Arguably the most popular sport in Thailand embarked on a paradigm shift with the introduction of a professional football league in 1997, and again more recently with the appointment of Kiatisuk “Zico” Senamuang, who as national coach has delivered glimpses of great potential. A major behind-the-scenes player in this is Citi, which in Thailand is headed by Darren Buckley – an avid fan of the sport and key force behind the Thai national coaching staff.
The partnership between Mr Buckley, the first non-American president of AMCHAM (American Chamber of Commerce in Thailand), and the national football squad began with a casual conversation with Kittiratt Na-Ranong, then president of the Stock Exchange of Thailand, as Mr Buckley was about to assume his post in Japan. A decade later, with Mr Kittiratt then deputy prime minister, the conversation resumed, resulting in Citi sponsoring new coaching staff for the national football team.
Though the success of this partnership has yet to be realized in terms of World Cup qualification, improvements in the national team have been encouraging. Elite+ recently spoke with the 51-year old Tottenham Hotspur FC fan for an exclusive look at his role in promoting football in Thailand.
Take us back to how it all began, when you sponsored the national football team in 2013, which produced a SEA Games gold medal.
The discussion with Kittiratt moved to how we could sponsor the Thai national football team, how we could find a way to help the team regain its former strength in ASEAN. Our focus was to ensure the team had a strong coaching staff and we were excited to see Zico take on the role of manager because he is very good in building the team and developing camaraderie, while bringing with him strong discipline and a professional coaching staff.
Our perspective was to drive sports to the young population. I remember reading the Bangkok Post on Children’s Day in 2012, and the three things children wanted was a mobile phone, Game Boy and computer. When I was a young boy growing up, what I wanted was a football, cricket bat and a tennis racket.
Sports is a great way to learn social skills, interact, make friends, be fit, be healthy, learn leadership skills and camaraderie. So the idea behind our sponsorship is to drive children to healthy activities, as well as to see the national football team do better and bring some national pride to Thailand.
What inspired you to support the national football team?
If I went around my office and asked people which team they liked, they’d say Chelsea, Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal, Liverpool or Barcelona; no one ever said Buriram. When the Thai national team played at home against Liverpool and Barcelona, the stadium was full but no [fans] wore the national team shirt. Being able to play a small role in helping the national team regain its strength and stature is terrific. It’s great to see fans embrace and support the team.
I come from England and the last time we won the World Cup was in 1966. Every time there’s a World Cup the surge in national pride is terrific, but then England always manage to go on to fail miserably. But coming from that background where that passion is there … it’s great to see that passion in Thailand directed to the local league and national football team.
Why football when there’s muay Thai, badminton, boxing and volleyball?
My heritage has always made me passionate about football. The sport is very well recognized in Thailand. I can watch more live English Premier League games in Bangkok than in the UK. Yet domestically football has not developed as much given the large following. Football is exciting, keeps you fit, teaches strong leadership skills, sportsmanship and good team play. It is a good choice for all walks of society.
Can you predict when the national football team might play in the World Cup?
Just before the first few matches in the second phase of the World Cup qualifiers, the Thai side did pretty well, as they were in the last round on the road to Russia. Zico told me his dream was to take Thailand to the World Cup. I said it was my dream to bring the World Cup to Thailand. I strongly believe that if Thailand does a number of things over the next few years, Thailand should be putting its hand up to host the first World Cup in Southeast Asia.
It would demonstrate Thailand’s leadership if it hosts the biggest global party held every four years. It’s tremendous branding for Thailand. Last year alone 32 million visitors came to Bangkok. It is the most visited city in the world. The tourist infrastructure and assets are here already. The air network and connectivity is already in place. You’ve got a great climate, great food and great culture, and by hosting the World Cup you build up the national football team.
Now you can draw some parallels between Thailand and Japan. Japan won the bronze medal in the 1968 Mexico Olympic Games, yet it took another 30 years before they went to the World Cup. They co-hosted the World Cup with South Korea, won the AFC Asian Cup four times. They used to have an unprofessional league, which was disbanded and reformed in 1991 into the J-League. They invested money locally to build the league, get people excited, train players to reach international standards as they built a national team which ultimately is one of the best in Asia.
Thailand is at a similar stage. It is growing. Have you seen the Buriram stadium? It’s terrific and they can use it for Formula One racing it seems. I hope Khun Somyos [Pol Gen Somyos Poompanmoung, president of FAT] can drive greater transparency in the sport through greater funding and commitment. Development will come if Thailand professionalizes and builds a strong local league, which will allow players to come up through the ranks and develop into top players. If Thais play against teams from Europe, the physical strength is not there yet. Right now they have the heart, will and passion. Thailand might not go to Russia but was unlucky in the middle stages, close to beating Australia [2-2], while the only match where they looked not up to the standards of the competition was versus Japan. We are getting close.
What is preventing Thailand from reaching the World Cup?
The local league has to strengthen because they need more rigour in training, diet, strength, and the more they play at the top level the more the players will be able to gain natural instinct. I still believe Thailand should host the World Cup. It’s about national pride and at the end of the day it is about Thailand. By hosting, you can show the world how developed you are as a nation, you can show how your capital markets fund regional projects along the Mekong River, and by reinvesting in national development you can pull up the 10.9% of Thailand’s population who live below the poverty line.
Your thoughts on Zico?
He has integrity and passion. He’s there living with the players, like a father figure. He’s not in the media making outrageous comments; he has experience and he did very well as a player. He’s committed and conscientious. I spent quite some time with Zico and he’s a genuinely nice person, he’s got great stories, the kind of person you want to spend time with.
Shifting gears back to corporate social responsibility, you took underprivileged children to watch football matches?
We want to see a more active healthy lifestyle from the youth of today. Too many kids are sitting with iPads and Game Boys. They don’t talk face to face, don’t engage in group activities. A whole generation is losing out on important life and social skills. So focusing on the sport is one way of addressing this issue. We don’t just take children to watch but also conduct football clinics, coach them, give the children a flavour of what it is like to play football … it helps physically, mentally and socially.
Tell us about your passion for elephant conservation.
Elephants are fun, amazing creatures. We just played in the 15th Elephant Polo King’s Cup and scored four goals. I didn’t control the elephant, it was the mahout. Sometimes I wonder whether you can control them because they are wild animals.
We have sponsored the King’s Cup elephant polo tournament since 2012. Fortunately I am always joined by people who can play properly. Last year we came in third; this year we finished sixth but the standard of play was terrific. King Power lost to Mekhong 11-10 in the final. King Power was leading 10-8 with a minute left. We also sponsor Elephant Polo in Surin Province but the objective is more to help the elephant community, supporting mahouts and educating the children of the mahouts. The King’s Cup Elephant Polo aims more towards elephant preservation. In Chiang Rai there is a big community and a nursery which helps street or badly treated elephants.