Chiang Rai Hills FC - A different kind of a football story - part 1

Off the pitch - Report Some things need time. Like this report. We were on-site in January 2011, and it was written in February. Finally, it’s now online.

Due to the length of the report, we have decided to publish it in a total of three parts. In our first part we would like to introduce the club. We will put the person behind the club on the spot and find out what it’s all about.The second and third parts will mainly be in-depth interviews.

Footballers building a stadium with their own hands? Where could you find this nowadays? Imagine, for example, Beckham with a hard hat on his head and wearing overalls at a concrete-mixer while Ronaldo carries bricks in a wheelbarrow! But not for the purposes of modelling. Unthinkable? Yes.

That something like this is happening, I learned from a few guys from Chiang Rai United last year. I met them by chance during a 2010 season match in Bangkok. They were there to support the club from up north. But they are also part of a very special club which, in its composition, is unique in Thailand and maybe in the whole world. The club they are playing for is part of a foundation for disadvantaged hill tribes. Accordingly, the name of the club is Chiang Rai Hills FC.

The foundation was launched by a Belgian, Count Gerald van der Straten Ponthoz who is also financing the project. Naturally, I wanted to learn more about the club and by fortune was invited by Khun Gerry to attend the public launch of Chiang Rai United’s 2011 campaign at the beginning of this year, where the Hills team was introduced as well. It was a particularly interesting event because it took place at the Hills stadium, currently under development.

To get there, you need to pass Chiang Rai by approximately 30 kilometres up towards the Burmese border until you come to Maechan. Arriving at the scene, the only thing I could see, at the place where I thought the stadium was, was a wall. It looked like a Thai tourist resort in. Had I gone wrong? Passing the wall, I spotted a pitch and, yes, it was really the Hills stadium.

Chiang Rai Hills Stadium

Hills Stadium as of January 2010

Suddenly I felt I had been transported into the country of the Aztecs, because the stadium’s architecture recalls Mexico rather than the hills of Asia. Pretty excited, I hasten to park my vehicle so that I can explore the stadium, and I must say that I was delighted. While the main stand, so far, is still not more than a skeleton, and the construction of the stand behind the goal was not even begun, you can foresee how everything will look.

Later on, in the evening, about 500 people attend the event where both teams are presented – including many children and members of the hill tribes.
They all  listen carefully as Khun Gerry presents the project and then the players. Drum dances by young girls in traditional costumes and a gigantic firework display are the highlights of the night. I also have met our forum member Limbo. After Gerry had explained some details about the stadium, we agree to meet for the next day to do an interview.

He invites me to his Insii Thai House, a well known traditional Thai-style wooden house with a wonderful garden. But first, we once again inspect the stadium in detail – which is just next door. It’s shortly after New Year and no workers are to be seen because of a public holiday. Only the pitch is watered.

In addition to the main field, a second, smaller one will be used for practise and seven-a-side matches. Toward the main stand, there are already a few buildings including an coffee shop, a souvenir stand and a restaurant. You can sit there on the roof garden, watching the game while you are sipping coffee or having a delicious soup. Khun Gerry informs me about the plans to install a five-metres-high and eight-metres-wide LED screen between the buildings. The stadium is to be three-sided; the open side allowing you to have a view of the hills in the surrounding area. Altogether it will hold 4000 spectators.

Of course, I wanted to know whether Gerry was already a football fan in Belgium – something he denied. The question is no accident, because some relatives of his own a large share of top Belgian club RSC Anderlecht. Also, some of his ancestors have remarkable bonds with the early history of football, and even with football in Thailand.

In 1900 one of the first ever international soccer competitions took place: the Coupe Van der Straeten Ponthoz was named after the donor of the cup. During the second edition of the tournament, one year later, one team left the pitch in protest because they weren’t satisfied by a referee’s decision. This event led to the founding of FIFA, two years later, in 1904.

In the late 19th century, another ancestor, Gustave Rolin-Jaequemyns, acted as a personal adviser to King Rama V of Thailand – the Thai King who played a key role in the Western-influenced modernisation of Thai society. King Rama V awarded Rolin-Jaequemyns the title Chao Phya Abhai Raja Siammanukulkij. The foundation which supports Ching Rai Hills today is named after him.

The aim of the Foundation is to underprivileged young people's dreams come true, particularly those of disadvantaged hill-tribes. Some successful projects arose in co-operation with the local Rotary Club such as the Hill Tribe Violin Band, the Sinoi Ceramic Project and the Hill Tribe Magic Troupe. And, for only the past two years, Chiang Rai Hills FC, too. To be continued...

author: esgede & lokomotive
edited by Paul Hewitt
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