Investment in foreign clubs being seen as win-win situation to develop Thai football

Investment in foreign clubs being seen as win-win situation to develop Thai football

There has been some concern over a constant outflow of money from the country in recent years, with Thai investors seemingly following one after another to buy overseas football clubs. However, those involved all believe that the investments will in turn help develop the sport in the Kingdom.

Certainly, it is nothing new to see Thai businessmen become the owners of foreign clubs, particularly in England, where the English Premier League is the most popular overseas league of all among Thai fans.

Given the deep affection Thais have for the EPL, it is not strange for Thai businessmen to want to tap into this strong interest by trying to associate themselves in one way or another with arguably the world's most-watched football league.

Thai Beverage - the country's leading drinks producer, better known as ThaiBev - was the first to tie itself to an English club by securing a shirt sponsorship deal with Everton, a deal which last year celebrated its 10th anniversary.

ThaiBev's business rival Singha Corp then followed suit by reaching an agreement to become the official partner of two EPL giants, Manchester United and Chelsea, with AP Honda - the Thai distributor of Honda motorcycles - being among others to clinch similar sponsorship deals.

The wind, though, has started to change direction in recent years, with Thai investors now looking to go one step further by owning an English club themselves.

After former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra's ill-fated reign as the owner of Manchester City eight years ago, King Power International - the country's duty-free retailer - restarted the trend in 2010 with the acquisition of Leicester City, which was playing in the second-tier division at the time.

King Power's ownership of Leicester proved a success, with investment ploughed in by the Thai owners culminating in the East Midlands club's return to the top flight this season for the first time since 2004.

The achievement of King Power and Leicester seemed to trigger the interest of other Thai investors to enter the fray, with Thai club Police United's president, Samrit Bunditkitsada, being the next to jump on the bandwagon when he led a consortium to take over second-tier English club Reading last year.

Sheffield Wednesday - also in the second-tier Championship - then became the third English club currently owned by Thai interests at the end of January, following a takeover by Dejphon Chansiri, whose family owns the Thai Union Frozen Group, the world's largest canned-tuna company.

Bee Taechaubol, executive director of Southeast Asian private equity group Thai Prime Company, is the latest to make a bid for a foreign club.

However, he has broken away from the trend by attempting to buy Italy's Serie-A heavyweight AC Milan, with the outcome of negotiations expected to be concluded soon.

Should Bee succeed in his bid for the seven-time European champions, it would be the biggest such deal ever done by Thai investors, after he reportedly offered 1 billion euros (Bt36.27 billion) for a controlling stake at the Italian club.

Such a staggering amount could bring about massive improvement in terms of facilities if the money were instead to be spent in Thailand, which would no doubt help the already fast-growing domestic league expand at an even faster pace.

However, Police United boss Samrit sees it differently, saying that investment abroad is just another way to help develop Thai football.

"It was all about sporting reasons [when deciding to buy Reading]. We deemed it okay to do business if the chance [to buy a football club] came by, and if we could afford it. I saw it as the opportunity to learn football in a really professional way."

Samrit also believes it requires full-scale investment to help upgrade Thai football as a whole.

"To invest money in the domestic game, there is no guarantee of success. If we do decide to do so, we need to make investment across the system, not just in buying one or two teams. That would result in the overall improvement of Thai football," he said.

Surapol Utintu, executive director of Thai Beverage Marketing, sings a similar tune, arguing that it is a case of everything to gain from making investment in football overseas.

"By sponsoring or buying these teams, it helps create awareness of our country on the world map. In the past, not many had any idea about our country, but since we [Thai investors] have sponsored or bought Premier League teams, people recognise our country more everywhere I go.

"We learn from how they select junior players and learn their scouting system, the training system, nutrition and educational programme - and we [ThaiBev] can even send our juniors to train at Finch Farm [Everton's training ground]. We even set up a Chang Everton Junior programme and select talented young players to have training experience at Finch Farm."

National team coach Kiatisak Senamuang also sees only benefits from increasing Thai investment in foreign football leagues.

"It's a win-win situation for our country, and especially for our children, that English football clubs belong to Thais. It will bring opportunities for Thai kids to train and have overseas experience with international teams," he said.

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