Port FC’s 50th anniversary is something to celebrate in domestic Thai Football.
Thai businessmen frequently buy out and invest heavily in clubs with purchases often proceeding behaviour that would be most unwelcome in Europe; relocations, playing-colour-roulette and name changes. Why? A strong sense of classism, respect for seniority and a “Saving Face” culture characterise Thai society. Unlike in the UK where the class system arguably manifests itself most prominently in a mistrust of the wealthy elite, rich and powerful individuals in Thailand are highly revered. The strong Saving Face characteristic of Thai culture will motivate club owners to put their stamp on the club by making very visible changes to emphasise leadership. These actions are rarely criticised, as the natural Thai instinct is to acknowledge that a powerful person must know what they are doing. Because of this, the majority of contemporary Thai teams are very young and many will be subject to further changing of hands and facelifts. Fans, meanwhile, rarely get chance to support a team for generations.
Port FC is a dying breed of club from a time when Thai clubs were mostly owned by public entities. The Port Authorities Thailand are long-standing owners with the PAT Stadium a nod to that relationship, a stadium that happily remains close to the dockside area of Bangkok city from whence the club came. All other previously publicly-owned Bangkok clubs have experienced far too many geographical relocations to legitimately stand next to Port with regards to tradition. The navy team, the electric works team, the airforce team, the police team. All have changed hands and been given so many rebrands, it’s hard to tell which is which any more.
Why? Next to many of its Asian neighbours, Thailand, despite having a turbulent modern political history and a heavy recession between 1985 and 1995, has experienced long periods of economic growth and development throughout the late 20th and 21st centuries, generating a lot of money in private hands. Companies that sprouted in the Thai free markets are now in a position to buy out Football clubs from publicly owned organisations that are less endowed financially and brazenly use them as advertising vehicles with relative impunity. Lower-class fans are inclined to both respect and admire the business success and status of their owners, a far cry from the kind of reaction you would expect in Europe.
This however doesn’t explain why specifically Port FC has escaped this capitalist-meets-sport merry-go-round. Why has Port FC evaded this Mr-Potato-Head existence for so long? The answer lies in that resilient connection with the dockside industry; Port FC is the team of the Khlong Toei neighbourhood.
The average middle-class educated Bangkok resident will describe Khlong Toei as a slum. Sat in the shadow of the whizzing BTS train network and overlooking the canal, rows of deprived estates house generations of low-skilled workers, reliant on dockside industry and mass trade of goods coming in off the barges. This district of Bangkok is more associated with violence and drug abuse, dangerous in the minds of many, albeit a bit over exaggerated. But the working class across the world have always flocked to the Football terraces in search of meaning and purpose. Port FC has remained a pillar in the community of Khlong Toei for half a century as a pastime for those earning their keep with the Port Authorities Thailand. Port FC’s stable attendances home and away do not vary much season to season, 1st division or 2nd,, as the people of Khlong Toei live for their club more than any other in Thailand. This stable and passionate fan base provides strong negative incentive against geographical location and rebranding for any potential new owner, as the existing fans would desert the team, and other potential fans would still fear the association with the Khlong Toei neighbourhood.
The tough identity of Khlong Toei spills over onto the fans. Port FC fans are known for crowd trouble. A major incident in a cup final in 2010 between Port FC and upper-echelon cross-town rivals Muangthong fans led to an on-pitch riot, with the game quickly abandoned and massive police intervention as the violence and aggression escalated. Since then, meetings have been marred by incident. In 2014 trouble sparked again with the result being a 9 point docking for Port FC, and violence was seen again in the same fixture in 2016, which led to both Muangthong vs Port FC fixtures in the 2017 season being played behind closed doors. There are very few rivalries among Thai clubs, as there has not been much chance for strong enmities to fester, due to the constant club relocations. However, between Muangthong and Port FC, it is very real. Muangthong see Port FC fans as dockside hooligans. Port FC see Muangthong as a bunch of fickle glory-supporters.
Does the story of a Football club in a neighbourhood with a strong association to low-skilled dockside industry breeding thugs and hooligans ring any bells? The similarities to Millwall have not gone unnoticed. Indeed, the fan Aufkleber of Port FC fans feature the chant “No One Likes Us. We Don’t Care”. And this image has attracted a modest, but definite, international acclaim. Stickers of BVB, Dynamo Dresden, Hellas Verona and now Hull City left by fanatics making pilgrimage to Port FC fade around the Khlong Toei district and inside the PAT Stadium.
But interestingly, even though the Thai fans of Port FC are almost exclusively Khlong Toei natives, it is the choice club for foreigners in Bangkok. Is that just because of the image? Tim Russell, author of independent Port FC online magazine “Sandpit”, doesn’t believe so. “The biggest thing is the location. If you look at the other Bangkok clubs, Port is the only stadium you can get to by public transport.”
“It’s a cult Football club. It’s not gonna win the title every year but it’s got an authenticity to it. The atmosphere is better than the other Thai stadia”. The PAT stadium, compared to the multi-purpose family-fun stadia that are now ubiquitous across Asia, has no running track, no gimmicky stores, just four stands and four floodlights surrounding a carpet of grass. It harks back to traditional English Football grounds like Highbury and Maine Road. Tim acknowledges that the volume of foreigners coming to watch Port play has increased over the past few years. Is this just terrace gentrification? Does this bastardise what it means to be a fan of Port FC, a Khlong Toei local?
“Thai fans have been very welcoming to foreigners. They know that we care about the club. They see us shouting and swearing on the terraces and they know that we feel it as much as they do. It’s genuine Football fans”. How to manage gentrification is a question that has no answer and an issue that no one really understands. For now though, the people of Khlong Toei still inject a touch of tradition into the Thai Football system.
All the more reason to celebrate Port FCs 50th anniversary.
Special thanks go to Tim Russell for his time, knowledge and photographs used in this post. Tim Russell is the founder of Port FC online magazine “Sandpit”, an established photographer based in Bangkok, and a jolly decent chap.