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Last Updated: Wednesday, 12 May, 2004, 23:37 GMT 00:37 UK
Thai premier's soccer hopes
By Simon Montlake
In Bangkok

Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's bid for a 30% stake in English Premier club Liverpool has captured the imagination of Thai football fans.

Mr Thaksin presented his offer earlier this week to visiting Liverpool chief executive Rick Parry, who has returned home to consult the club's board.

Thailand is buzzing with speculation over exactly what the investment, valued at around $100m, will mean for Thailand.

A Thai Liverpool fan chooses scarves at the football souvenir shop in Bangkok, 12 May 2004
A purchase by Mr Thaksin is likely to boost merchandise sales

Mr Thaksin says he wants to promote Thai football and employ Liverpool coaches to lift the lacklustre national game up to international standards.

Thais are avid watchers of English football, and clubs like Manchester United and Arsenal have millions of followers.

Taxi drivers can reel off the names of premier league players, and stars like Michael Owen and David Beckham have a female following.

Some of the excitement comes from gambling.

Fake shirts

Thais like to wager on premier league games via online betting sites and underground bookies.

Off-season tours by English clubs to Thailand and other Asian countries have become useful money-spinners.

Merchandise sales are also booming, although widespread piracy of branded goods means that many shirts sold in Thailand are fakes.

But Mr Thaksin's bid ran into controversy on Tuesday after it was revealed that Thai public money could be used to purchase the stake.

"The prime minister wants all Thais to be involved in the ownership, and the negotiation was done on behalf of the Thai Government, not on behalf of Thaksin," said Jakrapop Penkair, spokesman for the prime minister.

Initially, the premier suggested that himself and other rich businessmen were interested in the deal.

Opposition politicians and newspapers have criticized the plan, asking why public money should be going overseas to Liverpool FC.

Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, Bangkok House, 12 May
The Thai leader may be hoping to improve his re-election chances

"I support any Thai who wants to buy shares in a foreign football club, but oppose such a move if it involves public money," wrote sports columnist Wanchai Rujawongsanti in Wednesday's Bangkok Post.

One senator said it was wrong for taxpayers' money to be used as football is a high-risk business in which Thailand has no track record.

In the pubs and cafes of Bangkok, most football fans are cheering the bid, even if they are hard-nosed about their leader's motivations.

"It's something big for Thailand and for Thai people in general. Thailand never owned a football club, especially not a club like Liverpool," said Noon Naewboonien, a student.

But the money should really come from private investors rather than the public purse, he added.

Mr Thaksin's bid for the Liverpool stake has suddenly leapfrogged to the top of the news in Thailand, a welcome respite for the premier

"It's pretty bad to be taking our tax money and buying a football club. But if the profits are good then I guess we can look at it in a more favourable way, because we'll be making money," he said.

Other fans said the deal would put the country onto the map and show investors that Thailand was a strong economic force.

A Thai John Barnes?

Much attention is focused on Mr Thaksin's proposal to train local footballers at a Liverpool academy in Thailand.

His aides have suggested that Thai players could be on a fast-track to playing in the Premier League, if the deal goes through.

"It's good for Thailand. In the future we will have a chance to learn how to play football like John Barnes and Ian Rush," said railway engineer and Chelsea fan Pairoj Jewkaew.

But some cast doubt on Mr Thaksin's altruism in making a splashy bid for Liverpool in the run-up to general elections, due by January 2005.

His Thai Rak Thai party has a large majority in parliament, but has seen its popularity slip in recent months after a string of setbacks.

Teerathep Vinothai, 16, a Thai teenage soccer star, poses for photograph in this photo taken in September 2001.
If the deal goes ahead, Thai soccer players may benefit too

"I think it's all politics. It's not a game. It's not a sport. It's politics for Thai Rak Thai," said one worker as he read the newspaper.

The timing is also raising eyebrows for another reason in Thailand.

Two weeks ago, security forces fought separatist militants in southern Thailand, leaving over 100 dead.

Thailand has since been gripped by fears of escalating violence in the mostly Muslim south, which has long bristled under Bangkok's rule.

Mr Thaksin's bid for the Liverpool stake has suddenly leapfrogged to the top of the news in Thailand, a welcome respite for the premier.

Thai PM yet to clinch deal
11 May 04  |  Liverpool

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