The balmy evenings, the smell of grilled meat, the camaraderie and the cold beer. The gathering outside a Thai League stadium is what makes it worth following for many people.
University students want to go back to university to spend time with friends rather than piling on weight staring at a screen. Football fans want the same thing – the chance to meet their fellow fans rather than watching the J.League, K League or whatever other option is available on TV.
But it seems that the Football Association of Thailand (FAT) may not see things the same way. The ongoing threat of the Covid-19 pandemic has spooked Thailand more than most as the country attempts – most likely in vain – to maintain its perfect recent record.
The obsession with preserving a record of zero local transmissions that has lasted almost three months ensures that international tourism is very likely off the cards until the end of the year at least. Only Thai citizens and a select group of foreigners with family ties, work permits or elite visas are allowed into the country.
Those who do come in have to be tested for Covid and then spend 14 days in quarantine regardless.
While the loss of international tourism is having a devastating impact on the local economy, it means the prospect of local transmissions is currently minimal to non-existent. But this has failed to prevent the FAT repeatedly suggesting that fans will not be allowed into stadiums when the T1 season finally restarts on September 12th.
This might just be managing expectations in the hope that fans will just be extremely grateful if they get the green light. However, the uncertainty is doing no one any favours. The FAT and the Thai League may be hamstrung by government directives, but they really need to go all out to support their key stakeholders.
Clubs are already suffering financially as a result of the enforced six-month gap in the 2020 campaign. While gate receipts do not represent a huge proportion of most clubs’ revenue, it all helps, especially at times like these.
Last weekend, there was huge publicity surrounding a VIP friendly match, followed by a bounce match between Rayong FC and Chonburi. The Rayong venue was selected to apparently boost confidence in the town that suffered the most recent Covid scare, caused by a visiting member of the Egyptian military.
Billed as a ‘New Normal’ demonstration match, it was expected that this would serve as a model for other clubs to follow, with 2,000 fans allowed to attend. Days later, however, it was as if this had been forgotten as we heard yet another indication that there would be no fans on September 12th.
Malls have been open for months, while bars, restaurants, cinemas and other entertainment venues are back in full swing. These are indoor venues in which people will inevitably come into much closer contact with others than they have to in a cavernous football stadium.
Thailand is by no means alone in victimizing football fans in this way. South Korea, despite having restarted their league back in May, has only just started readmitting fans. Some K League stadiums have huge capacities, making social distancing a simple case of spacing out a reduced crowd.
There is reluctance in many countries as football fans again find themselves a soft target for discriminatory practices due to the popular assumption that they cannot be trusted. The wild celebrations of Liverpool fans in Covid-hit UK did not exactly help alter such a perception. But there is absolutely no need for Thailand to be fearful in the current climate.
If fans are indeed banned for the restart, it smacks of authoritarianism for the sake of it, rather than a well thought out policy. The game’s administrators have already scored a huge own goal by failing to secure a smooth handover of TV rights, with True Vision’s contract up in October. This has added another financial scare for clubs already in trouble. Denying an income stream, however small, for ticket sales would be another body blow.
It is also worth reiterating that many fans in Thailand go to the games for the balmy evenings, the smell of grilled meat, the camaraderie and the cold beer. The football is just a small part of the whole fun experience. Take this away, interest will be lost and the damage may be irreparable.