Football in Phuket
Football is hugely popular in Thailand and Phuket is no exception. Every weekend fans gather at bars and restaurants to watch games from the major European leagues. If Man U or Liverpool are playing then there will always be a good turn out. Thais love their football and the Phuket fans are fortunate that they can not only watch football on TV but now also have a successful professional team of their own.
Phuket also has a thriving local football scene. There are many local teams and there are always tournaments taking place somewhere on the island. The teams pay entrance money to play in these tournaments and the winners receive prize money. This adds a bit of extra spice to the tournament and there are many local teams that take them very seriously. Some of these teams train every day and some of the players do nothing else but play football. With prize money in excess of 100,000-baht for the biggest tournaments, it is not surprising that there are good players who take them seriously.
The older players even take the senior's tournaments surprisingly seriously. There are many tournaments for players aged over 35 or over 40. There are at least a couple of ex-international players regularly turning out in these tournaments. It is also not unusual to hear of teams drafting in star players from other provinces to bolster their chances.
While many teams take these tournaments seriously, the Thai character naturally expects that they should also be fun. There is almost always a commentator with a microphone to entertain the crowd with a few witticisms. The crowds may be small but they usually do their best to encourage the players with a bit of support.
There are also plenty of good ex-pat players around Phuket and they often form teams to enter the local tournaments. These foreigner teams have some success but in the end, they usually succumb to the fitness levels and organisation of the best local teams, not to mention their impressive skill levels.
Phuket Football Club
This thriving local football scene recently gained a new focal point with the formation of a professional team. Phuket Football Club formed in 2009 when the Football Association of Thailand finally created a national league and invited every province to enter a team.
It comes as a surprise to many that this football mad country did not previously have a national league. The Thai Premier League contained teams mostly based around Bangkok with just a few other major cities represented. The teams involved included the police, the army and the Telephone Organisation of Thailand. There were minor provincial leagues around the rest of the country playing under a separate organisation.
In 2009, the FAT finally created a national league structure under a single umbrella. They formed a national league with a Premier Division, Division 1 and 5 regional divisions. There is a promotion and relegation system that allows teams to rise from the bottom to the top. This has to be great news for the development of football in Thailand. Each province has its own professional team to develop the best local players. Then there is a pyramid for the best players to climb to the top. It will bring funding to elite player development and give Thailand the talent base to develop a competitive international team.
Thailand is already among the best teams in South East Asia but they struggle against the best teams in Asia such as Japan, South Korea and the Middle Eastern nations. They are still a class below the best international teams. They do have tremendous enthusiasm for the sport and plenty of natural talent. With a genuine national football structure in place, they will surely start to climb the world rankings over the coming decades.
So what about Phuket FC? They joined the Div 2 Southern Region in 2009. They followed a dreadful first season with a very successful second season.
Phuket's football administrators were not prepared for the invite to enter a team into a national league. When the invite arrived, they were not sure how to form a provincial team so they decided to select the team that won the local King's Cup tournament. The King's Cup is one of Phuket's major tournaments. It takes place over six weeks on the beach road pitch in Patong.
The team that wins the King's Cup is undoubtedly a very good local team. However, entering that team into a professional league was a bit like asking your local Sunday League champions to try their luck in a professional league. They battled manfully but were a little out of their depth and soon rooted to the bottom of the table. Half way through the season, they realised they had to spread the net and held trials to find the best players in Phuket. The squad was improved, results improved but Phuket still finished the season bottom.
Phuket expected better so they hired a professional manager from Bangkok for the 2010 season. He revamped the squad and introduced professional training routines at the new FIFA training camp in Cape Panwa. The new manger brought in some top local players and also three imports from the Ivory Coast. These three players, reputedly earning around 30,000-baht a month, have proved greatly influential in Phuket's subsequent success. It is perhaps an indication of just how much playing talent there is in Africa that these 3 players are willing to play in Thailand for a comparatively modest wage.
Phuket FC comfortably topped their southern region division and qualified for the promotion play-offs against the top teams from the other regional divisions.
Their play-off campaign was a tension packed rollercoaster. The story became all the more dramatic after one of their Ivory Coast stars, Ahmed Camara, suffered a heart attack during a crucial victory over Chainat FC. He teetered on the edge of death for several days and remains on a long and difficult path to recovery.
With the importance of football put firmly in perspective, Phuket FC's away form was disappointing with no victories. Their home form was imperious with win after win. An away defeat to promotion rivals Chainat left Phuket's promotion hopes hanging by a thread. However, a crucial home victory against Rayong in their penultimate game put their destiny firmly in their own hands again. A dramatic come-from-behind victory over Samut Prakhan in their final match on Christmas Day was enough to top the group and earn Phuket FC promotion to Division 1 for the 2011 season.
Phuket FC play their games at Surakul Stadium in Phuket Town. They regularly attract crowds of around 5,000 people. As you would expect from a Thai crowd, they like to make the event fun. They call themselves 'The Hulks' (Phuket FC play in green you see). There is a vocal singing section, and they sing loudly for the entire match. The away fans often bring their own singing section and it is common for the fans to join together and sing the name of the opposing team as a mark of respect. Entrance is only 50-baht and there is no two-tier pricing. You can bring your own cans of beer or other refreshments but no bottles.
The standard of football is very good. It is not Premier League but the teams would certainly compare to top non-league teams in England. So if you fancy enjoying a live football match in a lively atmosphere then you should pop along to one of Phuket's games in their Div 1 campaign next season. You can check the fixture details and tables at Thai Football League.