When it comes to Thai politicians and football, most fans inside and outside Asia would likely immediately think of Thaksin Shinawatara’s purchase of English Premier League club Manchester City in 2007.
There has, though, been another – much more successful – partnership.
Newin Chidchob, a former ally of Thaksin’s, took over a team called the Provincial Electricity Authority in 2009. He moved the club from Ayutthaya to his home province of Buriram in the rural northeast of the country, and in the process PEA Buriram was born.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Newin is well-known in the region, and is very wealthy. And largely thanks to his efforts, the team are now Thai champions. With only three games of the season remaining, Buriram are 15 points clear at the top.
Newin has spent money on his new club buying domestic stars and expensive imports. The locals have responded by flocking to the newly-built stadium in large numbers.
This is at least partly because of the free tickets, food and merchandise that have been handed out by the club, all of which have helped build a fan base in almost record time. Such moves have been criticized as artificial, but the fans are there regardless.
Newin is currently serving a five-year ban from politics that was handed down in 2007 after he was found guilty of vote buying.That ban doesn’t stop him from being the de facto leader of the Bhumjaithai Party, which has 34 seats in the nation’s House of Representatives.
Still, there are concerns that the club is simply being used as a vehicle to further his political ambitions. After all, most of the fans it seems don’t just support the club, they support the party too.
Sanong Thep-aksornnarong, a local Bhumjaithai candidate in the election, said that he believes around 80 percent of the 70,000 fans in the town would vote for Newin’s party.
Many of the fans in the stadium wear shirts with the number 16 on the back, which was the number of the party on the ballot paper in the July elections.
“Buriram PEA takes good care of its fans,” Sanong reportedly said. “Fans who fall sick after cheering the team during rainstorms receive medical treatment allowances.”
That isn’t all for Newin. His wife ran the province’s other club, and ran it very well – so much so that it won promotion to the Thai Premier League, causing a headache for the authorities in the process.To have two clubs basically owned by the same person and in the same league is against the rules in most countries. As a result, it now looks as if the two will merge ahead of the 2012 season.
Next year is when Newin wants to start making a splash outside the country. The team has been handed a spot in the 2012 Asian Champions League, although the group is tough with the champions of Japan, South Korea and China for company. Not even an ambitious operator such as Newin is demanding a place in the second round – that’s the target for 2013.
By that time, he will be officially allowed back in the political fray, backed by a popular and successful football team and a grateful province.