Interview with Thai-Swedish Port FC player Kevin Deeromram

Kevin Deeromram joins me at a Café in central Bangkok after getting off the moto-taxi that brought him from an intensity deficient and depressed Port FC training session the day after a surprise 2-1 defeat away to Chainat Hornbill. The match was followed by something as rare, at least by Thai standards, as the team getting booed, to put it mildly, by its own travelling support. Take our seats and he orders a portion of stir-fried noodles before diving into a discussion about a life far from the prevalent image of a professional european footballer, geographically as well as culturally.

Let’s start by having you introduce yourself to a broader audience. Where are you from? Where and when did you start playing football?

I’m from Haninge municipality in Stockholm, Sweden, and I first started playing with Haningepojkarna when I was four years old, moved on to IFK Haninge at age ten and that’s when it started to become serious. When I was fourteen or fifteen I joined  the Djurgårdens IF academy and I was with Djurgården until I left for Thailand.

How would you describe yourself as a player? Strengths and weaknesses?

I’m a full-back who likes to join in, and help wrap up, attacks. Not as a finisher but by providing assists and so forth. Also, I have great stamina. Attacking is my strength, I’m weaker defensively.

What role-models do you have, or have had in the past?

When I was younger I guess it was Marcelo, I think that’s how I wanted to play and that’s how I tried to play. Obviously, he’s a very technically gifted player, and later, it was David Alaba who became something of an idol but once I turned fifteen or sixteen I started focusing only on becoming the best player I could.

You hail from Jordbro in Haninge, how do you go from there, via Djurgården. 6 months as a youth player at Werder Bremen and 25 games on loan at Åtvidaberg in the Swedish second flite, to the Thai League at only nineteen years of age?

As my loan at Åtvidaberg came to an end and my contract with Djurgården expired I was waiting for offers to come, I chose not to renew my deal with Djurgården and I don’t think staying there would have helped my career because I wouldn’t have seen to much playing time considering Elliot Käck played every minute of last years season at my position. So as I was waiting I got some offers from Sweden and Denmark but then I thought about Thailand and figured “why not give it a go?” because I’d heard that the league was on the up and that’s it’s a lot better than people in Sweden tend to think. So thought “fine. I’ll try it for a year” and when I’d been here for three months I knew that this was where I want to be.

So there wasn’t any scouts or agents who got in touch?

No. I had my Swedish agent and we discussed it and I chose to come here.

Djurgården wanted to keep you?

Yeah, they offered me a contract but… I didn’t want it.

More money down here?

Yes, haha.

What’s the biggest adjustment you had to make when moving from Swedish to Thai football?

The weather was insane when I first arrived and it took me about two months to adapt. Sporting-wise it was the tactical bit, I wasn’t prepared for the fact that many Thai players don’t have the tactical awareness that we get back home. Also, it was more difficult to get to know the domestic players than the foreign ones.

What level is the Thai League at when compared to Superettan (the second tier of Swedish football) where you played before moving here?

That depends on what club we’re talking about, the best ones would fare well in Allsvenskan. I truly think so. The league as a whole… I’m not sure. Bottom end of Allsvenskan, a bit better than Superettan actually.

What’s the level of individual quality of the domestic players?

Thai players are great technically. I’m thinking about the national side here, the individual quality of the players is really high so if they manage to add the tactical aspects Thailand will have a very good team.

As you say, looking at the national side there’s already three players who are regulars in the J-League.

Yeah, look at Chanathip (Songkrasin) for example, to me he’s the best player in Thailand and when I look at him I’m actually a bit chocked that he’s not playing in Europe, what’s he doing in Japan?

I’m a big fan of Thitipan (Puangchan) who I feel is a bit underrated even here in Thailand.

Yes! Thitipan as well. Oh, my god what a player. Gerrard!

So who’s the best player you’ve faced down here?

It’s Chanathip, and Thitipan as you say, last year when we played Chiang Rai he murdered me. But, Chanathip is the best.

What about the foreign players?

Foreign… who could that be? I really don’t remember who were here last year. Boskovic scored 38 goals but I never really played him directly. Diogo maybe, yes Diogo.

Your old club, Rachaburi Mitr Pohl, hired former German international Christian Ziege ahead of this season, did you manage to get any impression of him as a coach before you left the club?

We were off to Malaysia for a pre-season camp and he really tried to get us work on a specific formation and, although he said “if this doesn’t work we’ll try something different”, he pushed us very hard to make it work. To me he’s a great coach. Same with Pacheta last year, he was great too, but Ziege really showed what he wanted and maybe that’s why he left, because the president didn’t like that.

The reason I ask is that Thai culture is, for lack of a better word, quaint, and football is no exception, Ziege quit his job at Ratchaburi after only two league games and he wasn’t even the first foreign coach to give up this season (his replacement at Ratchaburi has already quit as well). In total, 10 or 11 coaches have been fired or quit despite its only 16 rounds into the league.

When I arrived at Ratchaburi last year and met the president I felt it was a bit weird that he was at our training session every day but he wasn’t too hands on at the start, but once the league started I realized how it works with some presidents down here, how mad they get when we lose. But you get used to it eventually. So after six months I’d adapted, and having moved to Port FC it’s a lot easier than at Ratchaburi.
There’s a story being told down here about another foreign player who’d won two penalties and was angry about not being allowed to take either of them, so he and the president started shouting at each other and the whole thing ended in the player having a gun pulled on him in the dressing room and being told to leave the club. When I first heard that I got a bit scared and though “what the hell is this?”

Still it took you no time to adapt to the culture. Debut with the Thai national side against Uzbekistan after only six months and a move to an ambitious Port FC before your second year. Is it simply your Thai heritage that make things go smooth?

No really, when I first came I didn’t feel Thai because I didn’t speak the language. I’ve not spent too much time down here and didn’t really know anything, I’ve been in Sweden all my life and I’ve been playing football in Sweden all my life. So, I don’t think that’s why, I honestly don’t know why. I was just quick to accept how everything was and I think it had to do with having a lot of foreign players to hang out with and that the team I was at was tight knit and everyone being friends. I think that made adapting to the style of play so much easier.

Port had a fantastic start to the season, beating your former club Ratchaburi, as well as bitter rivals and one of the financial superpowers of Thai football, Muangthong United. The rivalry between Port and Muangthong is fierce and there’s a history of violence between fans. Both matches last year were closed to spectators and this season no away fans are allowed in either stadium, does these feelings affect the players or are they confined to the supporters?

I haven’t been here that long and I remember wondering why we weren’t allowed to bring any fans to the match and what might have happened but, apart from that, we don’t really notice it, not me at least.

The team has suffered a dip in form following the great start but your manager, Jadet, was named Fox Sports manager of the month and yourself player of the month for the opening month of the Thai League. What does an award like that early in the season mean for the rest of the season, does help to keep confidence up when the wins stop coming with ease?

I didn’t think much of it. I just try to do my bit and I think Jadet is trying to do his but it doesn’t seem to work at the moment. The team isn’t doing well as a whole and that’s tough on everyone so confidence is low of course. But I’m trying to keep my spirit up and the squad is trying to maintain some level of confidence until we get another win, then it’ll get easier again. That’s why the win against Prachuap was so important, but then last time out against Chainat… you’re right back down at the bottom. I try not to think about it and take one game at the time to do as well as I can.

You’ve clearly struck a good chord with the fans because one sees quite a few shirts sporting “Deeromram 97” on the back in and around the PAT Stadium on game days and Port has a very passionate following. Is it a form of Beatles-hysteria when the streets of Bangkok now?

No, no, there was some attention when I first signed with Port and when I got into the national team but it has cooled down a bit. The team isn’t doing well, I’m not doing well, no one’s doing well so right now it’s very quiet. I can walk around freely so at least that’s nice.

But it’s still noticeable away from matches?

Sure, it is.

How do you like Bangkok?

I like Bangkok! People who come often say they don’t like Bangkok but to me it’s the best place because you know what to do, people who come here when they’re out travelling maybe only know about Khaosan road. But there’s something new to do every day. Last year I lived here even though I was playing in Ratchaburi. We had a driver who took us back and forth to training so we could sleep all the way in the car, I couldn’t stand Ratchaburi, I panicked being there, there was a Robinson mall but apart from that…

How comfortable are you speaking Thai?

When I was little my mum used to speak Thai to me and I used to know a lot more as a kid but in time I just stopped speaking it altogether. I have a big sister who speaks, reads and writes Thai and everything. When I first came here I didn’t understand anything… I mean literally nothing, but now I’ve learned a little bit and I know numbers and stuff. At least it’s improving.

How does that work when playing for the national side?

I’m not the only half-Thai player there. Philip Roller from Ratchaburi, Mika (Chunonsee) from Bangkok United, Tristan (Do, Muangthong United) and so on. Mika speaks Thai and he can read so he translates some for me and with Philip it’s exactly like with me, he doesn’t speak any Thai so we hang out a lot. But it’s frustrating sometimes, like when I was at the SEA Games with the U23 squad and I was the only half-Thai player and everyone only spoke Thai, they don’t speak very good English either. We were there for three weeks and it was really nice to get back home afterwards.

I can understand that, plus, it must be hard to follow instructions in match and training.

You just have to listen, and some speak a little English so they try to translate, but mostly you just need to try to understand.

What about the future, lets start short term: what do you hope to get from the remainder of the season?

I want us to finish as high as possible in the league and we have the squad to be better than seventh where we are now. If we just manage to get things in order I think we can do quite well and I perform well too. Also, I want become regular in the national squad.

What do you think is a reasonable finish to aim for in the league?

If we do get everything in order I think we could be third or fourth. The other teams aren’t doing too good either. You must’ve noticed how evenly matched the league is right now, it’s very tight. We’re three point shy of third place and seven points clear of the relegation zone so, yeah, I would say third or fourth.

And long term: what are your personal goals for the next few years and with your career as a whole?

If I’m allowed to dream I would like to go back to play In Europe but I’m thinking that now I’m acclimatized down here so I wouldn’t want to return to Sweden to play in Allsvenskan. That would mean reduced pay and kind of like starting over. In the end you play football to somehow make money and be as good as you can be but maybe it’s possible to take the step by doing well in Thailand and getting to Europe via Japan. If I’m allowed to dream it would be fantastic to play in Spain, I like the style of play they have when you keep the ball on the ground.

 

The Port FC players responded well, to say the least, to the discontent among the travelling fans and have planted themselves firmly in third place in the league and the race for next year’s AFC Champions League-spots after a fantastic run of form that started in the match following this interview. Kevin was voted most important player during the first half of the season by one Port FC-fan network and has simultaneously fortified his spot in the national squad. Along with his teammate at Port, Elias Doleh, and Police Tero player, Niran Hansson, he’s blazing a trail leading to an alternative career route for other Swedish players, especially those with Asian ancestry, and has already started to get questions from other promising youngsters back home about life as a player in Thailand. In addition, the Thai clubs are actively looking for players who qualify for Thai, ASEAN or Asian citizenship to bypass foreign player-quotas so there’s a good chance that other talented players will leave Sweden to try their luck at a seemingly unexpected place in the future.

AFC Champions League Group Stage, final round

The ACL-groups are into their final round and there are still a few spots up for grabs in the in the eastern division playoffs, and all four group winners have yet to be definitively decided. Here’s the group-by-group breakdown of what is still to play for:

Group E:
Jeonbuk Hyundai and Tianjin Quanjian have already secured their places in the round of 16 so it’s down to who comes out ahead out of the two. A draw for Jeonbuk at home to Kitchee, who brought home their second consecutive league title back in Hong Kong just the other day but are bottom of the group in the ACL, would mean Quanjian need to win by at least 7 at home to Kashiwa Reysol to have any chance of stealing the top spot. Hence, everything points to the Koreans remaining in front of the Chinese tomorrow evening.

Group F:
Ulsan Hyundai and Melbourne Victory are, in theory, fighting to join Shanghai SIPG in the next round. However, Ulsan only need a single point away to Kawasaki Frontale to keep Victory at bay and, should they fail to do so, the Australians have 10 goals to make up for in relation to the Koreans. As SIPG travel to Melbourne tomorrow knowing a loss puts them under threat of falling behind Ulsan, the chances of an Aussie scoring-orgy are slim to none.

Group G:
The only group where no side is yet sure of progressing, Guangzhou Evergrande are in front but if the they were to lose at home to Cerezo Osaka tonight, the visitors would claim the top sport and the Cantonese would be in a goal-difference affair with Buriram United for second place, assuming the Thai side defeats Jeju United away. If Jeju wins, Evergrande and Cerezo are through no matter what. However, Cerezo have travelled to China without several first team regulars and a draw is not enough for them to survive the group if Buriram comes out on top in Korea.

Group H:
The only group where all sides still have the chance of progressing. Kashima Antlers are through and only need a draw at home to Suwon Bluewings to win the group. Suwon, on the other hand, need a win to be sure of avoiding elimination if there is a winner in tonight’s encounter in Australia between Sydney FC and Shanghai Shenhua. A loss would put the Koreans at risk of being surpassed by either of the challengers, and a draw would still keep Sydney’s hopes alive.

It looks like tonight may well be a nail-biter, while tomorrow evening is more about deciding the order of the first two, rather than who they’ll be.

A rare chance to see some CSL football again

About 30 minutes into Tianjin Quanjian – Guangzhou Evergrande I actually found what appeared to be a working stream. This meant I’d missed the penalty in the fifteenth minute that Ricardo Goulart, in turn, missed himself by firing over the bar. I knew that I could lose access at any time as it was far from an official source. Last year there was a proper European payment service that was reliable although it didn’t broadcast all matches but for the other ones, at least some betting sites produced alternative viewing options. This season, the real way to access the CSL outside of China seems to be through Sky Sports, it seems that would, however, require moving to the U.K. and getting a full TV-package. A wonderful example of the difference between the CFA saying it wants Chinese football to grow and it actually taking action to make it happen.

The fifteen minutes of the first half that I got to see wasn’t really much to write about so I won’t.

The second half started out with a bit more intensity, the visitors were probing to find openings and Alan was very mobile up front. That would only last until the 50-minute mark as said Alan got sent off after being easily provoked by Liu Yiming and throwing an elbow to the centre-backs face, leaving Shi Zhenlu little choice but to present the red card. But, only 5 minutes later, Gao Lin improved on his not too impressive goal scoring record of 2018 as he hit a well-placed volley home from inside the box following a corner. A crucial goal considering the main challengers to strip the ruling champions of their crown, Shanghai SIPG, were up at halftime against Chongqing Lifan.
Now Quanjian were forced to move their positions forward and they had a couple of good efforts to level the match within minutes of the goal. This also meant becoming very open at the back and with all the attacking quality of Evergrande, Alan or no Alan, it left the chasing hosts more than a little vulnerable. A free-kick from far out on the right-hand side passed by everyone and nearly doubled the lead with 65 minutes played but the ball bounced back into play off the post.
For the remainder of the evening, Quanjian kept pushing forward, and not to say they didn’t create anything, but Anthony Modeste had a pretty disappointing night up front and Alexandre Pato was sorely missed. Instead, it was Evergrande who had the bulk of real chances. With 3 minutes left of the 90, Nemanja Gudelj could’ve definitely put the affair to rest but Paulinho’s replacement failed to bring the ball down with his chest as he was in on goal and the ball rolled all the way down to the grasp of Zhang Lu. It didn’t matter in the end as Evergrande held on for a hard fought win to keep them within 3 points of SIPG at the top. Most likely at third place as Shandong Luneng only needs one point at home to the biggest of the season so far, Guizhou Hengfeng Zhicheng, to overtake the champions again.

Looking back and ahead to tomorrow’s CSL 2018 opening round

A very exiting year of introduction to the Chinese Super League

A true rollercoaster of a year that gave me the greatest (the birth of my daughter), as well as the most horrible (the loss of someone very close to me) experiences of my life has come to and end and although these events, in combination with the workload of university, has left far too little time for creating quality content for this blog during the last nine months, I still wanted to take a look in the rearview mirror and ponder my first year of following the Chinese Super League as I ring in the 2018 Year of the Dog ahead of tomorrow’s start of the season (disregarding Evergrande’s 4-1 thrashing of Shenhua in the Super Cup, as all matches of that format anywhere around the globe are simply glorified friendlies). The CSL has certainly been a positive addition to my football viewing spectra. Not the easiest league to wrap your head around, for example the untimely and often unclear changes of rules and regulations are confusing for the fans, and must make even short-term planning nearly impossible for the clubs, but the style of play is generally highly entertaining and the matches are often as unpredictable as the future structure of the league itself. The CFA “Tax” on big foreign player purchases has decisively slowed down spending and the recent specifications of its application efficiently stopped any attempt to maneuver around it.

The seventh consecutive league title for Guangzhou Evergrande may have been predictable, but the road leading up to it was anything but straight. After a slow start, Evergrande got back on top but then squandered numerous opportunities to put distance between themselves and Shanghai SIPG. The challengers were, however, hell bent on letting the reigning champions remain just that and the Cantonese giants could jog the title home with two rounds remaining.

I started out knowing little about the CSL, apart from the high-profile players brought in the last few years. Hulk’s transfer from Zenit S:t Petersburg to SIPG had me raising my eyebrows as I held him as one of the top players in all of Europe and, since Paulinho made his surprise move from Evergrande to FC Barcelona in august, he has reigned supreme in the Middle Kingdom, as far as individual quality goes. Carlos Tévez’s farcical one-year stint went pretty much as I expected when I first read about it, Alexandre Pato was re-born and Eran Zahavi was sensational all year but I prefer to focus on the domestic talent I have come to know. A few players have really caught my eye, such as SIPG´s Wu Lei who more than held his own amidst the Brazilian imports and Gao Lin and Huang Bowen has put in some solid performances for Evergrande but it’s their teammate Yu Hanchao who has become my personal favourite Chinese player. The winger is often a joy to watch with great vision and some top drawer end-product. Unfortunately for China´s national side, none of the players mentioned are in the early stages of their careers, bringing us to the U23-player rule announced ahead of last season. Since I evaluated said rule halfway through the season, I won’t dwell on it but simply repeat my conclusion that it has done little, if anything, to further the development of young Chinese players as few players who wouldn’t have played anyway got more than the bare minimum amount of time on the pitch because of it.

In regards to the clubs, Beijing Guoan and Guizhou Hengfeng Zhicheng were the two that surprised me the most in terms of quality. Both sides finished mid-table but If either was to add consistency to their repertoire they could make a serious go at the ACL-spots this year. Guoan especially have looked like they had a lot more to give as they can give any side in the league a real run for their money on a good day and with the very costly (including “tax”) investments in Bakambu and Viera from Villarreal, they should be able to see substantial improvement to last season’s 8th place finish. Guangzhou Evergrande have yet to find a convincing replacement for Paulinho and are now one of a few equal contenders for the top spot that has been theirs to lose for so many years. Shanghai SIPG and Hebei China Fortune are my main challengers and I my money will be on the Shanghainese to clinch the title, mostly because of Hulk. Tianjin Quanjian and Jiangsu Suning both have a fair bit of talent will be the sides fighting Guoan for a possible opening at the 3rd AFC Champions League spot. The imminent takeover by Wanda Group, and the big names brought in late in the transfer window, makes the newly promoted Dalian Yifeng an interesting addition to the top flite, although I have no real basis for making any further estimation of either them, nor the other newcomer, Beijing Rehne.

Kickoff for the first round is tomorrow at 19:35 local time (12:35 CET) and we really hit the ground running with a Guangzhou-derby between Evergrande and R&F. Game on!