"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.