How Football Stadiums Changed the Game in Thailand
Football is unquestionably Thailand’s favorite sport. Research by marketing agency Nielsen Sports in 2017 found that almost 78% of the population had at least some interest in the game, making it among the most football-crazy countries on the planet.
However, channeling that enthusiasm to the local game has been a challenge for authorities and decision makers, who are aiming to elevate the standard of the Thai League to join the continent’s elite. Part of the solution may lie in constructing more high-quality venues for the sport.
Let’s take a look at the state of Thai football before the construction of modern stadiums, some of the nation’s most iconic venues, and the impact they’ve had on football in Thailand.
History of football in Thailand
Thailand’s top professional football league was nominally formed in 1996, but the product on display was a far cry from what we see today. For starters, all 18 participating clubs hailed from Bangkok; a trend that was finally broken in 2006 with the promotion of Chonburi and Suphanburi into the top division.
A cursory look at the team names reveals something else as well. Rather than being tied to local areas, clubs were owned and run by various banks, private firms, and government enterprises. The four inaugural playoff participants in 1996 were Thai Farmers Bank, TOT, the Stock Exchange of Thailand, and Bangkok Bank, with the latter coming out on top.
These teams did not represent specific locations or communities. Instead, they typically floated between various venues—usually generic stadiums owned by the Sports Authority of Thailand (🇹🇭)—without a place to call home. With nothing tying them in place, these clubs struggled to gain traction and grow their fanbases. The fact that none of those four inaugural play-off participants exist today is a testament to that fact.
Thai clubs needed anchors—specific, designated, or even purpose-built grounds which could entice and house supporters from the local community.
Beyond simply better playing surfaces, more comfortable seats, and newer dressing rooms, the construction of this infrastructure was needed to give teams an identity. Therefore, stadium development is intimately linked to the growth of the wider game, forming a mutually beneficial relationship which has helped drive Thai football’s development over the past two decades.
Despite all the changes that have occured since the turn of the century, the home of the Thailand national team has been a constant. Rajamangala Stadium is currently the largest sporting venue in the country, with a maximum capacity of just over 50,000 spectators. Opened in 1998 and located in Bangkok’s Hua Mak district, the stadium has hosted some of the world’s biggest teams such as Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea, and Barcelona and been the site of many important achievements for the Thai national team.
While the stadium’s capacity and facilities have been crucial in the national teams’ development, many remain nostalgic for the War Elephants’ old home. The Supachalasai Stadium sits in the heart of central Bangkok, a stone’s throw from the Siam Paragon shopping center, and was inaugurated in 1938 – 84 years ago. Still known colloquially as the “National Stadium” (mostly due to the name of the adjacent BTS Skytrain station), its approximately 20,000-spectator capacity makes it the 10th largest in the country.
The arena and surrounding athletics complex has hosted four editions of the Asian Games between 1966 and 1978, as well as matches at the 2007 AFC Asian Cup. However, it no longer meets the requirements for international or even top-flight domestic football and has since been underused despite its prime location.
While national stadiums hold the most symbolic importance, they have been surpassed by some of the country’s purpose-built venues used in Thai League 1 today.
Purpose-built stadiums typically offer fans a far greater match-day experience, as their view isn’t impeded by running tracks or other athletics facilities. The proximity of the supporters to the playing surface also noticeably enhances the match-day atmosphere. Furthermore, they also offer many practical and financial benefits to the clubs who have endeavored to construct them. They help root teams in their local communities, affording them the luxury of continuity, longevity, and a dedicated fanbase.
Clubs with their own facilities face a minimal threat of relocation and a financial incentive to invest in continual improvements to the arenas. Conversely, many clubs who hadn’t managed to construct their own stadiums have either moved or folded in recent seasons.
One of the earlier modern, purpose-built grounds in the Thai League is Muangthong United’s “Thunderdome Stadium.” Initially starting out as a solitary stand along the side of a football pitch, the arena gradually grew and evolved with the team, who rose from the third tier to being first division champions, courtesy of investment from SiamSport.
It is a testament to the pace of the league’s development, then, that just 10 years on the arena looks somewhat antiquated compared to newer installments.
Muangthong’s efforts were quickly outdone by Buriram United’s “Thunder Castle” (a motif they would soon come to dominate on despite technically coming second to the party)—a stunning 32,000-seater arena and sports complex containing hotels, restaurants, a megastore, and a race track, among other amenities. It remains the largest purpose-built arena in the country today, and the first to meet all of the relevant FIFA and AFC (Asian Football Confederation) standards.
Interestingly, the stadium is a near-identical copy of Premier League club Leicester City’s home ground, which is owned by Thailand’s King Power Group, due to the close relationship between the two clubs’ owners.
In many ways, the club’s rise has put Buriram province “on the map” internationally, with the stadium and surrounding athletics complex becoming the province’s biggest attraction. As the team has competed at the highest level in Asia, top clubs from Japan, Korea, China, and Australia have visited the city and motivated the development of its airport, high-end hotels, and various other infrastructure projects.
It is hard to find another place on the continent, if not the planet, which has its growth so intimately linked to the development of its local football team.
Other significant purpose-built venues include the home of 2020-21 league champions BG Pathum United. Their stadium is located in Rangsit, Pathum Thani on the northern outskirts of Bangkok, and uniquely features just three stands and a wall on its east side. The stadium has been praised as having the best infrastructure in the greater capital region, and contains the tallest single stand in the country on its south end.
Gateway to the future
Thailand’s domestic football scene is still in its infancy. Clubs are still working to build local fan-bases and develop legacies to tie them to their communities. A crucial part of that formula is the development of unique, purpose-built football stadiums, providing the necessary facilities for players and coaches and a welcoming home for supporters.
Rapid progress has been made over the past two decades, during which time we have seen the development of impressive and iconic venues, but one would hope that the best is still yet to come.
Map of Football Stadiums in Thailand.