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Thai Investors Aim To Score With English Football

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Thai investors aim to score with English football

by Janesara Fugal

BANGKOK (AFP) - From Singha beer served at Old Trafford to new owners at Leicester City, cash-rich Thai investors are taking a punt on English football to raise their profile overseas and boost the domestic game.

Thai involvement in English football has sparked controversy in the past, notably when former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, ousted in a 2006 coup and living in exile, bought Manchester City and sold the club a year later.

But Thai tycoon Vichai Raksriaksorn, the CEO of airport duty-free giant King Power Group, has vowed to be a long-term owner of the lower-tier Championship side Leicester City.

"I'm not Thaksin," he told AFP in an interview. "I've never had an idea to work with the team for a short period and then sell it."

Vichai, an avid polo fan, said it was his personal ambition to own an English football club and that profits were not his main motive.

He said he wanted to help develop Thai football to reach international standards with the help of Leicester City's youth training academy.

"I hope that we will be the same level as Japan or Korea," he added.

For Thai beer giants Singha and Chang, investing in English football is seen as a way to put some fizz in their sales in the face of a saturated domestic market.

Chang Beer, produced by Thai Beverage Pcl, has been the main sponsor of Everton football club since 2004.

It signed a new three-year shirt sponsorship deal in 2008, which Thai media estimates is worth eight million pounds (12.5 million dollars). The two also jointly set up a football academy in Thailand.

In July this year arch-rival Singha unveiled a three-year deal worth an estimated six million pounds (9.3 million dollars) with Manchester United, by far the most popular English club in Asia.

The partnership will see Singha beer sold at Old Trafford during matches, as well as giving the Thai brewer advertising opportunities in the stadium and in the club's media outlets.

Soravij Bhirombhakdi, deputy managing director at Singha manufacturer Boon Rawd Trading International, said the deal would broaden the lager's consumer base, "turning a local brand into the global brand".

Such is its confidence about the Premier League, and perhaps hedging its bets after the Manchester United deal, last month Singha also signed a sponsorship agreement with reigning champions Chelsea.

Under the four-year deal, estimated to be worth up to eight million pounds (12.4 million dollars), Singha beer has been sold exclusively at the London club's Stamford Bridge stadium since the start of the 2010/2011 season.

"Football is the world's most well known sport," said Thanavath Phonvichai, director of the University of the Thai Chamber of Commerce's economic and business forecasting centre.

"Famous football players become presenters for many brands. If you can attach your logo, your brand to those players, it's the best marketing for your business."

Like the rest of Asia, Thailand has an enduring love affair with the fast-paced English game.

Fans such as British-born Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva -- a Newcastle United supporter -- can watch several matches every night, not only the English Premier League but from other countries such as Spain, Italy and Germany.

"But English football is the most popular," said Pirayu Chuenkul, a sports reporter with the Siamsport Daily newspaper.

"It's affection that has grown over time, especially for teams like Liverpool and Manchester United as they always played in the (FA Cup) finals," he said.

Cable operator True Visions, which has exclusive live broadcast rights for the English Premier League, estimates about 350,000 of its subscribers tune into the matches -- which doesn't include audiences of pirated signals.

"Thai people know English football players even better than Thai players," said Pirayu, who hopes that an improvement in the standards of Thai football will eventually lure viewers back to the domestic game.

"International football is in our heart, but Thai football is in our blood," he said.


-- (c) Copyright AFP 2010-09-22

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