The highs and the lows of the Thai Premier League.
The Port Authority of Thailand (PAT) Stadium is only a 12-minute walk from the Bangkok Post building, where I worked for nearly four years. I was never even aware of its existence until last year when my guitar-playing pal Tommie Duncan invited me to come to watch a Thai football game with him.
PAT Stadium is home turf for Port FC, one of Thai football’s longest-established clubs and one of the best-supported clubs in Bangkok, drawing much of its fan base from the densely-populated working-class Khlong Toey district.
When I finally make plans to attend the September 9th match between Port FC and Chainat Hornbill (not Hornbills), I take Tommie’s suggestion to learn more about the Thai Premier League beforehand by logging on to The Sandpit, an extremely informative website run by expat football fan Tim Russell.
It turns out football has been played in Thailand for a very long time, having been introduced to the country in 1897 following King Chulalongkorn’s famed trip to Europe. King Vajiravudh founded the Football Association of Thailand in 1916, and a Thai team has participated in the Olympic Games since 1956.
A few days before the match I meet up with Tim for beers, and he patiently explains the administrative structure of Thai professional football and shares his passion for Port FC. “Among followers of Thai football, Port fans have a reputation because a lot of them come from the Klong Toey slums,” says Tim. “The assumption is they’re rougher and more aggressive. “But for the past two or three years Port has been on a charm offensive, and if you talk to other clubs now, they’ll say they like playing here, that they feel welcome. The atmosphere is enthusiastically rowdy but friendly.”
Two years ago, Tim launched The Sandpit—named for a sand-floored petanque in front of the stadium where fans gather before each home game—with the help of Tom Earls, who has played and watched Thai football for over 18 years. Tom puts together the site’s player bios, stats and team rankings. A team of 15 or 20 other writers contribute articles analysing matches, interviewing players and commenting candidly on coaching and ownership.
Asked how Thai football as a whole has changed in recent times, Tim notes how the quality of play has improved, especially among a newer generation of Thai players. “There are now three or four top Thai footballers playing in Europe leagues,” he says. “And Port FC has started its football academy to better train, local footballers.”
Meanwhile, many imported foreign players can be found in Thai clubs, including Port FC, which boasts two members from Spain and one each from Montenegro and Korea. Tim tells me the Thai Premier League is the most professional and best paid—top players can earn up to a million baht a month—in Southeast Asia, so clubs have no problem attracting talent.
When I turn up for the Port-Chainat match on Sunday, Tommie meets me at the stadium gates and guides me through an army of vendors hawking noodles, rice plates, barbecued skewers and other choices he says are unrivalled at any other stadium in Thailand regarding quality and variety.
Tommie’s Thai wife originally got him into local football four years ago, and now he attends virtually every home match on season passes, often on his own. He offers insight on Port’s lauded foreign players, who include Dragan Boskovic a Montenegrin striker who scored an impressive 38 goals in 33 games in 2017, and Spanish team captain David Rochela considered one of the best defenders in Thai football.
Tommie mentions how he came across Boskovic at a local coffee shop near his home. “The first time I saw him, he was reading a Dostoevsky novel, and the next time it was a book on central banking. We talked a bit, and he seems like a nice, thoughtful guy.”
I buy a ticket for 150 baht and follow Tommie to Zone A, the only roofed section of the stands. Hardcore fans sit behind the home goal in Zone B or D, while the most vocal home fans crowd into unsheltered Zone C, for which tickets cost 100 baht.
From high up in Zone A the view is spectacular. The strikingly green pitch in the foreground and grey tiered stands opposite are topped by a row of iconic Bangkok skyscrapers with windows twinkling in the setting sun. Above the skyline clouds slowly darken as dusk approaches. The atmosphere is charged but friendly, and unlike the male-dominated football audiences of Europe, the local audience of around 7,000—Tim’s estimate—includes plenty of families and small groups of women fans.
The match itself turns out to be a bit of a snoozer, sad to say, ending in a 1-1 draw. As a result, Port drops from third to fourth in the premier league rankings. The following day The Sandpit match review doesn’t mince words. “Our team shape is a mess once substitutions are made, and it’s clear that the communication from the bench to the pitch is not working and several players are having to suss out what to do with varying degrees of success.”
As for me, it was an educational and inspiring evening out. I’ll be back, maybe next time wearing a blue-and-orange Port fan jersey.
Check out the Port FC Website, here: www.portfcsandpit.com
Getting There: PAT Stadium is located at 444 Sunthon Kosa Road, Khlong Thoey, Bangkok.