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Mar 18, 2011

From Bradford to Bangkok

Zesh Rehman's situation is as international as they come. The defender is a British-born Pakistan international playing for Muangthong United along with a host of local Thai stars, a Finn, a Slovakian and a smattering of Africans all directed by a Portuguese coach who reports to a Belgian CEO in a stadium sponsored by a Japanese company.

The Yahama Stadium is compact, closer in feeling than distance to Rehman's past stomping grounds at Fulham, Bradford City and Queens Park Rangers. A quick glance around the place and you could almost be forgiven for thinking you were back in England until other senses kick in. The early evening air just north of Bangkok has that unmistakably sweet south-east Asian scent, and even when the sun sinks opposite the main stand, the temperature rarely follows suit - a recent 18 degrees Celsius spell was a 'cold snap' - and the sounds from the fans, well, they can really make some noise.

They have had plenty to shout about of late, despite a poor start to the current season which has seen a haul of just four points from the opening four games. Four first-place finishes in the past four seasons makes for a much more impressive statistic but doesn't tell the full story. Only the last two were top-tier triumphs; the two before that were both promotions. Backed by significant sponsorship and run professionally, the club is in the vanguard of an increasingly impressive Thailand Premier League - precisely why the likes of Rehman are settling into life far from home.

The central defender is getting into the groove now after joining the club in December. "I had a phone call from my agent telling me of interest from Muangthong and I was literally on the next flight out here," Rehman told ESPNsoccernet. "After seeing the facilities, meeting club officials and hearing of how ambitious the club was I decided to sign a day later. Having played in all four leagues in England over a ten-year spell it was time for a new challenge. The thought of plying my trade in Asia always appealed to me so I'm very happy to be here.

"I have been blown away by the level of professionalism and it's on par with what I experienced in my Premier League and Championship days with Fulham and QPR. The structure of the club is very strong and has great people in charge. The owners, managers and head coach are all on the same wavelength and are always striving to take the club to the next level."

The air-conditioned club store at the stadium boasts DVDs, books, umbrellas, pillows and all kinds of t-shirts which not only tempt fans to part with their hard-earned baht but reveal a merchandising operation that is almost unrecognisable in Asia and wouldn't look out of place anywhere else. If the off-the-pitch operations are impressive, Rehman, with his varied levels of English experience, is uniquely qualified to make comparisons when it comes to standards on the pitch and thinks the club could perhaps survive the English Championship and would have no problems in League One.

But Muangthong United want success in Asia and that means the Asian Champions League. Thailand doesn't yet have automatic representation in the competition and while this will change in the not too distant future, the only way into the tournament at the moment is through the play-offs. Unfortunately, a defeat at the hands of Sriwijaya of Indonesia put paid to that after a 7-6 penalty shootout loss that Rehman describes as "unfortunate".

If you ask anybody involved with south-east Asian football if the region has what it takes to become a genuine force in Asian football then the answers are always positive. They have been for years, but fans are still waiting. Rehman believes that the good times for Thai football can't be too far away with his club and others such as Chonburi, Bangkok Glass, Thai Port and Buriram all moving forward.

"From what I have seen of Thai football I have been extremely impressed," he said. "The players are very technically gifted, they have a great desire and will to win. The coaches are tactically astute and work hard on ensuring the development of the players from an early age is in good hands."

If Thai clubs can be reasonably confident of imminent representation in Asia's top club competition, the national team is a different matter. Now led by Bryan Robson, the Elephants missed out on the Asian Cup earlier this year and the World Cup seems as far away as ever.

"Thailand has the potential to become a force in Asia as well as south-east Asia," claimed Rehman, who has had loan spells at Brighton, Blackpool and Norwich. "By all accounts the league has developed in leaps and bounds year after year and the infrastructure is in place for continued development so that can only be good for the future. The Thai football powers that be are certainly doing everything in their power to improve the whole set-up year on year. I think the day will come in the not so distant future when Thailand are at a World Cup finals. It would not surprise me."

You get the feeling that the well-travelled 27-year-old is not easily surprised, though there were a few eye openers when he first started playing in this part of the world.

"At first the heat was a factor," he admitted. "But I am slowly getting used to that. The referees are not as lenient as the UK and the pace is a little slower but the players are very sharp and fit. It is great learning different styles of play. I'm learning more about the people, culture, city and attitudes every day, so on a personal level it's a wonderful learning curve."

The same can be said for the language. Living in a city as global as Bangkok has its benefits when it comes to helping international visitors settle and it also makes it easier to get by with not much more than a sawadee krab ('hello'). Rehman is aiming for more.

"I have been having Thai lessons which are definitely helping me, my word bank is currently over 100 so I'm getting there slowly! I'm very fortunate that many of my team mates and fellow defenders speak decent English and football is a universal language."

It certainly is in this part of Asia.

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