Life after Premier League
Imagine having two local football teams on your doorstep. One of them is, arguably, the biggest and most successful team in the country. The other team sit two divisions down and are unknown even to many locals. Which team are you going to watch and root for? For me that decision was so difficult that in the end I had to support both. Muangthong United have already been introduced but now let me lead you to world of ‘Eka’ Nonathaburi FC and Thailand’s Regional League Division 2.
Nonthaburi are a fairly typical D2 side that came into existence two years ago during the Thai football boom. While the glamour teams saw an exponential surge in crowds figures during that period, the lower divisions saw a far more gradual increase in turnout. To this this day crowd numbers are triple-figured at best for most sides but as anyone who knows Thailand will tell you: Thai fans love to cheer-lead. It’s all about colours, flags, singing , drumming and chanting for the passionate locals and a crowd of one hundred or so could probably challenge half of England’s football masses when it comes to noise, though admittedly the large drums do help.
Nonthaburi, like most D2 sides, play in a stadium owned by the local provincial government. As such it is a very standard affair consisting of just one proper stand and a rarely-used running track around the pitch, a government school next door and a guy selling Beer Leo out of an ice box at half time. The pitch itself is actually slightly better maintained than many at this level. It still features plenty of holes, bumps and puddles on a rainy day but unlike other grounds it never resembles an obscure piece of Aztec art during the monsoon season.
Players at regional level are often employed on a part-time basis. For the first two years Nonthaburi FC went against the grain thanks to the big-spending owner of the club and employed full-time players including westerners. Sadly though, in an all-too familiar story for this part of the world, when instant promotion failed to materialise the owner became bored, the strings got cut and the club now operate on a budget of about five million baht for the while year.
Such cost-cutting makes promotion all but impossible. The football boom in Siam created a scramble for local teams who all have to start out at D2 level. The end result is some seventy-odd teams split into five regions all clamouring for a grand total of three promotion spots. The need for an extra division is glaringly clear but there’s been no whisper of any plan from the TFA yet.
The quality of football has dipped accordingly and Nonthaburi themselves are mid-table standard at best. If pushed to describe the standard of Thailand’s lower leagues, I’d say it’s a less physical, slightly faster-paced and more skillful version of England’s Isthmian league Division 2. That’s a very rough comparison though as I’ve explained before, it’s hard to compare Thai football.
A Nonthaburi home game costs 50 baht for a ticket (as do most D2 games), starts at five PM – an hour later than many teams – and will feature about 200-250 home fans and 20-100 away fans. Nonthaburi fans are rowdier than their more glamorous peers at Muangthong but in Thai footie, “rowdy” doesn’t always mean “aggressive”. Supporters of Eka (the club’s nickname, meaning ‘The Crows’) welcome anyone and everyone. You’re more likely to get hugged than punched by this bunch.
That’s the best way I can describe the Division 2 experience. In all honesty, a day at the football is something you have experience for yourself. Perhaps the pictures taken by Nonthaburi fan Bank Kamo that follow this article (photography has become a popular sub-culture among Thai footie fans) can give a better flavour of the day,
Why do I – or anyone else – support a team at this level? Even when I pondered this article you’re now reading, I realised this was something I could not answer. Perhaps it’s my English genes urging me to cheer the underdogs, perhaps it’s my penchant for supporting my local side, maybe it’s more to do with the ease of travelling just a few kilometres to home games and not having to worry about buying a ticket in advance.
In all honesty, it’s probably a mixture of all those points with one vital last ingredient – a true love of football. If you don’t have a real passion for football and go along to watch your local side in Thailand, you’ll find it drab, dirty and dull. Of course, you may well reach that verdict even if you are a ‘true’ footie fan. On the other hand you might just end up travelling to an away game on a coach full of people you don’t know but who treat you like family, cheering players who will come and shake your hand at full time and looking at BKK’s football blogs to see if you’ve moved above another obscure team on goal difference. Like me, you’ll struggle with the rationale for all this but you’ll have no doubt: this is the beautiful game.
All photos courtesy of Bank Kammo
Finally, a clip of my favourite Nonthaburi game, a 3-2 comeback win in September,2011: