If you read a blog like this one, you have probably been to Thailand. We like to think of ourselves as worldly, liberal and empirical and hope this reflects in our writing, and people into this sort of writing are usually travel enthusiasts to some degree. And travel enthusiasts all indulge themselves with Thailand at some point. It is a country of fun and beauty and more fun, and to western appetites, the Thai culture of convenience and consumption make it feel far more like home than its neighbours. Fast food, craft beer and trap music available in a stunner of a country. An obvious destination.
And if you read a blog like this one, maybe you also watched some Football there. And, stood there on the terrace with your fried chicken and Singha beer, it will have come to your attention that the Thai Football experience is very different. Clubs change hands, change colours, change names and change locations frequently and with little fuss. There are few derbies worth mentioning, as there is little time for enmities to fester between fans of different clubs. Owners and chairmen are celebrated and revered. It feels very different to Western Football culture.
The first thing you notice as an away fan is the warm reception opposing fans will give you. After 90 minutes, home fans applaud the visitors and sometimes chant the opposition team name. I saw this first hand at Ubon Ratchathani. It was a bit disconcerting to see the home fans applauding us as we left the stadium. I kinda would’ve preferred it if they had called me a fat bastard, as is normal in Wolverhampton, Stoke or Blackburn. But this is the normal custom at Football games in the Kingdom. Politeness and courtesy to strangers is of paramount importance in Thai society, even to the extent of being friendly to away fans.
Why? This politeness is closely linked to the “Saving Face” value embedded in Thai society. The Thai place importance on being publicly polite and courteous to one another because they understand that acting direct or rude can result in the person you are speaking to being offended or publicly humiliated, a big sin. The solution is to reciprocate politeness to everyone in society. At all times and in all circumstances, the Thai people maintain public dignity through common respect and courtesy because they struggle with humiliation and losing face. This attitude is also seen in the behaviour of Thai players.
Asking Tim Russell, founder of “Sandpit” fansite, what the average Thai playing style is; “Thai players tend not to be very creative. When you become a creative player you’ve got to take individual responsibility for what you’re doing, and when you try being creative and it doesn’t come off, you lose face and look stupid”. Even as a professional sportsman, not embarrassing yourself is more important than taking every risk for victory. Is this an Asian universal? Thais are known to be very thin-skinned. “They don’t respond well to a bollocking” argues Tim. “They don’t respond well to criticism at all. If you spoke to Thai players the way you speak to German players, if you slightly raise your voice to one of your staff, that’s it. They would be gone. They are a lot more sensitive”.
The sensitivity of Thai players also manifests itself in the transfer market. Currently, Thai teams must field a maximum of 4 foreign players plus one Asian “Other” player, the rest being Thai, but next year the foreign player quota will be reduced to 3. Regardless of whether it actually works, this quota is designed to improve Thai Football. Managers often want to be able to sign more foreign players, but not simply because they may be better sportsmen. Their mentality is different, and the lack of the Saving Face attitude and the sensitivity makes foreign players easier to manage within a team, as they are better at taking criticism. The loophole managers use to sign foreign players without breaking the quota is to purchase foreign players with a Thai parent and naturalise them. These players qualify as Thai but bring more creative and independent ways of thinking and playing. But the relative price of these players is inflated, because Thai clubs compete to sign these naturalised foreign players.
However, the lack of humility and Saving Face imperative does not only influence players. Thai club owners would not get away with the behaviour they exhibit in Thailand elsewhere. Thai clubs do not live for generations and generations, as they are traded almost as fast as future options on Canary Wharf. With the exception of the captivating Port FC, fan traditions are not past down from grandfather to father to son, because the club doesn’t stay in one place long enough, or the club simply isn’t recognisable any more. The lack of longevity is a product of the egos of Thai owners. If you plug millions into your new purchase without making very visible and drastic changes to the makeup and appearance of it, it may be interpreted as a lack of authority, know-how and “balls”. If you buy a club but keep the name, kit, badge etc the way they are, you clearly have respect for the way the previous owner ran the business. And if that’s the case, why did you buy it at all? How can anyone trust you to make improvements? People will quickly think you are not a decisive, powerful and strong willed owner. The Saving Face imperative translates into egoistic and dramatic behaviour when Thai owners buy new clubs, as they aim to make their mark quickly. Tradition, which is so important in Europe, is sacrificed in Thailand.
What’s more, the strong class system found in Thai society not only protects megalomaniacal owners. The average Thai Football fan will often support a powerful new owner. Respecting seniority is nothing new in Asia, but seniority is not just a term that refers to age. It also refers to power. In Europe, the average man is often suspicious of the wealthy elite, but the average Thai believes that a wealthy and powerful individual is someone to be looked up to and trusted. Their success is tangible and apparent, so you should respect their achievements (instead of questioning how legit they may or may not be). If they change your club colours from white to red and stick the word “united” on the end, go with it. They obviously know how to run things better than you do because you are not as successful. In Thailand, the working class know their place and do not question the elite, even when the elite rebrand the Football clubs they follow.