"Thais believe that a person's soul abides in the crown of the hair on top of the head. To bump, hit, rub, or touch the head is to offend the soul, perhaps causing it to run away from home." — Handbook for foreign students at a Thai university
Peter Reid is doing that thing with his mouth again. First, the skin around his sky-blue eyes starts to wrinkle. Then the corners of his thin lips slowly curl up toward thick sideburns. Then you catch a glimpse of dentistry and it's unmistakable. He's actually doing it: Peter Reid is smiling.
He should be. After years in the soccer wilderness, the famously dour 52-year-old has just signed a lucrative contract to manage the national team of Thailand, the self-styled Land of Smiles. The former Everton midfielder seems an unlikely choice. Thailand is a well-mannered country where fun comes first and losing your temper is a sign of weakness. Reid is known for high-volume, expletive-rich team talks and a habitually grim expression. At Sunderland, an English team he once managed, supporters used to sing, to the tune of the Monkees' "Daydream Believer," "Cheer up, Peter Reid ..." Land of Smiles? Dream on. Reid's face is built for bollocking.
Yet many Thais hope his no-nonsense style will help their national team achieve something unprecedented: a place at the World Cup finals in 2014. It is a daunting task. Reid must motivate not only talented yet underperforming young Thai players but also millions of cynical Thai fans who would much rather watch English Premier League football than their often amateurish homegrown variety. Though Reid has a four-year contract, his honeymoon period will be much shorter. "People want the Thai team to upgrade itself, and not just into an Asian powerhouse," says Tor Chittinand, soccer correspondent for the Bangkok Post. "We're aiming for the World Cup."
Reid's first major test is this month's ASEAN Football Championship, also known as the Suzuki Cup, which Thailand is co-hosting with Indonesia. Before taking the job, he had only visited Thailand twice. He first went in 1984 with Everton, which had just won the F.A. Cup. He was 28. "It was a bit of a piss-up," he recalls, "but we played a couple of matches." Two decades of breakneck growth has transformed Bangkok, although for Reid some things have stayed the same. "Don't talk to me about the f___ing traffic," he growls.
Like any expatriate who lands a plum management position overseas, Reid must now wrestle with an alien culture and a tricky language. But unlike other foreign execs, he must manage not a company but a national team — at a time of national crisis. "Football is about nothing," British comedian Peter Cook once said, "unless it is about something." These days, Reid will discover, everything in Thailand is about politics — including football.
"Thais will attempt to label you by your appearance and may expect you to behave in ways that they have previously experienced with people similar to you. This is a normal reaction to your strangeness."
If thailand has high expectations of Reid, it is partly because their most successful manager so far was also a Liverpudlian named Peter. Under former striker Peter Withe, the national team won two regional championships, in 2000 and 2002, and even beat London giants Arsenal in a Bangkok friendly. But Withe had a turbulent relationship with his employers, the Football Association of Thailand (FAT), and was sacked in 2003. Since then, the team's fortunes have declined under a succession of coaches, including a Brazilian, a German and two Thais.
Thailand is now ranked 116th by world soccer body FIFA, thanks to erratic and occasionally farcical performances that date back to the team's notorious match against Indonesia at the 1998 ASEAN championships. Both teams set out to lose, since the winner would play a stronger team in the next round. Indonesia lost 3-2 after deliberately scoring against themselves. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the Thai national team has a less than fanatical following. Only 25,000 spectators went to watch the team play Japan in Bangkok earlier this year — and most of those were Japanese. (Thailand lost 3-0.)
As Thai football has lost its way, so has the country. Within weeks of Reid's arrival, two people were killed and hundreds injured in antigovernment riots in Bangkok. Protesters occupied the offices of beleaguered Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat, and then, on Nov. 25, stormed the capital's airport. Tourists and investors are fleeing the country, the stock market is tanking. The famous Thai smile is fading fast. A Bangkok pollster calculated that the nation's "Gross Domestic Happiness Index" measured a mere 4.84 out of 10, the lowest for almost three years. Cheer up, Peter Reid? He's probably the only happy man left in Thailand.
One reason to be cheerful: a contract reported to be worth $1.5 million a year. While that's small compared to the nearly $9 million Fabio Capello is paid to manage England's national squad, it's very big money by Thai standards. Reid's base salary is 33 times bigger than that of his predecessor, Charnvit Polcheewin, who resigned after Thailand's failure to qualify for the 2010 World Cup.
Who is bankrolling Reid's generous salary? Could it be former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the self-exiled billionaire who — so his enemies claim — was pulling the strings behind the Somchai government? Thaksin was toppled in a 2006 military coup and the following year bought Manchester City, a struggling football club where Reid was once player-manager. Sentenced in absentia in October to two years in jail for conflict of interest, Thaksin remains a deeply divisive figure, loved by rural Thais but loathed by the urban élite.
"Thaksin loves football," said FAT president Worawi Makudi in July. "He loves his country and he has offered to help us with anything." But today, Worawi, who once sat on Manchester City's board of directors, will not say who is bankrolling the best-paid man in Thai football. The matter is "confidential," he says. Is it Thaksin? "I don't want to answer that question," replies Worawi, his voice rising. Asked the same question, Reid offers a bizarre nondenial: "Not as far as I know."
"Smiling has many meanings in Thai culture. Gradually you will begin to understand why people are smiling as you begin to appreciate the subtlety of Thai culture. Do not forget to keep smiling."
Dressed in an impeccably tailored suit, Reid sits alone in a glass-fronted VIP area above the main stand at the Bangkok stadium of Chulalongkorn United. Below him are a few hundred home fans and, opposite them, a few dozen supporters of the Provincial Electricity Authority, the league leaders. Reid has been watching as many league games as possible before picking his national squad. When asked what he's looking for in potential squad members, he replies, "Talent. Pace. Attitude." There are players with all three on the pitch, but Reid has a problem: the stadium's floodlighting is so patchy that he can barely make out the numbers on the shirts. That's par for the course in Thailand's shambolic and unpopular league, where facilities are poor, and players and officials often outnumber fans. The game ends 0-0, but Reid doesn't wait for the final whistle — he nips off early to watch a live broadcast of Manchester United playing Liverpool. Who can blame him? Every football fan in Thailand is doing exactly the same.
A month later, Reid names a squad of 36 players and calls them to a meeting at the National Football Center, a grand name for a spartan two-story building set amid rice fields in the Bangkok boondocks. "It feels like a rehab clinic," grumbles one of Reid's staff. On the desk in front of him is the squad roster, a pristine copy of a book called English-Thai: The Fun Way to Learn the Language and a three-page cheat sheet of footballing phrases in Thai. Reid studies it. "Poo rack sah bra too," he says hesitantly. Phu rak-saa bpra-dtuu (goalkeeper). "Goalie," he grins. "Brilliant. Got to have a go, haven't you?"
Reid vows to join his players in the blazing afternoon sun for a warm-up. "I'll be knackered," he grins. "I'll be on me knees after that, though." The players arrive. "Is this the boys?" says Reid, jumping to his feet. "Brilliant." Thirty young men file in, subdued and unsmiling. Reid greets them in both Thai ("Sawadee khrap!") and his native Liverpudlian ("All right, boys?"). They bow their heads and clasp their hands together in a wai, the traditional Thai gesture of respect. "Even though training will be hard, I like enjoying it," Reid tells them. "I like smiling." The players look unconvinced.
"Thais consider it extraordinarily rude to express anger in public ... If you cannot keep a 'cool head,' many Thais will actually think you are insane or dangerous. When angry, remember to smile."
In the past, reid's motivational style has inclined toward shouting and swearing, usually at the same time. But he has promised a new approach in Thailand. "I want to get the best out of these players and you can't do that shouting at anyone," he told reporters. Instead, Reid puts his primitive Thai to comic effect on the training ground. "Despite the language problem, you can have laughs," he says, before gamely — if not entirely successfully — attempting to count to five in Thai.
On the training ground, Reid will also have to boost his team's fitness and morale: many players flag in the second half or hang their heads when they are a goal down. "You're not going to win every football match," he says. "I'm not that daft. But you've got to try to do it."
Thailand beat Vietnam 2-0 and Laos 6-0 in their opening games at the Suzuki Cup, which were played in Phuket due to political unrest in Bangkok. Reid knows that only three of the tournament's eight national teams are coached by nationals. A Russian manages Laos, while Vietnam has just signed a Portuguese. There's a Serbian in Singapore and a Brazilian in Burma. While Thai players have found it hard to adjust to England, English managers seem to fare better in Thailand. A journalist once asked Peter Withe if he missed home, and his pithy reply said more about globalization than a stack of doctoral theses: "Not really. You can get a pint of Tetley's pretty much anywhere these days." Peter Reid — older, wiser and apparently with expletives depleted — also seems comfortable in Thailand. "It's an adventure," he says. "Even though you do miss home, I can get English radio through me laptop and the Premier League and European games are always on. It's a small world these days."
It's also a world full of stronger footballing nations. As he prepares his young squad, Reid might remember that there is not one Thai smile but many. They range from yim thang nam taa (I'm so happy I'm crying) to yim soo (I am smiling in the face of an impossible struggle). Reid should practice both, just in case.