Last week, Thai media announced that a friendly match between Manchester United and Liverpool will be played in Bangkok’s Rajamangala Stadium in soggy July. It will likely attract the biggest crowd in Thailand this season, despite ticket prices that are the equivalent of one month’s salary for many people.
The Thai football authorities will no doubt enjoy a nice evening out with complimentary tickets, tapas and hospitality. Sadly the match itself will do nothing to promote the Thai League where audience numbers for many clubs are plummeting. The biggest crowd in T2 this season is 1,492 at Sukhothai.
The attendance at Trat Provincial Stadium for the game between first and third in the League attracted just 855 fans. Meanwhile there were just 215 at Customs for the visit of Chiang Mai, and of course none at Rajpracha where neither home or away fans are welcome. If football is not for the fans, then who is it for?
Part of this is of course down to Covid restrictions; some grounds do allow food and drink (necessities at Thai football matches) into the stadium. Others use overzealous security to ensure an abiding memory of thirst and hunger. The inconsistencies are maddening but are typical of unclear directions from both football and local authorities.
Falling attendances means fewer sponsors means less money. The League itself is apparently reducing available club funding next year. Deep-pocketed owners are needed.
There are two possible outcomes; more T2 clubs become support clubs for T1 owners; or some clubs simply will not survive. In the mid-season break Customs Ladkrabang became an “alliance” team of Port FC and have a number of players on loan, with Nanthawat Suankao being the most impressive. This development means that now six T2 clubs have some sort of support arrangement or affiliation with a T1 parent.
Additionally, financial issues hit hard at both Udon Thani and Muangkan over the mid-season break. Both clubs are still very much in the hunt for a play-off spot.
After the first round of games, Udon Thani were in third place just one point behind Sukhothai. What happened there in the break is probably only known to insiders. But a number of key (and in some cases expensive) players left the club including the League’s top scorer, Thales Lima.
A Covid outbreak in January caused the postponement of Udon Thani’s first two games after the restart. A number of players were very unwell. With little sympathy from the League the Orange Giants had to play four games between 23 January and 2 February. Unfit and weary, they lost heavily to both Muangkan and Nakhon Pathom and narrowly at Phrae. A 2nd February draw with Chainat suggests that the new coach may now have the squad that he wants and a play-off place is still achievable.
Muangkan is also under financial scrutiny. In January a FIFA dispute tribunal ordered the club to pay THB 1.7m to former captain Ailton Machada. Muangkan has 45 days to pay before the threat of a transfer ban, and escalating penalties thereafter. There are other cases brought against Muangkan under review by FIFA.
Yet, despite the FIFA scrutiny Muangkan marches on. Top scorer Caion left to join Malaysian League side Selangor. That seems to have created more space for Leandro Assumpcao (Assa) and new signing Kento Nagasaki.
Marlon Enrique moved from Lampang to Muangkan as replacement for Atyom Filposyan; and Prin Gooncha has taken over in goal for veteran Thai goalkeeper, Sinthaweechai. The secret here is that good players have replaced good players; the core of the squad is still together and in the four games played so far in the second half of the season there has only been one change to the starting line-up.
Remember that after ten games Muangkan had just seven points and were 16th in the table. They scored fifteen times and collected thirteen points in the first five games since the restart. Now in seventh place they have risen quickly.
After the 6 February matches both Lampang and Muangkan are now a single point behind Udon Thani in fifth. Muangkan’s game at third-placed Lamphun on 12 February is one to look forward to.
Some good fortune helps as well. Kasetsart were on the wrong end of two very questionable refereeing decisions in their 2-2 draw with Muangkan last weekend. Greg Houla and Simon Dia look like an effective new combination for the Emerald Nagas, at least when they are allowed to play together. Houla was mysteriously sent off in the opening minutes at Chiang Mai and missed the next game in a heavy 1-5 defeat at Lampang.Meanwhile, Trat march on at the top of the table. Not as free scoring as they were; but they remained unbeaten until the start of February and their 0-1 home loss to Lamphun Warriors.
Sukhothai brought in striker Melvin de Leeuw during the break, reuniting him with coach Dennis Amato. Their draw with Lamphun was resilient after playing 87 minutes with just ten men. De Leeuw converted a penalty to equalize in the 93rd minute. The Dutch striker also scored the 2nd minute opener in a 3-0 win against Chainat; a clever 20 yard chip. The gap between first and second is now five points.
Lamphun overtook Udon Thani to move into a strong third place in the League. Like Muangkan they have four wins and a draw since the restart. Thales Lima was a terrific acquisition. He was reportedly heading to Kasetsart from Udon Thani, but that deal fell through and Lamphun moved quickly. The other significant acquisition was the Myanmar national team winger Maung Lwin. The pair upfront should give Lamphun the firepower to finish the season strongly.
The battle for the other play off spaces will be fascinating. Who wants it most? Chiang Mai FC in 11th are only five points away from a play-off place. The BGPU feeder team had taken eight points and was unbeaten in four games after the restart until a heart stopping last minute loss to Sukhothai.
Chainat have largely sailed under the radar – a loss at Sukhothai was their first defeat in nine matches. They have now replaced Udon Thani in fourth.
Phrae’s win at home to Udon Thani was their first win since mid-October. Released by Khon Kaen United, Atthawit Sukshoi is now getting a run of games at Phrae.
The battle for the play off spaces really does keep T2 alive. Players and supporters down to at least 11th place can still dream of a possible spot in T1 next season.
At the other end of the table Navy are now 15 points from safety. They are sunk. Yuki Bamba jumped ship for Lampang. To their great credit the remaining players sail valiantly into battle every week; outgunned, outplayed and out of luck.
Khon Kaen have fallen to 17th – eight points from safety and with just one point in their last four games. Their new front duo of Tiago Chulapa and Carlos Damian have simply not been scoring the goals that might keep the club in contention.
Rajpracha rebuilt their squad in the break bringing in the experience, and personality, of Athibordee (BGPU) with Chutipan (CMFC) in defense and Choe Hoju (Customs), GiSung Yeon (Ranong) and Pohncha (CMFC) up front. Is it enough to keep them up? Any of the teams from 12th to 16th could be the third relegation team.
Almost every team in the League still has something to play for (sorry Navy!). And that is what keeps T2 interesting and why it should have so much better support. With twelve games still to go there is a great deal still to be decided.