Over the last decade, football in Thailand has undergone a remarkable transformation and restructuring of its domestic competition. Previously, the country’s league system was segregated between teams based around the metropolitan city of Bangkok and some from the provinces, however the top flight was reserved for teams from the capital. There was no direct promotion for teams based outside of Bangkok, creating a divide that held the domestic game.
In 2007, the Football Association of Thailand (FAT) decided to integrate the leagues. By introducing a system of promotion and relegation, it opened the door for teams from the provinces to earn their ticket to the top flight. The expansion of the league brought incentives that unlocked the hidden potential that has existed in Thai football for a long time.
As with such a sea change, politicians and businessmen with deep pockets were beginning to channel their money into football. The funding gave some teams greater spending power than others. There was plenty of investment in improving grassroots football and building better infrastructure. As a result, the country has now produced a line of technically gifted footballers who are emerging at big clubs across Asia and beyond.
One such facility to undergo a complete transformation was the SCG Stadium, home to one of the country’s perennial contenders, Muangthong United – a purpose-built arena that puts spectators by the pitch for the best atmosphere around.
Having visited the stadium in March, gaining some insight into how it would feel to be there as a fan, I decided I had to come back. Nine months later, I’d make it a reality as I witnessed Muanthong play host to their arch-rivals, Buriram United.
In sport, few things put fans closer to the edge of their seats than games between dreaded rivals. Whether it’s the Magic Johnson and Larry Bird tipping on the basketball court, Nadal and Federer swinging their racquet on the grass at Wimbledon, or the Superclásico between Boca Juniors and River Plate; these are the kind of occasions that fans live for.
While some may argue that such occasions lead to unwanted toxicity, they also brew an element of orgasmic excitement that fuels the battle like no others. After all, seasons can often be defined by a performance of note in the derby.
The expansion of Thai football led to an unprecedented wave of tribalism and supporter culture, based both within the rivals of Bangkok and between the capital clubs and the provincial ones. The Muangthong-Buriram rivalry is a direct result of the augmentation of the league.
This is a rivalry that is based on regional amour propre with a little dose of class warfare instead of anything that relates to ethnicity or religion. Buriram hail from the north-east of the country, which is largely a rural area propped up by agriculture. Muangthong, on the other hand, are situated in one of the capital’s most densely populated areas – a stark contrast to their top-of-the-table rivals.
The key to Buriram’s success lies within the hands of its owner, Newin Chidchob, a former politician and an influential figure in the province. He bought the club in 2009 when it was known as PEA FC (Provincial Electricity Authority FC). Under ‘Uncle’ Newin’s leadership, professionalism became the order of the day, with the goal to turn the club into a beacon for others to follow.
Meanwhile, Muangthong is owned by one of the country’s biggest sports and entertainment media company, Siam Sports Syndicate. Wilak Lohtong, the eldest son of Siam Sports Syndicate founder Ravi Lohtong presides as the club’s chairman. Their main sponsor is Siam Cement Group, a large conglomerate in the cement and building material industry after which their home ground is named.
Even before a ball was kicked, there were remarkable differences in the backgrounds of each club. This is a rivalry built on philosophy, region and history.
Like any good rivalry, there’s also a political element to it. Muangthong were previously owned by Worawi Makudi (when it was known as Norgjorg Pittayanusorn FC) who would later become the president of FAT in 2007. He held that position for eight years, during which time the FAT received criticism from Newin for a lack of transparency regarding the way Thai football was governed. Newin even accused Worawi and the FAT of biased refereeing decisions that often went in Muangthong’s favour.
Back on the pitch, some big names in Thai football that have played for both clubs. But the player who received the most attention was Theerathon Bunmathan. A fan favourite at Buriram having spent his entire career there, he controversially left for Muangthong in 2016. At the time, no player had made a transfer between the two clubs since 2011, when the rivalry was only beginning to take shape.
Theerathon’s decision to leave for Muangthong left a bitter taste in Newin’s mouth, something that took several years to overcome. Though the transfer didn’t generate as much hostility or publicity as Luís Figo’s controversial move from Barcelona to Real Madrid, supporters have lambasted Theerathon on his return to Buriram.
On a more general scale, the two clubs have maintained a duopoly on the Thai championship since 2008. Buriram have the better record, winning seven league titles, with Muangthong claiming the other four. This unshakable dominance has been of huge importance to the Thai League since its integration in 2007. Due to this hegemony, there have been some significant battles between them, with each acutely aware of the value of beating their rivals.
One of the most memorable matches took place in May 2016, when Muangthong recorded their first away win at Buriram. This resulted in a reawakening for the visitors, who later lifted the championship, halting Buriram’s dominance of three consecutive titles. The following year, Muangthong made an incredible start to the season but a 2-0 loss at Buriram would lead to the provincial side reclaiming the title. These are the margins involved in this fixture.
On the day I arrived at the SGC, I was treated to a long queue of Muangthong supporters. Men, women, boys and girls were all there hoping to get tickets for the big game – it was a carnival atmosphere, with families in abundance. The evening rain didn’t dampen the spirit of anyone attending.
As I approached the stadium, I could hear loud drums beating from within the section of ultras. The atmosphere was at fever pitch. All I wanted was to be treated to some high octane football on the pitch. After all, under any circumstances, no team takes their foot off the pedal and drops a gear when playing against their rival.
While Muangthong’s season hadn’t started well, defeating Buriram could put a dent in their campaign, as well as gifting bragging rights to the capital. Adding a further twist to the match was Muangthong’s new manager, Alexander Gama. The Brazillian had formerly managed Buriram from 2014 to 2016, winning a couple of league titles along the way. His arrival is exactly what Muangthong needed to revive their season after a poor start, inclusive of two managerial changes in as many months.
With Gama on board, Muangthong have won eight out of their previous 12 matches and look set for a strong finish in the league. He has accomplished all this despite keeping a large chunk of the squad which he inherited from his predecessor. It goes without saying that Gama has a knack of suiting up teams and gaining results with the players at his disposal.
A win against his former employers would solidify their progress and win the trust of the fans. The home side couldn’t have asked for a better start, taking a 2-0 lead inside 11 minutes. the first from Oh Ban-Suk’s header and the second from Brazilian Derley. Coming into this game, fatigue had been a concern for Buriram as several players were on international duty just a few days earlier. To counter this, fiery coach Božidar Bandović opted to start several youngsters. Clearly the plan wasn’t paying dividends.
Both Buriram and their travelling supporters were left shell-shocked after Muangthong’s electrifying start, with the home fans loud, colourful and passionate in their support.
Buriram tried to regroup for the second half in the hope of making a comeback. An early goal may have changed the outlook of the game but alas it came from the home side. Muangthong added more salt into their rival’s wound after scoring their third. This time it was courtesy of Heberty with a superb finish just three minutes after the restart.
With a comfortable 3-0 lead, Muangthong maintained their composure throughout the rest of the game. Buriram didn’t look like they were going to make any resurgence until they grabbed a consolation in stoppage time courtesy of Thai teen sensation, Suphanat Mueanta.
At the post-match press conference, a furious Bandović didn’t hold back in his disappointment. Gama, on the other hand, looked pleased that his strategy for the game was so well executed by his players. As history has shown, it’s the sort of result that can derail title challenges and revitalise a club looking for inspiration.
For the fans, it was home again and work the next day, but for me, it remains one of my favourite footballing experiences. Two clubs with contrasting owners, backgrounds and fans came together to produce a remarkable display of passion and colour. If this is what the Thai League is all about, count me in.
There remains a rawness, an energy about football in the Land of Smiles. And rarely will it get better than between arch-rivals Muangthong and Buriram.
By Sivan John @SivanJohn_