Football turns sleepy town into big draw

Football turns sleepy town into big draw
Picture Caption: A teacher wearing a Buriram United jersey at a Buriram school. During the last season, the football club sold 420,000 of its shirts.

IT IS Sports Day at Bualuang Witthayakhom school.

Students shuffle into the compound in standard issue green shirts over sweat pants.

Teachers have another uniform - a navy blue jersey with the crest of the local football team.

The microfibre shirt is tucked into skirts, jeans or jogging pants, and dressed up with belts or topped with scarves.

Above all, it is worn with pride.

This is Buriram, a Thai province bordering Cambodia and which has about 1.5 million people.

It was once better known for droughts that parched its rice fields and for ancient Khmer-style temple ruins known to locals as "castle".

It was a place you passed through on the way to somewhere else.

Now, a football team that is storming through national league tables has captured the imagination of people in the region and is helping to transform the one-horse town into a regional attraction.

Buriram's young people once couldn't wait to leave.

Now many are choosing to stay.

"Lots of students now want to play football," says high school teacher Wisit Thepthong.

Buriram United, as the team is called, has won 14 titles over the past five years.

It clinched its third Thai premier league title last year.

The club has a four-star hotel named after it.

Footballers play in a 550-million baht (S$23 million), 32,600-seat monolith of a stadium nicknamed "Thunder Castle", the largest of its kind in the country and built to inspire the kind of awe a Manchester United fan might get stepping into Old Trafford.

Next to the stadium is a premier 4.6-km motor racing track, completed in October, that will host the Superbike World Championship next month.

Just around the corner, a new go-kart compound entices budding speedsters.

A sport adventure park is in the works.

Hotels and restaurants are mushrooming, and farmers are switching to premium crops to adapt to foreign tastes.

Even as Thailand's military government frets over a lower-than- expected national growth projection of 3.9 per cent this year, the mood in Buriram is unmistakably upbeat.

The number of Cambodian and foreign visitors rose from 1.08 million in 2012 to 1.19 million in 2013.

By August last year, it had grown some 70 per cent.

Among them is Ms Nitayawan Vejchamtham, a 65-year-old retiree who lives five hours away in Bangkok and decided to stay an extra night in Buriram while on a temple tour.

"I learnt about the stadium from TV," she says. "I just needed to have a look myself."

Much of Buriram's transformation has been driven by Mr Newin Chidchob, the former right-hand man of exiled ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra who famously switched camps after the latter was ousted in the 2006 coup.

The Buriram-born tycoon, who once held the post of junior agriculture minister, turned his attention to football and racing after receiving a five-year ban from politics in 2007 for electoral fraud, and has not looked back since.

When the military seized power again in May last year, this time displacing the government of Thaksin's sister Yingluck Shinawatra, it clamped down on the north-east, a hotbed of support for the erstwhile ruling Puea Thai party.

Buriram was spared much of the fallout because its people's loyalty lay with Mr Newin and his clan rather than Thaksin.

Trim and tanned, the 56-year-old father of four is a walking billboard for his ventures.

He turns up for an interview on a limited-edition KTM superbike wearing a Buriram United jersey paired with electric blue sneakers.

"We created all of this," he says. "It was not given to us by nature.

We had no natural resources, unlike the people in Phuket and Pattaya, who have the sea, or the people in Chiang Mai, who have mountains."

Villagers speak of a time when Buriram's football jerseys and match tickets were given away free, but he turns coy when asked how he grew the football craze.

"The team must belong to everyone," he says.

Footballers have to dine at Buriram's night market after every match, so that vendors increase their earnings when adoring fans follow.

It's a task that fills Buriram captain Suchao Nutnum with dread whenever his team doesn't win.

"I still have to go, so I can cheer up my fans," he says.

Mr Newin has styled Buriram United as a provincial upstart, thumbing his nose at established urban clubs like SCG Muangthong United or BEC Tero Sasana around Bangkok.

He calls his team "Champ Sokrao", using the word for "upcountry" in the local Khmer dialect. "We will be the country bumpkins, but we are good and proud of it," he says.

The defiance has rubbed off on local residents, who have turned the club jersey into everyday wear.

Staff at the municipal office put it on every Wednesday - when league matches are usually played.

So do vegetable sellers and trishaw riders.

The club has apparel distributors in Japan, China, Korea and even Singapore.

During the last season, it sold 420,000 of its shirts for at least 540 baht a piece. That's close to a quarter of how many shirts Manchester United sold last year.

Shorn of political office, Mr Newin retains considerable soft power.

Shortly after completing the circuit, he urged Buriram's businessmen to build more hotels, but warned them against raising rates excessively during match or race days.

"We don't want people to feel like we are ripping them off," he says.

Local officials say they check establishments downtown for compliance.

Mr Newin thinks his "Buriram model" of sport tourism will draw premium spenders and help contain the social problems that come with having too many tourist-oriented nightspots.

The province's Chamber of Commerce has fallen in line, promoting plans to turn Buriram into a "world class sports city" and spreading word of a mini-marathon on the racing circuit during the recent Valentine's Day.

Amid all these developments, the football club has a simple task - to keep on winning.

With Thai football fans now paying more attention to local leagues instead of just European staples like La Liga and the English Premier League, each Buriram victory notches up the interest that keeps visitors coming, and money flowing in.

Even training matches are taken seriously.

One evening before a friendly game with the Thai national team - the recently crowned ASEAN champions - Mr Newin gathers his boys around the pitch at Thunder Castle.

With his voice low and forehead scrunched, he tells them to give the national squad a good workout. "Whoever scores a goal tomorrow will get 100,000 baht," he declares.

Buriram went on to beat Thailand 1-0.

 Is ‘Uncle Newin of Buriram’ just cooling his heels?

MR NEWIN Chidchob, football club owner, stadium builder and motor-racing circuit developer, is talking about the four-star hotel he has just built in his hometown of Buriram.

"I could have built 500 rooms, but I did only 60. I wanted to let others have the chance to do it," he says. "I wanted a win-win arrangement."

It has been more than six years since the former minister left politics, but he still sounds like he is on the campaign trail.

"We are doing this for the people, not for ourselves," he says.

To many people in this north- eastern Thai province, which hugs the bottom rungs of economic league tables, he is a hero who saved it from oblivion. He also gave them a winning football team that has made it cool to be "sokrao", or upcountry in the local Khmer dialect.

"People believe Newin more than they believe the governor," says Mr Kamol Ruangsooksriwong, the mayor of Buriram municipality. "He is like the father of the people."

Views about him in the Thai capital are not so charitable, however. The 56-year-old scion of a Buriram-based construction industry tycoon and Parliament speaker spent more than two decades in politics, frequently tainted by graft and vote-buying allegations.

In 2004, he joined Thaksin Shinawatra's Thai Rak Thai party, which went on to dominate the erstwhile fractured political scene until the latter was ousted by a military putsch in 2006.

Two years later, he defected from the Thaksin-backed People's Power Party, taking with him enough parliamentarians to install Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva as prime minister.

Distrusted by Bangkok's elite and middle class, and detested by the pro-Thaksin "red shirt" movement for his betrayal, he withdrew into the world of football and racing in Buriram. Yet he never quite faded from the national political consciousness.

Late last year, as the military junta consolidated control after throwing out the caretaker government of Thaksin's sister Yingluck Shinawatra, the rumour mill went into overdrive about a possible tie-up between Mr Newin and the generals to create a political party that would extend military dominance after fresh elections were held.

Polls are expected to be held next year, after a new Constitution is drafted.

When asked about it, he neither confirms nor denies such a discussion. "I felt like I was in hell when I was in politics," he says. "No one is stupid enough to go into hell twice."

He does proffer a way to take Thailand forward. "Use the new generation," he says. "This is the digital age… the country will never progress if people still holding on to power are people from the analogue world."

The "old people", he declares, should "step back".

Just how old is too old?

Fifty years, he says. That benchmark automatically disqualifies just about everyone in Thailand's military-dominated Cabinet.

Chiang Mai University political scientist Tanet Charoenmaung thinks Mr Newin's political career is far from over.

"He is very smart and very effective," he says. "He is the guy who knows how to get things done, even if he is quietly doing it behind the scenes."

Buriram does not sit on either side of Thailand's political divide. It does not belong to the "red" camp supporting the ousted government or the "yellow camp" inhabited by Thailand's royalist elites.

It is firmly "blue", the colour adopted by the Newin-backed Bhum Jai Thai orThai Pride party.

One Buriram official told The Straits Times he would not hold up business approvals because "Newin would not allow it".

At the same time, football is helping Mr Newin grow his reach.

Every replica jersey of his football team, Buriram United, comes with a tag bearing a picture of him and his wife Karuna. Blown-up pictures of him on the football pitch adorn the walls of suites in Amari Buriram United hotel.

Provincial "godfathers" like Mr Newin built their influence on close connections with the state authorities that are used to generate benefits for those under their patronage, say academics.

Thaksin upended these patronage networks with populist policies that applied nationwide.

Yet, Mr Newin and his clan have not only weathered this change, but adapted to it, says Chulalongkorn University political scientist Viengrat Nethipo.

Since taking over, the military government has steadily crimped the power of politicians vis-a-vis bureaucrats. This will probably make it easier for godfathers to grow their dominance again, says Dr Viengrat.

In the media though, Mr Newin laughs off any notion of him as a godfather-style figure.

"No, no," he says, with a glint in his eye. "I am Uncle Newin of Buriram."

Newin Chidchob's projects

i-mobile Stadium: Also called the "Thunder Castle". The largest football stadium in Thailand and home to Buriram United, multiple champions of the Thai premier league

Amari Buriram United hotel: A 60-room four-star hotel with football-related decor dedicated to the home team

Chang International Circuit: A 4.6-km-long Formula One- grade motor racing circuit

This article was first published on Feb 24, 2015.
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