There are a total of 16 teams that compete in the Thai League 1, T1 for short, or Toyota Thai League officially, for sponsorship purposes. The total of teams was reduced to the 16 from 18 teams following the 2019 season. There were a total of 5 teams relegated to Thai League 2 (T2 for short) and only 3 that were promoted. This in turn increased T2 from 16 to 18 clubs. According to our recent interview with striker Chris Cortez, of T2 Ayutthaya United Football Club, this was done at the request of the Thai National team as a means of lessening the playing schedule for first division players. This change has reduced the first division schedule from 30-34 games, while increasing the T2 schedule inversely. It has also created a bit of a gulf in class between the teams at the top of the table, and the teams at the bottom of the table in T2. It appears that historically the Thai divisions tend to do some tinkering with the number of teams per division every few years, so don't be surprised if this changes again down the road.
When compared to the leagues of Europe, the Thai League is in its infancy. The league first began play in 1996, the same year that Major League Soccer first kicked off in the United States ( the MLS was founded in 1993 but did not begin play until 1996. The most successful club in T1 has been Buriram United Football Club, who have won the league title 7 times. They have been especially dominant in recent seasons, winning 5 out of the last 6 championships. Only Muangthong United Football Club in 2012 was interrupted their run of titles. These two clubs have dominated that league over the past decade, and have reeled off 11 consecutive championships between them since 2008 (7 for Buriram, 4 for Muangthong). The last time anyone else lifted the trophy was Chonburi F.C. all the way back in 2007. It seems like there could be a new challenger in the making however, at Port F.C. currently sits atop of the table as the 2019 season nears its midpoint. Port F.C. has never one the T1 championship before, but they finished 3rd last season, (just two years after being promoted from the T2, and appear to be on a rocket ride straight to the top.
About The Top Teams In Thai League 1
Buriram United Football Club
Any discussion of Thai League 1 has to start with Buriram, who are the New York Yankees or Manchester United of the Thai League if you will. For a team that has been very successful recently, the not overwhelming distant history has been a bit more unstable. The team has actually been around all the way since 1970, and were originally called Provincial Electricity Authority Football Club or PEA FC. The club was founded in Ayutthaya, where they played in the lower divisions until 1998. In 1998 they earned their first promotion to the top tier by winning the Kor Royal Cup, which could can best be described as the Thai version of the FA Cup. They did have one more bump in the road to glory though. They were relegate to the second division after the 2002-2003 season after a loss to Thailand Tobacco Monopoly FC (who I am extremely upset to learn folded in 2015). They rebounded in 2003-2004, earning promotion back to the first division and have been there ever since.
They continued to play in Ayutthaya and play under the name PEA, even winning their first T1 title in 2008 as PEA. However, in 2009 Newin Chidchob, a politician based in Buriram purchased and moved the team, and initially rebranded them Buriram PEA. They won another league title in 2011 under that moniker. It wasn't until the 2012 season that they finally rebranded to their current name Buriram United. There are also a number of different Cup tournaments in Thailand, of which Buriram has also been extremely successful in. While these tournaments have generally been "rebranded" too often to bother explaining, (you will notice this is a theme with Thai Football) it is worth noting that in 2011 they completed the Thai treble, and the Thai quadruple in both 2013 and 2015. Their chief rival is Muangthong United, though the head to head matches have been a bit one sided, yet tightly contested. As of 29 May 2019 they have matched up 29 times, with Buriram winning 15, only 4 wins for Muangthong, but also 10 draws.
Muangthong United Football Club
Just like you can't talk about the New York Yankees without talking about the Boston Red Sox, you can't talk about Buriram United without talking about Muangthong United. This club was originally founded in 1989 as Norgjorg Pittayanusorn Football Club. Not surprisingly, they underwent several name changes on their way up to the top flight. The team has had it's current name since 2007 when it was purchased by Rawi Lohtong the president of Siam Sport Syndicate. In 2009, they achieved promotion to the top flight for the first time in club history, and have remained there since.
In fact, the club went on an extremely impressive run during this period. First, they won promotion, by winning the third division in 2007. They followed that up by winning the second division in 2008 to earn yet another promotion. The jump to top flight didn't slow them down any either, as they won the league both the 2009 and 2010 seasons. They would also win the league in 2012 and 2016, and have never finished lower than 5th in the top flight. However, they are struggling mightily in 2019 so far. They currently sit 15th in the table, second to last, and in the relegation zone. They have recently sacked their manager Pairoj Borwonwatanadilok on 1 April 2019, and replaced him with Yoon Jong-hwan. They have gone just 2-2-4 since the change over, so it doesn't appear that they have had much of a new manager bounce. It will be an interesting storyline to watch throughout the rest of the season to see if this powerhouse club can avoid relegation.
Port Football Club
Port F.C.might be the new kids on the block in terms of title contenders, they are the oldest of the clubs that we have talked about so far, having been founded all the way back in 1967 under the name Singhtarua Football Club. The team is located in the capital city of Bangkok, and has mostly been a fixture since the formation of the league in 1996. Although they have never won a title, they have played in the top division in all but 2 seasons since 1996. They were relegated to the second division after the 2012 and the 2015 seasons, but both times were able to rebound back the following season. During this period where they were twice relegated, there was an ongoing ownership dispute between the Thai Port Authority of Thailand, and Thai Port FC Company. This was finally resolved, and the club has found temporary stability since it was taken over by business woman and politician Nualphan Lamsam, in 2015. While they have never won the league title before, they have finished 2nd back 1999. They have also finished 3rd twice, once in 2002-2003, and also last season. The club has grown in popularity since moving into PAT Stadium in 2009, in Bangkok's Khlong Toei District. The supporters refer to themselves as "Khlong Toei Army", and the venue needed to be expanded to now hold 7000 spectators.
Looking at the standings this year, it looks as if Port F.C. has a real shot at beating out Buriram, and winning their first title. Port currently sits 5 points clear, but Buriram has a game in hand. Both teams have just one loss apiece on the season, but the peripheral numbers show that Port is the stronger club. Right now Port has a goal difference of +15, while Buriram is only at +7. Port has also scored 28 goals, compared to just 16 for Buriram. On the defensive end, Buriram is by far the stingiest in the league, having allowed just 9 goals on the year. Port is not much worse with 13 allowed. The two have not met yet this season, but play each other at Port on 16 June 2019. Port will come into that match with 18 day rest, not having played since 29 May. Buriram on the other hand will come into the match with just 3 days rest, as they will be playing PTT Rayong F.C. on 12 June 2019. When the 2 clubs meet at Buriram on 20 October 2019, (in what will be the second to the last game of the year for both clubs) the title is likely to be on the line.
Other Notable Thai League 1 Teams
Bangkok United have been mostly a staple in Thai League 1 since first making it up in 2003-2004. They have won the league title once, in 2006. They have been especially strong over the past 3 seasons as well. They finished as leagues runners up in 2018 and 2016, and were 3rd in 2017. So far this year, they sit in 3rd, and have the league's second best goal difference at +10. Forward Nelson Bonilla has scored 11 goals in 13 games for Bankok United this season, which is tied for the league lead. Their 25,000 seat True Stadium is the second largest in the league.
Chonburi was the last club outside of Buriram and Muangthong to win the league title back in 2007. Although that was their only title, they had an incredibly strong run from 2007-2015. During that time they never finished lower that 3rd, including 2nd place 5 times. In recent seasons, they have not faired quite as well, as they have not made the top 3 since 2015. They have fallen progressively lower in the standings each season, with 2018's 9th place finish being their lowest finish ever in the top tier. So far this season the trend has continued as they currently sit 11th in the standings and have already sacked manager Jukkapant Punpee and replaced him with Sasom Pobprasert. Brazilian Striker Lukian Araújo de Almeida has been a bright spot, as he is tied for the league lead with 11 goals.
Thai League 1 Interesting Facts And Figures
The most goals scored in a season by one player is 38 in 2017 by Dragan Bošković of Bangkok United.
Diogo Luís Santo of Buriram United is the only person to have won the Thai League 1 Player of the Year award twice (2016, 2018).
Midfielder Jakkaphan_Kaewprom of Buriram United has won a record 7 championships as a player. 6 have been with Buriram, but his first came with rival Muangthong United in 2010-2011.
There have been 3 teams to finish a Thai League 1 season without a loss. Buriram has done it twice (2013, 2015), and Muangthong did it in 2012.
Brazilian striker Cleiton Silva is the league's all-time leading scorer with 119 goals. He is one of 5 players in league history to have scored at least 100 goals.
Introduction To Thai League 2
As mentioned above, the second division in Thailand currently consists of 18 teams after last years addition of 2 extra teams. The league is sponsored by Osotspa M-150, and is officially known as Thai League 2 M-150 Championship. At the end of this season there will be 3 teams promoted to T1, and 3 teams relegated to the third division. There are currently 2 clubs in this division who have won the first division championship twice. Krung Thai Bank, who won the 2002-2003 and 2003-2004 first division titles, and Air Force United F.C., who won the 1997 and 1999 first division titles (at the time they were known as Royal Thai Air Force F.C.).
The current league leaders are Bangkok Glass Pathum United Football Club. They are absolutely dominating the league, having won 13 out of 15 games with just 1 loss and 1 draw in 2019, with a +26 goal difference. It is not surprising, as they are a team that really shouldn't be in this division. They were the best of the 5 teams relegated from T1 last year, and were only relegated by due to an unfortunate head to head tiebreaker with Chainat Hornbill F.C.. This in spite of the fact that BGFC had a +9 goal difference in 2018, compared with -6 for The Hornbills. You read that right. A team with a +9 goal difference got relegated! The unfortunate side effect of this is that newly promoted teams, such as Cortez's Ayutthaya United. In the interview, he explained that it is hard enough to teams coming up a level to compete with the teams at the next level financially. When you have team's dropping down that shouldn't be there in the first place then it makes it almost impossible for the teams coming up to try to compete.
Thai League Final Review And Grade
To say the Thai League is unique and interesting is an understatement to say the least. In spite of its relative youth in its current form, there appears to be a lot of history with some of the teams. The league has improved its ranking in the Asian Club Rankings over the years, and with a sponsor as big as Toyota there is the cash to bring in skilled players. The league had very good parity in its early years, but that has gone by the wayside a bit with two clubs dominating the past decade. That being said, the powerhouse teams, specifically Muangthong are beginning to show cracks in their armor. Having 4 or 5 teams competing for the title like we are seeing this year is hopefully a sign of future things to come.
The fact that the league is sometimes handcuffed by the whims of the national team is probably something that will make if difficult for them to ever become a truly A-list league. However, the biggest problem I see is with the constant changing of rules, and outright gerrymandering of cup competitions. It starts with the constant "rebranding" of teams, and continues with the constant changing of things such as how many teams are in the league. Like Cortez said in the interview, it is not an ideal situation for players to come into when a league is in flux. It is also the kind of thing that will keep top players from wanting to come to Thailand in the first place. The whole business aspect of just about every club, and the number of clubs that have folded are a major problem as well. Especially, anytime you start to hear about things like politicians buying clubs and moving them to their city, it raises eyebrows to say the least. If I were looking strictly at the quality of play and level of excitement in the league I could easily see making the same for putting Thai League one somewhere in the C- minus range. However, with all of these issue with mentioned above, a D is probably generous.
Thai League 1 Final Grade - D