Officially, politics has no place in Southeast Asian soccer. Believe that and you’ll believe anything. The bonds between sport and politics run wide and deep. But if Malaysia can throw out its ruling party after 60 years in power then perhaps there can be change in sport too.
It will not be easy, given that many in the region see political nous as an essential element in soccer management. “My political background is great experience for football,” a well-connected Thai, Somyot Poompanmoung, told me over lunch in Bangkok in February 2016.
Appointed to Thailand’s National Legislative Council in 2014, Somyot had resigned his post as head of the country’s police to run for election as president of the Football Association of Thailand. When I asked him about the sport, he admitted that he knew the names of only the most famous of his country’s players. He won the election, though.
Somyot is probably correct in thinking that politics are an integral part of the job for the head of a national soccer federation, who has to balance the interests of domestic stakeholders with the requirements of regional, continental and global sports authorities. Yet most political involvement in soccer takes place at local levels, well away from the glare of national and international politics.
Bangkok is so different from Thailand’s rural northeast that it feels almost like a separate country. The two regions are poles apart politically. But sport in the northeast is just as politically important as in Bangkok, as the career of a savvy politician called Newin Chidchob illustrates.
Buriram United, based in the northeastern province of Buriram, is the top soccer club in Southeast Asia, established and funded by Newin, once a prominent supporter of former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and later a supporter of the rival Democrats. The motorcycle-riding owner has stepped back from the political arena under the military junta that took power in 2014, but the army of fans that flocks to the gleaming stadium he built for the club can be relied on to support any return to the fray.
On a visit to the stadium in 2016 I sat with some of these fans, clad in dark blue club shirts, eating the free food provided by Newin. All expressed admiration for the club boss. “Unlike politicians in Bangkok, he cares about the people here. He has made Buriram known around Asia, and has given us something to be proud of,” said one.
These fans were happy with their hero’s sporting involvement. But there is an emerging view that politics should be separated from sport. In Malaysia, for example, 14 of the 20 top tier clubs are funded by state governments, making political interference unavoidable. Clubs are subject to the whims of politicians and the economic and political demands of state and national governments.
This model, which applies throughout much of Asia, contrasts sharply with Europe, where most soccer clubs are run as private entities. State funding can provide financial stability, but reformers want clubs to stand on their own feet, arguing that political involvement can undermine innovation and engagement with communities and local companies because clubs do not need to raise revenue to survive.
Pahang FA, based in Kuantan, capital of the Malaysian east coast state of Pahang, pointed the way to a new model in 2016, with pioneering plans for privatization. Fahrizal Hasan, a local businessman who was then the club’s CEO, said that relying on state largesse was an outdated model.
“It is not stable, and you never know what is going to happen,” Fahrizal told me at the time. “We want to become independent and look after ourselves commercially. The government knows that Pahang (FA) can help promote the state. We want to work together with the government, but not to rely on them.”
The attempt failed to unify Pahang stakeholders, and fizzled in the face of opposition from senior state officials. But the debate is not over. Fans have taken to social media to demand accountability, and a website set up by a Twitter user called Padang Bola Sepak is mobilizing support for change.
There have also been calls from fans for Malaysia to adopt the main ownership model in Germany, which allows supporters collectively to hold majority shares in the clubs they follow.
It remains to be seen if this is feasible in the Asian context. But loosening the ties between soccer and politics should remain the sport’s principal goal in the long run, even if it imposes short-term pain.
John Duerden is an Asia-based writer who has covered Asian soccer for 20 years.