Sunday, 9 March 2014

Late Tackle - Two Jays in the Land of Smiles

The recent transfer of ex-England international Jay Bothroyd caused a minor ripple of shock in the football world. The surprise didn’t come from Jay finding another club – it his now his tenth in total – but that his new club is in Thailand.

What added to the shock is that Bothroyd’s new club, Muangthong United, are willing to pay him an extraordinary £5million (tax free!) over the course of his two-year contract.

The attractive financial package surely answers the question as to why Bothroyd made the move to a considerably lower standard of football. But apart from an enormous wage every week what does he expect from his time in Thailand?

In Bothroyd's departing interview with the Daily Mirror he claimed the following:

"Muangthong United is the biggest club in Thailand and has the potential to be one of the most successful in Asia […] Thailand is a beautiful country and football is the national sport here."

It is doubtful that even if Muangthong United were the smallest team in Thailand that this would stop Bothroyd making the move for that salary. But for the record, Jay’s statement is incorrect. It is Buriram United who are the biggest club in the Land of Smiles.

Last season, Buriram had an average crowd of 18,941 compared to Muangthong’s 10,888 – the third highest in Thai football. Buriram also won the domestic treble and reached the quarterfinal of the AFC Champions League. Muangthong finished 7 points behind Buriram in second place.

Bothroyd is also wrong about football being the national sport in Thailand. Muay Thai boxing (kickboxing) is, badminton a close second. Watching Premier League football is a very popular pastime though and most Thai’s support a team from England. There are enormous adverts for Premier League teams all over Bangkok - even for Watford on the side of some buses – and the bigger English clubs ensure they always include Thailand in their preseason tour.

Thai domestic football doesn’t have the same popularity, as many Thai’s don’t even support a domestic team. Outside of the top three supported teams in Thailand, the average attendances of just a few thousand, are what you would expect of League One clubs in England - with many clubs having the embarrassment of playing in enormous, mostly empty stadiums.

In the recent curtain raiser to the Thai domestic season, the Kor Royal Cup (Thailand’s equivalent of the Charity Shield), Bothroyd was not the only Englishman playing, nor was he the only Jay. Jay Simpson, the ex- Arsenal and Hull City striker had signed for Buriram United a few months before Bothroyd for another staggering wage of £40k a week.

It was Simpson who won the battle of the Jays as Buriram won the game 1-0 and Simpson scored the winner despite appearing as a substitute in the 65th minute. The game itself was a microcosm of Thai football and shows exactly what the two Jays can expect from their time in Thailand.

The standard of refereeing in Thailand is at best average at worst abysmal. Mostly it is just confusing. The Kor Royal Cup was no exception. Buriram had four goals disallowed, two incorrectly for offside.  One goal was also disallowed because rather than waving ‘play on’ when there was a great chance to score, the referee blew for a penalty just a second before the ball went into the net.

The resulting penalty summed up the talent on show in Thailand. It was taken by Suchao Nuchnum a regular Thai international. He scuffed his shot and made it look like a back-pass to the goalkeeper. This isn’t surprising as the Thai national team are very poor and currently enduring one of the worst spells in their history. They are bottom of their qualifying group for the Asian Cup and have no chance of qualifying for the finals.

There are a number of good players in Thailand though, but they are all foreigners. The pick of the bunch is Carmelo Gonzalez, an ex Spain under-21 international who played most of his career in the Spanish top flight. Carmelo, who plays for Buriram United, was both the best player in Thailand and also the top scorer last season. Sadly, there was nobody else who was remotely his equal.

It was typical Thai football that was on show in the Kor Royal Cup. End to end action, not a hint of a slow build up, a mixture of short passing and long balls. Not unlike a Premier League game but without the quality. Although the play is fast, injuries do regularly break it up. Or supposed injuries. It is probably the excessive heat that causes many of the players to stay down for a long time, rather than any serious injury.  What is unusual is that whenever a foul is committed the aggressor shakes hands with the ‘injured’ – can you imagine this in England?

What was strange to see at a game in Thailand was a banner from the Muangthong fans that read ‘Welcome to Hell’. This could only have been an ironic message as Thai football fans are very respectful to the opposition. You won’t normally hear any insulting songs, and at the end of the game both sets of fans applaud each other and the players. Although attendances are small the crowd do their best to make an atmosphere as they have many banners, songs and even flares distracting you from the empty seats.

Bothroyd, wearing the number 9 shirt and with ‘Jay Bo’ written on his back, had plenty of time to view the crowd on his debut as he was mostly a peripheral figure. He lined up in a 4-3-2-1 formation with him being one of the two playing behind the main striker. He was hardly in the game though apart from a decent penalty shout after a good run in the second half.

Simpson’s performance was in complete contrast to Bothroyd’s. He came on in the 65th minute and looked sharp straight away, easily outmuscling and outpacing his marker several times. He scored ten minutes later only for it to be harshly disallowed for offside but then legitimately scored a minute after with a composed curling effort after harrying the last defender. Despite his brief appearance he was definitely man of the match.

Jay Simpson’s immediate impact helps to justify his enormous wage and the decision of Thai clubs to spend so heavily on overseas players. And with more money coming into Thai football than ever before, they surely won’t be the last English players to make the move over there. Perhaps there will also be more than two Jays in the Land of Smiles next season – has Jay Jay Okacha still got his boots?

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