by James Goyder
The margins between sport and politics often get blurred. In Italy Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is hoping that, after some extensive investment, his AC Milan team will do well enough this season to deflect attention from some of his other alleged extra curricular activities.
You only need to glance at some of the names in the Thai Premier League table to realize that the importance of football here stretches beyond the realm of the sporting; Police United, Army United, Navy, TOT and Bangkok Glass are all teams in the top tier of Thai football. Interest in the game is growing and everyone wants a piece of the action whether they be the nation’s navy or a telecommunications company.
An unusual situation has arisen in Buriram. A rural town with a population of just 28,000 might seem like a surprising location for a Thai Premier League team but this time next year Buriram could well boast two. One of the teams, Buriram PEA, was bought while the other, Buriram FC, has been built.
When Thai politician Newin Chidchob decided to to bring elite football to Buriram he didn’t want to wait to develop an existing side so he purchased Ayutthaya PEA and moved the club lock, stock and barrel to Buriram in a move which did not prove popular in Ayutthaya itself.
This sort of thing is not unprecedented in the world of sport. In the UK Wimbledon FC were moved from south London to Milton Keynes and became the MK Dons while in American sport, where there tends to be less spectrum for smaller sides to get promoted into the major leagues, relocations are comparatively common.
The interesting thing about the situation in Buriram is that there is a second club which began life in a local league but is now well on its way towards the top tier of Thai football. The team is called simply Buriram FC and the chairman is none other then Karuna Chidchob, Newin’s wife. There is a fascinating interview with her in The Nation in which she discusses her involvement with both Buriram teams.
The two clubs work so closely together that a significant proportion of Buriram FC’s squad is loaned from their local ‘rivals’ while one player, Dudu, was unceremoniously fired by Buriram PEA after refusing to make a loan move to Buriram FC.
Fans of rival football teams have called into question the ethics of this arrangement and questioned whether it is appropriate for two clubs in the same competition to have such a close relationship. At present the issue is on the backburner as Buriram FC are only in Division One but if they manage to achieve promotion to the Thai Premier League the situation will come under even closer scrutiny.
In Europe UEFA has introduced a rule prohibiting one company from owning or controlling two or more clubs competing in the same competition while in England the Premier League states that an owner must have no involvement in the day to day running of any other Premier League or Football League club.
The discrepancy between the UEFA regulations and the Premier League regulations is an interesting one because under the UEFA regulations the situation at Buriram would be acceptable provided the club’s were owned by different entities. If, for instance, Buriram FC was in Karuna’s name and Buriram PEA was in Newin’s name there would not be an issue.
Under Premier League regulations however Karuna’s role as cheerleader for the Buriram PEA fans (see Nation article) could probably be construed as involvement in the day-to-day running of the club.
Is there any reason why a husband and wife should not both be allowed to each own a team in the same division? Another way of looking at the question would be to ask whether if two football club owner’s decided to enter into a romantic relationship with each other, one of them should be forced to sell their club? I believe the answer to both questions is probably no.
Fans of rival teams have expressed concern that a situation could conceivably arise with Buriram PEA playing against Buriram FC on the final day of the season needing only a point to win the league. With such close ties between the two clubs could Buriram FC’s players and management be relied upon to make a genuine effort to win the football match? At some stage the Thai Premier League is probably going to have to take stance in order to ensure that such a set of circumstances cannot arise.
The one thing to be said for the current situation is that there is total transparency. No-one is under the illusion that the proximity between Buriram PEA and Buriram FC is purely geographical and the relationship that the clubs have is very well publicized. In a country in which people are out on the streets demonstrating about the influence of an ‘invisible hand’ on the existing government the importance of this cannot be overstated.
This issue will need to be addressed if Buriram FC ever do get promoted, something which looks a distinct possibility at present. With the two clubs in the same division Karuna Chidchob’s position as Buriram FC chairman would no longer be compatible with her status as Buriram PEA’s most famous fan.
It will be interesting to see if it is left to the authorities to make a ruling on this or if the two clubs can come to some sort of satisfactory arrangement between themselves. In the meantime the real winners are the people of Buriram who suddenly find themselves with a choice of two successful football teams to support.