Many foreign residents of Thailand are familiar with the visa run to Malaysia. Afshin Ghotbi had barely arrived in the Land of Smiles before he was off to Kuala Lumpur.
It was the end of a hectic few days but a quick trip south gave the former Iran head coach time to absorb the fact that he is the now in charge of Buriram United, perhaps the biggest club in Southeast Asia.
“We will be challenging for trophies and every game we will play better football. Professional football is first about winning and then entertainment.”
Well, in charge as much as you can be in a club owned by Newin Chidchob, the former politician who relocated Provincial Electronic Authority to the north-east of Thailand in 2009 and then built a club, a stadium and a team that has won three of the last four Thai league titles.
So accustomed have United been to success that a dip in the league this season, and a dire performance in the group stage of the Asian Champions League, saw Brazilian Alexandre Gama leave after two largely successful years.
“I was very interested in Buriram’s story ever since I heard about the owner,” Ghotbi told FourFourTwo. “He has tremendous love for the club and the city and has the resources, both financial and political, to make this one of the best in Asia.”
Back to the top? Buriram have the ambition and the means to rule Asia again
Ghotbi knows all about Asia. The 52-year-old, who left Iran in 1977 for California, where he started coaching, returned to the continent in 2001 to be part of Guus Hiddink’s coaching staff in South Korea.
After the success of the 2002 World Cup, he was back as an assistant to Dick Advocaat in 2005 and then Pim Verbeek a year later. In 2007, came the call from his homeland. At the end of his first season with Persepolis, he delivered a first league title to the Tehran giants in six years.
Our intention is to win everything domestically and then go the next stage and go where they have never been in the Asian Champions League.
Up next was a stint in charge of the Iranian national team and a last eight place in the 2011 Asian Cup after which he was off to Shimizu S-Pulse in Japan.
Ghotbi likens Thailand’s situation to Korea in 2001 with the country and its leading club ready to explode: “Professional football is growing and developing and I wanted to be part of that. I have been impressed with the Thai players. They have open hearts and open minds and they want to do a job.”
Ghotbi’s immediate task is to salvage Buriram’s Thai Premier League season
There is plenty of work to do though this is a club still in the title race. After 44 league games without losing, Buriram tasted defeat twice in the space of three weeks in April and May and are eight points behind rivals Muangthong United.
The team has, Ghotbi feels, reached a plateau. “I saw half a dozen games before I said yes, I felt it had lost confidence, physically did not seem sharp enough and wasn’t tactically organised enough. I felt I could come and change things quickly, get a few good results and turn the season around.”
Room for expansion
A first game ended in a 1-0 win over Nakhon Ratchasima. More than most clubs in Asia, fans will expect more of the same. They are accustomed to success. Ghotbi is ready for the pressure.
“There was the same pressure in Persepolis. Buriram have fans in every city in Thailand. I welcome that expectation and it will bring the best out of me. I like pressure and I like to win.”
In Japan with Shimizu, the club often sold its best players. “One of the frustrating things at S-Pulse was that my ambition was greater than the club’s.”
There’s plenty of ambition at Buriram. “Our intention is to win everything domestically and then go the next stage and go where they have never been in the Asian Champions League,” he added. That would be going past the quarter-final reached in 2013.
After a difficult start, Buriram’s season is beginning to look up again
The return of injured star striker Diogo is expected soon and there will be more additions. “They have already decided what changes they will make in the transfer window. I will have to work with what is given to me. My approach is always first observe, then learn, listen, think and then try to find the solutions to improve the team. It is a step by step process.”
A winning mentality
Professional football is developing and I wanted to be part of that. I have been impressed with the Thai players. They have open hearts and open minds
It is certainly a challenge. “We will be challenging for trophies and every game we will play better football. Professional football is first about winning and then entertainment. My job is to create a team that, regardless of which player is available or not, sets a certain standard.
“I am impressed with the love the fans have for this club. I can feel how big this club is, it is massive. When you are outside, you don’t perhaps realise how big football is in Buriram and the owner can take the credit. He built something from nothing. He could have bought a club in Europe but invested in his own country and built something. That is an inspiration for everyone.”
“All over the world, coaches are judged by their last result, it is part of our industry and part of our job. We have to learn to live with it and welcome it. I enjoy the excitement that it brings. I am ready for the challenge.”