City push on at game's unlikely new frontier politics

New owner Thaksin Shinawatra brings Manchester City more than sponsors and a job lot of Thai players. Ian Herbert reports
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The Independent Football

Even Suree Sukha has some serious doubts about Manchester City's wisdom in signing him up from a country which has never provided a Premier League footballer. "I'm not tough enough for the physical challenges in the Premier League," says the Thai full-back. "I'm also awkward in the air and still have problems in communicating with City players." Suree's self-effacing manner is characteristically Thai and refreshing in these footballing times but his bewilderment also suggests he is none too clear on the machinations of Thai politics.

If proof were really needed that Suree's arrival at Eastlands with two of his even lesser known countrymen is, in part at least, an attempt by City's owner, Thaksin Shinawatra, to curry political favour with the Thai electorate ahead of the 23 December elections in the country, then it materialised three days after the signings were announced. That was the moment that Thailand's Democrat Party Thaksin's arch rival chose to announce plans for a football offensive of its own: a tie-up with Everton for a series of football clinics and a youth tournament next February.

But even the shrewdest politician may struggle to compete with the announcement that Thaksin will now also pay out to bring Thailand's entire national squad to train with City for 11 days this month in preparation for a World Cup campaign in which they face Japan, Oman and Bahrain in the third round of Asian qualifiers.

"If we want to go to the World Cup, this is what we have to do," said Worawi Makudi, president of the Thai Football Association, who has close links with Thaksin and arranged Suree's move. "Manchester City are keen to help us."

Thaksin's millions have, as Reading's Steve Coppell was quick to point out after becoming the latest manager to leave Eastlands without a point recently, been the difference between struggle and new hope for City. "Without the finance it wouldn't have happened," Coppell said. But the signing of Suree, a player who earned a few hundred dollars a month before leaving Thailand's 2007 champions, Chonburi, along with Kiatprawut Saiwaew and Teerasil Dangda, revealed the kind of pay-back the telecoms billionaire is expecting.

Thaksin might have been exiled since Thailand's bloodless coup last year but his face can now be seen live on Thai television most Saturdays, beaming from the VIP box as he watches his new team play and though he was unable to join Sven Goran Eriksson for a glitzy ceremony at the Conrad Hotel in Bangkok at which the three Thai signings were revealed, he made what political capital he could. In a video presentation played at the ceremony he called for transparent democracy. "When I was your Prime Minister I ran a government that promoted and defended free and fair elections," he said. "As the December elections approach, I hope the military junta and the next government will do the same."

Giles Ungpakorn, a professor at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University, believes Thaksin's involvement in football has been key to maintaining his profile in Thailand. "It gives the impression that he's actively engaged," he said.

The timing of the announcement on the national team a fortnight ago was significant, just four weeks before the elections. Though Thaksin's hugely popular Thai Rak Thai party has been disbanded since the coup and its senior members barred from politics, it remains a potent force in the form of the People Power Party a spin-off party which is comfortably ahead of the Democrats in the polls. Thaksin and the PPP may not be appreciated by Bangkok's intelligentsia and Thailand's English language newspapers but it is a different story in the rural one-horse towns and villages of wooden houses, where crowds gather round TVs set up in food stalls and bars to watch the Premier League action.

Beyond such political considerations, the footballing futures of City's three Thai imports are less than hopeful. Eriksson's prognosis of his three signings certainly suggested that he remains to be convinced. "If we hadn't been owned by a Thai probably we would not have gone out there scouting but now we are," he told The Independent. "I am not sure that they will be good enough but if not we will help them in other ways. They can play football at least."

Kiatprawut and Teerasil will certainly never become known to City fans. The Australian club Perth Glory one of City's six partner teams worldwide and managed by Malcolm Allison's son, Mark have already expressed an interest in receiving one or both of them and Grasshopper Zurich, another club in the alliance, may take one, too. But City's commercial department have good reasons to hope that Suree hardly in the first flush of footballing youth at the age of 25 can make it. Thailand is also big business for City, with Singa the Malaysian brewer which is market leader in Thailand the first major corporate to come City's way since Thaksin bought the club. Their six-year deal is City's largest for a non-shirt sponsor and Singa may soon adorn City's shirts, too.

There are, of course, echoes of the political battles being waged through City and Everton in the shirt sponsorship of Everton by Chang the second largest of the brewers in Thailand, which is engaged in a major commercial tussle with Singa. Everton's own Thai link was cemented by a visit to Liverpool by the Bangkok governor in October, resulting in an agreement that Finch Farm, Everton's new football academy, will supervise a football school for children in Bangkok next February.

The corporate mission reaches beyond Thailand, to China, which also received a visit as part of City's commercial trip in October and where a further three players were picked up among them Gao Lin, the 21-year-old striker at the centre of the infamous mass brawl at Queen's Park Rangers last February.

Eriksson is now also listed as an advisory board member of Premier Goals, one of the companies City met in China who will launch in China both a City text alert service and City website. Quite what the Swede's anticipated blog on that site might reveal remains to be seen.

So are City or Everton winning the battle in Thailand? Among those avidly watching Premier League matches in Bangkok's Suan Lum night market recently, there were signs that City are well ahead in this improbable club battle. Ekachai Prachamthong, a 30-year-old salesman, confessed to having abandoned his Liverpool passions for City since Thaksin's takeover.

"We'd like to see Suree playing in England. It is good for us, good for Thailand," he said. But while most fans could reel off the big names of Manchester United and Chelsea, only Ekachai's friend Dam could name a single City player Elano.

The views of Silp, who runs a women's clothes stall at the local market, suggested the political value of the signings to Thaksin may be rather less than he thinks. "I'm not sure we will ever see Suree or the others playing for Man City," he said. "Thaksin thinks if he takes them to England we will vote for his friends, but really, Thai people are not that stupid."

Additional reporting by Rosalind Russell in Bangkok

Power, glory and war: Football and the art of infuence

* SILVIO BERLUSCONIA mere media mogul when he bought Milan in 1986, he parlayed football glory into a triumphant political career, with two stints as Prime Minister.

* ROMAN ABRAMOVICH Chelsea's very own oil billionaire is governor of the province of Chukotka and wields influence in the Russian set-up, playing a part in bringing in Guus Hiddink as coach.

* 1978 WORLD CUP The Argentine junta, under fire over political prisoners, desperately needed an Argentina victory. When Cesar Menotti's side had to beat Peru by four goals to proceed, they won 6-0 with suspicious ease.

* THE FOOTBALL WAR When Honduras beat El Salvador in World Cup qualification in June 1969, the rioting, which came against a background of political tensions, sparked a six-day war. A treaty was finally signed in 1998.

* GHANA The National Democratic Congress Party has kicked up a storm by appropriating the colours of the Accra club, Hearts of Oak, for its flag. "Not good," says The Accra Mail.