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Saturday, November 17, 2007

Football on a political pitch

Reactions were mixed regarding the arrival of football manager Sven-Goran Eriksson and the signing of three young Thai players to the Manchester City Football Club.

November 17, 2007

My take: More details reported on Sven visit with views from Thai reporter.

On the one hand, many people were happy for the three athletes. It's a dream come true to play in one of the world's most watched leagues. For the fans here there has never been such an achievement by local players.

On the other hand, it's hard not to sense a "political atmosphere" when Thaksin Shinawatra's children accompany one of the world's top coaches on a conspicuous signing mission.

Eriksson's presence was by all means meant to send a message that "This is real!" The English football club has signed up Thai players Kiatprawut Saiwaeo, Teerasil Daengda and Suree Sukha. The timing couldn't be better: Manchester City now ranks third in the Premier League table.

Eriksson may or may not be aware that his visit was well scheduled - over a month before the general election and on the same day as the People Power Party's first major rally in Bangkok, where Thaksin's recorded speech was supposed to be broadcast to supporters. The plan was abruptly cancelled by the party.

Whether the Blues' move has political implications or not, yesterday was the day that Thaksin originally planned to deliver two speeches - to Thai football fans and to PPP's supporters.

It's hard for the public to tell sports from politics. Thaksin's image was seen during the PPP's campaign. Likewise, there was a cardboard model of him in a Blues jersey walking around the Conrad Hotel, where the press conference took place.

Sceptics question whether his trip and the signing are really necessary at this time. Under normal circumstances, such a historical move should have been celebrated with the presence of Thai ministers - at least from the Sports and Tourism Ministry - but attending the press conference were only Thailand's Football Association and the Chon Buri Football Club.

The press was also dubious about whether the club knew the Thai players well enough, as the video presentation at the press conference got the name of Kiatprawut as Kiatprapong. Some wondered whether Eriksson knew the three well enough to sign them.

During the conference, a member of the press asked Eriksson whether the signing was a direct order from the club's owner or Eriksson's decision. Surely it could mean the decision was due to more than football. However, he confirmed that the signing was his idea.

"We're a football team, and players are football-players. We never discuss politics," Eriksson said later in an interview aired on TITV.

Eriksson could have sensed from that kind of question that the local and international journalist crowd was signalling that it was not all about football.

Nevertheless, he appeared friendly and did the job of an ambassador of his club well. He was polite enough to slow down when someone wanted to take his photograph while he was walking.

At the nearly two-hour exclusive press luncheon, Eriksson spoke little. About 20 people were at the table, including members of the press, especially those covering English football, and Manchester City's management, including Panthongtae Shinawatra.

Pairoj Piampongsarn, a club board member sitting next to Eriksson, talked about the club's ambitions following Thaksin's goal to boost the profile of the club in Asian markets. The idea is that the Premiere League should adopt a give-and-take approach. The region is one of the biggest markets for the league, so it should provide a chance for Asian players to show their stuff in the league.

"The FA's [English Football Association's] regulation is rather strict and not so open to foreign players. I've met them and expressed my thoughts," Pairoj said.

Pairoj also told the press that they were all welcome to watch the matches in England. "We have about 40 seats for each game."

Thaksin's daughters Pinthongta and Paethongtarn walked around the table after the Thai lunch and handed a Manchester City jersey to each guest as a souvenir. Markers were prepared as the Man City manager got ready to autograph the team's shirts for guests.

Eriksson became busy again as he signed shirts and posed with guests. There was no sign of unwillingness, and the luncheon ended almost one hour earlier than scheduled at 3pm, as the manager had to go to another TV interview.

The manager excused himself and bid farewell to all the guests. The Swedish coach's job was nearly finished, and he was scheduled to fly home yesterday evening.

Without a doubt his visit boosted the profile of Manchester City and fanned the hopes of this football-crazy nation. By the time he arrives back in England, Eriksson will surely realise that there is a very blurred line between politics and soccer in the case of Manchester City. Strange as it seems, his club's chairman Thaksin probably doesn't mind keeping it that way.

Veena Thoopkrajae

The Nation

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