A kick in the right direction

opinion July 06, 2014 00:00

By Kitinan Sanguansak
The Sunday

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Police United president and businessman Samrit Bunditkitsada underlines his passion for the "beautiful game" through the purchase of Reading FC

He may be small in stature but successful businessman Samrit Bunditkitsada has a big vision and an equally big ambition – to see Thai football putting the country firmly on the world soccer map.
A year ago, hardly anyone in the football circle had ever heard of the 39-year-old. Today, his name is on everyone’s lips as the man who came from nowhere to take over the reins of Thai Premier League club Police United.
But the presidency of a respected club wasn’t enough for Samrit, who bears a striking resemblance to boxer Manny Pacquiao. Last month, his credibility as a serious soccer man rose another notch as he became the third Thai to take possession of an English football club following his takeover of cash-strapped Reading.
He’s not without his critics, with many wondering whether Samrit, who is only just finding his feet in football management, has the savvy and business acumen to cope with both a domestic league club and a global team.
Samrit, though, is unconcerned. He admits that things have happened a little faster than he had planned but says his passion for the game more than makes up for his inexperience. 
Asked why he was brave enough to spend so much money on football with no guarantee of return, Samrit, who made his fortune in insurance, shrugs. “If you want a pretty woman as your girlfriend, you need to have courage to flirt with her and pay to take her to a good restaurant.           
“If you want to see your football team get better, you need the courage to make it happen. Everything is up to you: how far can you take it? The money is only small part of it. Don’t try to convert it into Thai baht,” he says.
In fact, it was his passion for football that helped him win over Reading chairman Sir John Madejski, who was forced to put his club up for sale due to long-standing financial difficulties.
“I went to England a fortnight ago on other business but my lawyer advised me to open talks with Reading immediately because there were as many as six other groups, especially the Phoenix conglomerate from the US, who were offering interesting prices,” he says.
“However, it was an incident before the discussions that persuaded Sir John to accept our offer. I joined the Reading players for training before the negotiations and even though I was dressed in a suit, I spent an hour or so playing in a five-a-side.
“Sir John happened to see me playing and invited me, still dripping with sweat, into his office for a chat.”
The other groups didn’t see Madejski but instead conducted negotiations with Reading’s legal team. 
“It took four to five hours to conclude the deal. He chose me because I’m young and really love football. He believed that I simply wanted to develop the club and had no ulterior motives.” 
The offer from a consortium led by Samrit was reportedly worth 35 million pounds (Bt1.93 billion) and with its acceptance, he becomes the third Thai to own an English club, following in the footsteps of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was the boss of Manchester City for a short time and King Power International, the parent company of English Premier League newcomers Leicester City. He still needs to undergo the English FA’s proper and fit test before completing his takeover of the club, which finished in the seventh spot in the Championship last season, just missing out on a promotion playoff spot.    
Samrit, who goes by the nickname Big, also foresees great things ahead for the Thai national team, who has found international success hard to come by beyond the Southeast Asia region.
“I want to be a part of Thai football and help improve our game so we can enter the world stage. After having been involved first-hand in the Thai Premier League for six months, I can see many things that could be developed in better and more organised way,” he says.
“Our women’s football team has now made it through to the World Cup finals. So, if there is an opportunity to help the men’s team also achieve that, I will grab it. That’s my personal ambition.
“I believe the standard of our players in the Thai Premier League is good. Where we are lacking in terms of international standard is individual technique and fitness. I want everyone to collectively help reform our football. 
“I don’t want to see teams, either in the top tier or lower divisions, consider each other as rivals. We should help each other. We should be allies working together to strengthen Thai football. If we begin to think and work more seriously, we will be able to see a bright future for our game.     
“Long-term planning will not work if we continue doing things for the short-term. That will not take us to the World Cup. I have the energy and desire to develop Thai football. We all love football, a team sport, but we have to ask ourselves whether we really work as a team,” Samrit says.