marking a new era

BANGKOK - Ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra's dramatic return to Thailand last week sparked controversy across the country - except on the football field, where fans believe his homecoming could mark a new era in the sport.

BANGKOK - Ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra's dramatic return to Thailand last week sparked controversy across the country - except on the football field, where fans believe his homecoming could mark a new era in the sport.

During his nearly 18 months in exile, the billionaire politician bought the English Premier League side Manchester City for $162,6 million (about R1,3 billion).

He had tried and failed to purchase Liverpool in 2004, and his success in taking over City has delighted fans in this football-mad country.

His critics say that Thaksin only dabbles in the sport to distract the public from his political problems and to stay in the spotlight after the coup.

If that's the case, it worked.

After the military toppled Thaksin's government in 2006, the junta banned Thai television from broadcasting his picture.

Once he took over Manchester City, Thaksin appeared at many of the matches, getting his image broadcast back to viewers in Thailand, where the Premier League is hugely popular.

"Mr Thaksin really helps promote sports for the Thai people," Krittidech Chaisinharn, chairman of Thailand's official Manchester City Supporters' Club, told AFP.

"We hope he will help raise the level of football in Thailand."

On his homecoming last Thursday, Thaksin flew into Bangkok with two City players on his flight - goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel and striker Kelvin Etuhu.

On Friday the two players led a clinic for young footballers.

Thaksin, who has kept a low profile since his return, did not attend the clinic, but the players were splashed across the sports pages all weekend.

Thaksin has said he wants to make Manchester City "the team Thais are proud of," and boasts of his plans to raise its stature to equal that of cross-town rivals Manchester United.

Schmeichel, the son of legendary Denmark and Manchester United goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel, said Thaksin is "a nice guy, he's genuine, and he's very generous. He's very passionate and he wants the club to progress".

During the 2006-2007 season, Manchester City finished in 14th place. But when Thaksin purchased the team, he gave new coach Sven-Goran Eriksson substantial funds to acquire new players.

As a result, the club has enjoyed a strong start to the current season, and while they've seen a dip in form of late, they sit in the top half of the table and also secured their first victory over United at Old Trafford since 1974.

Some City fans hope that Thaksin's return to Thailand will help him win his legal battles and free up his money to build the team.

Military-backed authorities have frozen more than two billion dollars worth of Thaksin's assets pending a corruption trial that starts next week.

Thaksin's long-term goal, says Manchester City spokesman Paul Tyrrell, is to help boost the game in Thailand at large.

"His objective is to raise the bar for football in Thailand," Tyrrell told AFP.

Manchester City signed several Thai players last year, but the club is trying to loan them out to a lesser team so they can gain more experience.

Thaksin also brought the Thailand national team to England to train ahead of their 2010 World Cup qualifier last month in wintry conditions in Saitama, Japan. But Japan won 4-1.

Thailand next plays Oman in another qualifier in Bangkok on March 26. The Thailand team has never qualified for a World Cup, and although they are a force in Southeast Asia, they lag behind regional powers such as Japan and South Korea. Sapa-AFP

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