By Kitinan Sanguansak
With no Thai representatives in the Asian Football Confederation's flagship event, the AFC Champions League, since 2008, there was little doubt that Thailand welcomed the organisation's decision to hand the country one automatic place in the continent's e
Thai clubs had regularly taken part in the tournament, the equivalent of the Uefa Champions League, before Asian football’s governing body made an overhaul of the competition three years ago as part of its effort to promote professionalism in the region.
With the country’s top-flight league, the Thailand Premier League, failing in the evaluation conducted by the AFC, the Kingdom was handed only one play-off spot in the group stage of the lucrative competition. None of the Thai representatives, though, has so far been able to reach the competition proper, with TPL champions Muang Thong United going down to Singaporean and Indonesian opponents in the last two years respectively.
Basing its decision on the assessments by various bodies, the AFC earlier this month released the breakdown of direct entrants for the 2012 edition, with Thailand earning one automatic place plus one play-off slot. The move raised some eyebrows since it was pretty obvious that what Thailand gained was at the loss of South Korea. The East Asian nation, whose K-League clubs won the event twice in the last three years, had to lose one of their four automatic places despite being the tournament’s most successful nation.
It was believed the AFC’s decision to hand Thailand, whose club representatives have never won the competition since its revamp in 2002, at least one spot was in recognition of the TPL’s growth in recent years. However, one cannot write off the influence of Worawi Makudi, the Football Association of Thailand president, who also sits on Fifa’s ruling executive committee, in the organisation.
How the AFC executive board was swayed to make a decision in Thailand’s favour seemed of little importance but what really mattered was the Thais should make the most of their chances by proving that they deserved to play in the continent’s top-tier competition on a permanent basis. And, there is not much time for them since the allocation will be revised at the end of the tournament next year.
To prove that they are worthy of a place does not mean that a Thai club needs to win the title that BEC Tero Sasana came agonisingly close to lifting eight years ago following a 2-1 aggregate loss to UAE club Al Ain in the final.
However, the authorities should direct all their efforts into improving the domestic competition and meeting international standards, particularly in the aspect of organisation of the league. There has long been grumbling about the arrangements of the domestic fixtures, with reshuffling a common practice in the TPL. Rarely has a TPL season ended in the scheduled time. The addition of the Toyota League Cup tournament worsened the situation in recent years.
People wonder why the domestic competition has been dogged by the fixture problem, while other countries can arrange their schedules without any trouble despite conducting two Cup tournaments, as Thailand does (the other one is the Thaicom FA Cup). It may be easier said than done, but it certainly should not be too difficult to sort out.
It would be a pity if Thailand, instead of organising its league better, simply counts on fortune to favour it again when the AFC reviews its allocations next time.
So, the question is how seriously the Thai FA regards the matter. If it still does not see the need to improve, Thailand will have gained nothing from a decision that should act as a stimulus for the sport’s development in the country.