Thailand scores high on migrant footballers bucket-list

Love to move it move it: Gareth Bale is one of thousands of footballing migrants

By Carolina Brill

Bale to Real Madrid! Willian to Chelsea! Neymar to Barcelona! The beautiful game is all about migrating talents.

Thailand, well known as a tourist paradise has in recent years gained increasing popularity as a destination for migrating footballers. In fact, in a little over two decades of the establishment of the Thailand Premier League (TPL), sponsorship has driven the league to the top spot in the Southeast Asian region.

I recently attended a conference on “Football, Community and Sustainability” at the Manchester Metropolitan University, in England. At the conference subjects such as “Football, Access and Inclusion”, “Football and the Media”, “Football, Youth and Education”, as well as “The Local and the Global” were presented and discussed. I was requested to present one paper jointly with my friend Nin on Football, Migration and Sustainability in Thailand. For this paper, we researched why some developing countries like Thailand are becoming more attractive for foreign football players and why this matters.

Over the years, South and Central American players have come to Thailand in search for a club to play for, or a team to coach. As South America is home to the world’s greatest footballing heroes, the research unveiled the push and pull factors driving footballers to Thailand, uncovered the barriers to entry, as well as the migration networks that assisted the flow of footballing talents. Our research addressed issues regarding the sustainability of football in a developing country such as Thailand, and offered insight into how the TPL could potentially increase its stability to withstand any economic volatility. 

Many people may not see a big connection between migration and sports. However, the bigger demand on professional athletes and sport stars has impacted the migration flows worldwide. Therefore, it remains an extremely interesting area of research to fully understand this flow of labour.

People are often ‘pushed’ or driven to migrate for different reasons, however, when considering a new destination to live in, the ‘pull factor’ becomes an extremely important set of variables that could, for some – be life-changing. The same goes for athletes and or football players, who often migrate in search for better opportunities, better chances to play, and in general to reach  a better quality of life.

Our research outlined the primary push factors, which were: poor economic conditions back at home; fierce competition with a lack of opportunities to play; and barriers to entry into a top team of were much higher.

The pull factors driving players half way around the globe to Thailand included higher and stable incomes; a welcoming environment and acceptance by locals; affordable cost of living with welfare available; families able to join them; experienced networks between agents and players; convenient to send remittances back home; and no concerns for safety when compared to South American countries.

Considering that over 112 non-Thai players played in the Thailand Premier League in 2012 season alone, it remains an extremely interesting area of research to fully understand this form of labour. More research on migration and sports is needed to better understand the new waves, flows and changes in Thailand and its comparison with other countries in similar conditions in order to make possible better public policies in the future.

And no, I didn’t get to meet David Beckham…


Carolina Brill is a regional project development consultant for IOM