambition quickly drying up, time was running out for the club, and more importantly for a city which had longed for the presence of a top-level professional football team. The club fell into the hands of a group known as Enigma Sport Ventures, with the Khunpluem family still having a crucial stake in the club.
Despite the turbulence, the Dolphins won promotion into the first division, only for ESV to vanish as quickly as they had come. After a false dawn, the club once again appeared to be facing it’s darkest hour. “At the start of the 2017 season, it was looking like the club might cease to exist, the situation was dire,” Lennon recalls, claiming that the club had almost nothing in place just six weeks before the campaign was set to begin.
Once again, another frantic takeover would provide salvation for the club at the eleventh hour. Thai businessman Tanet Phanichewa, a wealthy investor and key figure of various Thai corporations such as Krungthai Panich Insurance and real estate giant TTL Industries was made chairman of the club after purchasing Pattaya United through a subsidiary company, the Kiarti Thanee Country Club.
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“I’ve looked into the financial background and where it comes from, and obviously they are a very wealthy family with numerous business interests,” Lennon shares of his findings on the clubs new owners. “They obviously have leisure interests with [the] Kiarti Thanee [country club], so I presume this is part of a leisure division of their business – they are a conglomerate of sorts.”
However, unlike with their previous escapades, Pattaya were finally able to find the stable ownership structure which they had longed for. “Everything I’ve seen so far has been positive,” Lennon claims proudly. “From what I see, they step back from the process and let the coaching staff get on with their work. They do stuff at the grassroots level to promote youth in the area. I think everyone is pleased and impressed with the owners we have.”
With the right hands at the helm, the club seems to be finally heading in the right direction. Their up-and-coming coach Surapong Kongthep has recently been named manager of the month, and the side have a core of budding young talents such as Peeradol Chamratsamee and Suphanan Bureerat.
On the day I saw them, the side were gifted with a one-in-a-million chance to literally and symbolically overhaul their rivals in a bid for provincial supremacy, which seemed impossible just a matter of years ago. The two sides sit neck and neck in the table, level on 35 points after 26 games played. Having never finished above big brother Chonburi in the league, the chance to do so for the first time has Pattaya fans buzzing.
“Today a result would be great, because it means we go above them, but I’m happy as long as we stay up,” Barker admits, choosing to concentrate on the long run as opposed to focusing everything on the derby. However, even he can’t help but get a little carried away. “It would mean everything,” he admits, “I’m a Leeds supporter, and it would be like finishing above Manchester United.”
The Sharks and Dolphins will continue their battle for supremacy on Thailand’s Eastern Seaboard, and the winds of change continue to upset the balance of football in one of the country’s most vital regions.
By Gian Chanrichawla @GianChansricha1