The Thai League has recently announced a significant expansion to its foreigner quota, allowing clubs to register more players from abroad for the upcoming campaign. How will the changes impact the competition, and will they be beneficial or harmful for Thai football overall?
For the first time since 2017, the Thai League has announced an amendment to its foreign player quota. In the season which just concluded, clubs were allowed to register three players from anywhere, one more from within the AFC (Asian Football Confederation) and three from within ASEAN (Southeast Asia). Starting from the 2022-23 season, the quota will increase to contain five free slots, one AFC slot and unlimited ASEAN slots in the overall squad. However, clubs will still be limited to the same “3+1+3” quota in the matchday squad, meaning both on the pitch and the bench.
As with any major change, the new regulations have been greeted with both optimism and concern, sparking major debate among Thai League supporters. While expanding the foreign quota does pose some potential drawbacks, the benefits of this move should ultimately outweigh them in the long run.
Supporters of the move primarily argue that the quality of the league will improve as clubs are able to sign more ‘higher quality’ players. Many have argued that the league’s ‘quality’ has declined ever since the quota was tightened back in 2017, however that sentiment is debatable. It is also arguable that the level of coaching and tactical sophistication has continued to improve during that time. Combining both could see a major boost in the product on display in the Thai League.
The most commonly cited drawback is the reduction of opportunities for local talent due to the expanded quota. Supporters of the harsher quota correctly argue that the Thai national team has developed a larger pool of high-quality players ever since the 2017 reforms, coinciding with a stricter foreign quota. However, it is important to note that the quota for given matchday squads doesn’t change, so most likely the same number of Thai players will be on the pitch at any given moment, while the additional foreign players will provide squad depth. Local players could also use the greater competition for places as an opportunity to improve and push themselves further to earn starting berths. Lastly, having foreign players competing against each other to start could also increase the intensity of training sessions, if the man-management aspect is handled correctly.
Another potential drawback is the limited opportunities for young players which could arise as a result of this move. Since there will be foreign players waiting in reserve, opportunities and minutes which would otherwise go to young players will likely be given to them instead. The quota could also encourage more higher-quality senior players to drop into the second division for more game time; undoubtedly a positive thing for that league’s quality, but could again be taking the place of the young players who have regularly started for many T2 clubs. Whether this can be outweighed by the benefits of having more experienced foreign players in training remains to be seen.
The quota also benefits Thai talent by potentially opening up more avenues to move abroad. As clubs are able to recruit more foreign players, they could be more willing to let local stars move and try their hand in places like the J.League, K.League or even in Europe. It has been proven that there is no shortage of demand for Thai players from J.League clubs, but given the limited size of the local talent pool, clubs have been unwilling to let their players leave. Since the quota was announced, Buriram’s Supachok Sarachart and BG Pathum’s Chaowat Veerachart (arguably the most impressive and talented local player in either squad) have either already moved or are on the cusp of doing so respectively.
More importantly, by expanding the talent pool, the foreign quota solves what is arguably the Thai League’s biggest ongoing problem; the spiralling inflation of wages and transfer fees over the past few seasons. As a quick snap-shot, all of the top five most expensive Thai League transfers have taken place since 2017, as have nine of the highest ten. The increase in spending by clubs such as Port FC and BG Pathum United have greatly contributed to the inflation, but so has the reduction in the ‘supply’ of top quality players due to the tightened quota restrictions. Expanding the talent pool available to clubs will reduce the inflationary pressure on transfer fees, by giving clubs more players from abroad to invest in. Furthermore, clubs will no longer need to spend big to sign quality players to pad out their squads, and the reduced competition for players should stop the escalation of fees.
This ‘inflation’ has created two major problems for the Thai League, which the new quota can hopefully alleviate. Firstly, since wages and transfer fees have increased significantly, clubs with more money have massively benefitted. Many T2 and lower-T1 clubs are unable to compete against the bigger teams when offering player salaries, and it has become more financially lucrative for players to be substitutes or reserves at the bigger clubs than regular starters at less-wealthy ones. Secondly, it makes players less likely to move abroad, as clubs from other countries are unwilling to pay the high transfer fees seen in the domestic market, and their wages become significantly less competitive when compared to local options in places such as Japan or South Korea. Having more players in the J.League, K League or Europe would be hugely beneficial to the Thai national team, but the rapid inflation makes that considerably more difficult, often relying on Thai clubs to be charitable in releasing their players, and occasionally for those players to be driven enough to take pay cuts when moving abroad.
Lastly, one final argument is that going directly to a 5+1 quota could make the league more unequal in the short run. Rich clubs will be able to supplement their squad depth with higher quality foreigners in reserve, and given the global travel restrictions, could end up poaching players who are regulars at smaller clubs. However, in the long run, it is actually likely to make the league more equal. Firstly, it will curb the aforementioned rapid inflation of transfer fees, and will allow smaller clubs to improve their own squad depth with higher quality players too. Secondly, with a larger pool of talented players, it becomes more difficult for any single club (or small group of clubs) to monopolise the talent pool, making the league more competitive. As a result, good scouting, shrewd market activity and squad management could become more important, and see some of the smaller teams compete with the big boys.
Without a doubt, the new expanded foreign player quota will have a huge impact on the dynamics of the Thai League next season. Whether it will improve the division’s competitiveness and standard of play remains to be seen, and the knock-on effects it will have on the National Team are even more speculative. However, with the transfer window now open, the first signs can’t be too far away.