“Why can’t you understand?” Prayuth Chan-o-cha, the head of Thailand’s ruling junta, asked journalists as he tried to explain a new policy to members of Bangkok’s press pack in early February before adding, “cunts”. After taking power in 2014 in a coup that ousted Yingluck Shinawatra, the sister of the former Manchester City owner Thaksin, Prayuth has rarely concealed his contempt for the media. Once, he had called them dogs. According to those present, when some scribes replied that they were indeed watchdogs guarding the nation from the excesses of those in power, the former general thought for a second, shook his head and then replied that he was thinking more of mangy, flea-bitten kind of canines.

When the Prime Minister is setting such an example, perhaps it is not so surprising that locals and long-time residents say that the mood in the country is not as relaxed as it once was. These days, the Land of Smiles is quick to frown. A gruesome murder that transfixed the nation in early February was a sign of the times, said some, another example of how violence in a divided society was being expressed more quickly and readily than before. On seven occasions, police found themselves fishing out various body parts – from the same body – washed up at various locations on the banks of the Chao Phraya river that dissects the capital from north to south. In the end, the body was identified as being that of a Spanish businessman and blamed, as crimes against foreigners often are in Thailand, on other foreigners.

Such things can be covered in detail by the media – others cannot. Since the coup two years ago, press freedom in this regional media hub has been on the wane. International news organisations have increasingly been summoned to government offices to explain themselves. Long-term bloggers have been unable to renew visas and individual reporters working for more mainstream media have been threatened with similar sanctions. Some interventions are blatant: the international version of the New York Times, for instance, has appeared more than once on the streets of Bangkok with Thai-related news blacked out. Long regarded as the best place to be based in Southeast Asia for media freedom and convenience, Thailand has become a harder place than ever for journalists to work.

But in sport, and especially football, it’s different. The February 11 election that would choose the new president of the Football Association of Thailand (FAT) was big news, with most power-players talking openly to journalists, something that has become increasingly rare.

The election had been prompted by corruption allegations against the former president Worawi Makudi the man accused by the then-FA president Lord Triesman of having demanded that he personally be given the television rights for a proposed friendly between England and Thailand in Bangkok in exchange for his backing for England’s bid to host the 2018 World Cup. Worawi denied the allegations and tried unsuccessfully to sue for libel.

A smooth political operator, Worawi had been an influential figure in Asian football for years. As well as being the main man in Southeast Asian football politics, he had been on Fifa’s Executive Committee from 1997 to May 2015 when he was outmanoeuvred by Kuwait’s Sheikh Ahmad al-Fahad al-Sabah and ousted in an election. His defeat prompted genuine sympathy at the AFC.

Not in Thailand. Any pride there had been at having one of their own in such a prominent position had long dissipated. Most supporters were sick of his perceived scheming and alleged corruption. A petition of more than 10,000 signatures was presented to the ruling junta, the National Council for Peace and Order, in 2014, asking for Worawi’s removal. It was an open secret that the junta would have loved to do just that but they were prevented from acting by Fifa’s prohibition on governmental interference, something that had led to the suspension of Indonesia..

The list of allegations was long and troubling. During my time in Thailand, I received almost daily emails from an unknown source providing documentation going back years that, it was claimed, showed Worawi’s crimes. Some were familiar, others not. This Bangkokian Deep Throat used the general email subject line of ‘A Spicy Tom Yum Soup’ – a famous national dish – with individual updates being labelled as different ingredients. 

It was alleged that much of the funding the Football Association of Thailand (FAT) received for women’s football in the first years of the 2000s never reached the team. Thailand’s women qualified for the 2015 World Cup for the first time but much of the support had come from the team manager Nualphan Lamsan, a former Bangkok socialite who went by the nickname ‘Madame Pang’. Now in charge of Premier League of Thailand club Thai Port – she hired the former Tottenham and England midfielder Gary Stevens and fired him after seven games – she has been credited with helping the club’s notorious fans to behave but seemingly found it harder to get FAT money.

In 2006, Thailand received funding from Fifa’s Goal Project to build an artificial pitch and offices in Nongjok, Bangkok. Known as the Football Development Center, documents stated that the land was owned by the Worawi family until media attention and a Fifa ethics committee investigation led him to transfer ownership to FAT. Worse was the accusation that Worawi was the director of the company contracted to build it all for $500,000. In 2010, there were better known allegations, reported worldwide, that Worawi helped to broker a gas deal between Thailand and Qatar. 

Then there was the creative accounting. I asked Somyot Poompanmoung, a candidate in the election, about an infamous game between Thailand and Malaysia in the 2014 AFF Suzuki Cup, Southeast Asia’s big biennial bash. He laughed (as well he might – he had just switched his supporting loyalty from Manchester United to Leicester City but that’s another story).“They can’t answer questions about earnings and expenses – how much? Nobody knows,” he said. “The FA can’t declare and when they do, it is not correct. In the Suzuki Cup, the stadium was full, 40-50,000 people. The tickets cost from 100 to 500 baht. There is other income from television, sponsors and even merchandise. When the FA declared to the public the money collected from that match, it was only 46,000 baht (around US$1300) One person, one baht.” He shook his head.

Later that week, I put the allegations to Narinpong Jinapak, the FAT’s lawyer and Worawi’s spokesman. “We have looked into that and that was the accountant filling in the wrong budget,” he said. “It is very technical. If we see something illegal in taxation then we have to look into it, but so far there is nothing. If he is guilty, if there is something illegal, then Mr Worawi must be held accountable.”

It has been the same for years: allegations but no consequences. But things had started to change.

The seemingly never-ending stories coming out of Fifa made a difference. The new broom sweeping through football may not have made everything clean but did make some people feel a little less comfortable and others more confident. Events in Switzerland cracked Worawi’s invulnerability.

As well as the network he had developed over the years, there was one thing in Worawi’s favour. For years, fans had accused him and his murky dealings of holding back the country’s football, but in the last two or three years of his tenure, Thai football started to boom to become indisputably the number one nation in Southeast Asia.

The region of 650 million or so people bounded by India to the west and China to the east and influenced by both is the most passionate in the whole continent. Over the years, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam and sometimes Indonesia have fought it out with Thailand for top dog status, with even the Philippines starting to get its act together.

Yet the War Elephants, as the national team is nicknamed, have been pulling away. After a succession of English coaches (Peter Withe, Peter Reid and Bryan Robson) and then the German Winfried Schäfer, the FAT plumped for Zico in 2014. Not the Brazilian version but the local legend Kiatisuk Senamuang. The former midfielder, who had a short spell in England with Huddersfield Town in 1999, has introduced a Thai tiki-taka style of play that is easy on the eye. He has been helped by the emergence of young stars such as Chanathip Songkrasin, Charyl Chappuis (who helped Switzerland win the 2009 U17 World Cup but now plays for Thailand), Sarach Yooyen, Kawin Thamsatchanan (a goalkeeper who Robson wanted to take to Manchester United) Theerathon Bunmathan and the striker Teerasil Dangda.

The team passed their way to glory at the 2014 AFF Suzuki Cup, outclassing Malaysia in the final. They then finished above Iran at the top of their group in the second round of qualification for the 2018 World Cup to become one of the final 12 in Asia. They have already qualified for the 2019 Asian Cup.

Drawn against Japan, Australia and Saudi Arabia in the final round of qualification for the 2018 World Cup, Thailand face a test that should help the team to improve. With 10 games coming over the next 12 months, coach Zico might field a second-string side for the AFF Suzuki Cup in November, a competition once regarded by the country and still seen by others as pretty much the be all and end all. It would be a clear signal that Thailand are looking to be the first Southeast Asian national side to climb out of the regional bubble to have continental ambitions.

As well as the national team, the league is also improving. Clubs such as Buriram United (owned by the ambitious politician and former ally of Thaksin Shinawatra, Newin Chidchob) and Muangthong United are well-funded and leading the way in terms of professionalism. Others like Bangkok United and Bangkok Glass are also improving on and off the pitch. The Premier League of Thailand still lacks depth but the top five or six teams are raising standards. Fans are responding. This season, the local league is the only one in Southeast Asia that draws more television viewers than the English Premier League.

Despite the claims of Worawi’s supporters, most agree that the achievements came despite, not because of, his efforts. With a well-run and functioning football association, who knows where the team would be?

We could be about to find out. In May 2015, a Bangkok criminal court handed Worawi a suspended jail sentence of 16 months after he was found guilty of forging documents during his re-election campaign as president of the FAT. In October the same year, the Fifa ethics committee suspended him as well as the whole of FAT’s Executive Committee. His past was finally catching up with him.

“This is not an election between two men, but two power blocs,” said Charnwit Polcheewin. He was one of the two main candidates and seen by supporters as a former colleague and sympathetic to Worawi or by opponents as a puppet and proxy of the former president.

Despite Worawi’s unpopularity with many fans, the media was mixed in its reaction. The Worawi camp had the backing of Siam Sports, an influential company that owns various sports media in the country. Rawi Lohtong is the president and also the man behind leading Thai club Muangthong United – one that had Robbie Fowler briefly as a player coach. The FAT, or what was left of it after Fifa’s suspension, was behind him. There were lots of rumours of journalists from major newspapers taking bribes from Worawi’s camp for years, something that was stepped up during the campaign.

Charnwit’s rival was Somyot Poompanmoung, who had just retired as the police chief for all of Thailand. Somyot had plenty of weight in his corner too. There was (quietly) the ruling junta, most of the fans and some of the media. He also had the backing of the Leicester City owners and duty free retail giants King Power as well as Buriram United, Muangthong’s bitter rivals at the top of the Premier League of Thailand. Buriram’s owner is Newin Chidchob. Still a national figure, Newin has achieved legendary status in the rural north-east of the country by buying a club called Provincial Electronic Authority in 2009 and then relocating it to Buriram. In the years since, Buriram United have become the best team in Thailand and number one in Southeast Asia.

I meet Somyot on a Monday afternoon in a nondescript hotel in downtown Bangkok. His entourage arrives before he does, helping themselves to the buffet provided. A couple are wearing the same Leicester City shirt that he had on when announcing his candidacy but with the word ‘FAIR’ where ‘King Power’ should be. In a bright and breezy mood, this new Leicester fan knew that he was as much in pole position as the Foxes were. 

He admits that he has influential supporters. “I am only a candidate,” he says. “I need to have help. I know that facing a powerful group is always tricky. This is the time for change, this is the time to replace everything in Thai football. Fans in Thailand can’t accept the bad things that have happened in Thai football so I thought for a few weeks and then decided to become a candidate.”

His opponents have accused him of jumping on the football bandwagon, a charge he denies – although after Teerasil Dangda, he struggles to name another Thai player. “I follow football games in Thailand and in many countries like Italy, Germany and England,” he said. “I know many things about football because I like football and play football. I have been manager of the Thai Police team before and I have been concerned with Thai sport and I support everything in Thai sport. I was twice president of the bowling association. If I want to improve or develop Thai football, you have to make everything clear. I hope to change everything. I have logic. I was the police chief and I have a strategy of working fair, doing the right thing, not helping anyone in a bad or wrong way.”

In January, the FAT declared Somyot’s candidacy illegal as he had not registered in the two locations required. This was over-ruled by the Fifa-appointed Normalisation Committee that was overseeing the election. Somyot is happy that the other side seem so worried. “Before, they had no rivals,” he says. “I am proud of myself that now they feel like I am a threat to them. Before nobody could compete with them because they made all the rules and regulations.” He is not 100% sure that there will be an election, but if there is, he is confident of victory. “I think the vote will go ahead. They always use the lawyers to frighten people but if Fifa thinks the FAT is not cooperating, what happens? They will hurt the feelings of Thai people, especially the fans. If you don’t want to change, OK. You can accept the system, the conditions, the things that happened before. I can walk away. If you want to change then you have to vote for me.

“I will win.” But will they accept it? “I hope so. Thai fans are bored, really bored, if you see Facebook, it’s there. The fans support me but it is up to me to develop football, to make it better. If I can’t, they will not support me.”

He wants an English Premier League style of governance. The Thai Premier League (TPL; since renamed the Premier League of Thailand) was, he says, not transparently run. “Worawi has nearly 60% of the TPL registered to him. Khun Ong-art (FAT’s general secretary) has 13%. It’s not right. It is like they are untouchable. It time for that to change, not only in Thailand but for Fifa. I will change everything. The shareholders of the league committee should be TPL teams, like the Premier League in England.

The mention of Fifa is timely, coming just before the big Fifa presidential election on February 29. When the global body has been such a mess, it is perhaps not surprising that individual nations have been able to do what they wanted. Just like Blatter and his supporters, Somyot felt those in Thailand were not going to go quietly.

“They have to have this war as they are losing their powers. They will do everything to stop the election. They don’t want it to happen. As you say in English, you have to look under the carpet. There is a lot of dust under there from years and years. Nobody knows what because they don’t allow the people to know.”

Despite the fact his secretary had warned me before the interview against mentioning the name of the former president, Somyot is happy to talk about Worawi and especially the recent supposedly chance encounter with his main election rival Charnwit: “Accidental meeting? I said to the press, if he says that, they look down on Thai people. Then they think the people are so stupid, they eat grass not rice, like buffalos.”

The next day I head down to Charnwit’s office at the Sports Ministry.. It’s a typical southeast Asian government building with lots of portraits, white walls, brown floors and furniture that has seen better days. The television outside his office was showing a cartoon, an entertaining morality tale about not taking advantage of other people’s misfortune – in this example, selling water at a massive profit during a drought.

Somyot accused Charnwit of rowing a boat for a thief but Charnwit dismissed the claims of collusion in the meeting at an event in southern Thailand. “I bumped into him,” he says. “I did not know that he would be there. What could I do? He is my colleague for a long time and I could not just walk past.” He admits that he is running on the suggestion of his former boss but insists he is independent. “I am not acting on behalf of Worawi, they accuse me of being a proxy for Worawi. The other side, he could be said to be a proxy for the Buriram team and Newin.”

It was a sign of how messed up Thai football politics had become. Charnwit is a well-liked football man who led Thai Farmers Bank to two Asian Club Championships in the mid-nineties before taking over various Thai national teams at youth and senior level, but his ties with Worawi make him the candidate of the old guard. He was part of the disliked establishment. This enabled Somyot, with his connections to the ruling military junta and with dubious football credentials, to present himself as the man to bring reform. Charnwit acknowledged this but was loyal to his former boss. Whatever happened in the election and whatever may have happened in the past, the former coach believes that there is a role for Worawi in Thai football. “In Thailand, you see when officials leave, their portraits stay on the wall,” he said. “You can see that here in this building. There are ways to use their knowhow and experience and perhaps that could be the same too. I will say that there have been some good things in the past but people didn’t talk about it much. People have focused on the bad things. He has done a lot for Thai football and has been very good with his international connections, he is better than anyone else in Thailand at that.”

Charnwit and his supporters believe that the election should not go ahead and there have been attempts to stop it from doing so. The spat with Somyot’s registration was one example. The bigger charge is that the Normalisation Committee has interfered with the election.

There are 72 votes to decide the new boss. 36 come from clubs in the two top divisions, six are for different officials and the remaining 30 come from various lower tier and provincial teams. This 30 was selected last September when Worawi was still in charge and preparing for re-election. The head of the Normalisation Committee believes, and is far from alone in this, that these teams were hand-picked to vote for the boss. Thus, a new election was held to select another 30 teams with only two of the original number retaining their voting powers. A week before the ballot, it is expected that most of these will support Somyot and give him the win. This is why Worawi’s men are desperate to see the election stopped.

The man organising it, though, was determined the election should go ahead. This was the real battle, not the ballot contested by Somyot and Charnwit but the legal tussle taking place between two other men that seems as far removed from football as it is possible to get. “They don’t fight each other. Mr Somyot and Mr Charnwit don’t fight each other,” said Admiral Surawut Maharom, a veteran sports administrator appointed by Fifa to head the Normalisation Committee. He was squaring off with Narinpong Jinapak, FAT’s lawyer and Worawi’s mouthpiece. There did not seem much personal animosity between the two candidates, but this was different. The two officials did not hide their dislike of each other.

On a warm Monday morning, I arrived at the Sports Authority, next to the Rajamangala Stadium where the national team play most of their home games, to meet Surawut. His remit – to oversee the election – may have sounded simple but the execution was anything but. Our meeting was delayed as the police had suddenly turned up to talk about security arrangements for the election. It was just something else to worry about. 

“Right now, I have to tell you that it is like a civil war,” Surawut said when he eventually arrived. “I have been devoting myself to fix Thai sports disputes for 30 years. I know the nature of each sporting association. The shooting association also has its own problems, so does the tennis association. The football association is one of many associations that have problems. I don’t want to be meddling with their affairs, I want to help develop Thai athletes.”

“But football…” He puffs out his cheeks. “This is one of the most difficult cases I’ve dealt with in my life. They are trying to drag me into the dispute despite the fact that I am a referee.” He is open about who ‘they’ are: Worawi and his men.

It may be his last major job and he certainly gives the impression of wishing it was all over. “I don’t know why I was appointed. I don’t know why Fifa picked me. There may have been someone in our country who proposed my name and then Fifa looked at my CV. They approached me on the phone informally. I thought that it would be better to have a Thai person to fix the Thai football dispute. So I accepted the position.” He hopes that it will end on February 11 but knows that there is a good chance that the election will not take place (“it’s 50-50, I’d say right now”) and even if it does, there will be more to come.

He is braced for legal action. “They have been threatening me for three months now. First, they made a phone call. I don’t have the evidence on who did it. It was a phone call that they wanted me to resign from the post. If I don’t comply, they will sue. And then I would have to travel all across the nation to defend my case.” Those threats did not come to pass but he expects promises of legal action to go ahead. “It’s not going to end as there will be a lot of court cases against the Normalisation Committee and the cases will be in court for a long time. But at least they will not sue Somyot, the candidate, but me.”

A few miles away, close to trendy Siam Square with its skyscrapers, skytrain, shopping and international hotels, is the headquarters of FAT. Built before the neighbourhood became one of Bangkok’s premier entertainment districts, the old building has seen better days and looks a little out of place. Portraits of Worawi stare down on the reception area where uniformed officials sit around smoking and eating. Upstairs is the office of Narinpong. He is slightly late from a lunch appointment but strides in with an air of competence and confidence before we sit on an old leather settee.

The conversation starts with Surawut. “He is not neutral – even the Thai press say so. There is another candidate, the former police chief, and he has a close ties with the government, he is good friends with the justice minister and people who came into power after the coup. The government supports the other candidate. It is confirmed.”

Narinpong also accuses Surawut of using the possibility of Fifa suspension if the election does not go ahead as a scare tactic to get people to vote for Somyot. The Admiral denies such claims. “I don’t want to comment. They usually say that I threaten them that Fifa may sanction us. But it is likely that Fifa may consider having a solution one way or another. I don’t know if the punishment may be severe or not.

“Put simply, these people are losing their benefits. They do not think about the future of Thailand’s football circle. More importantly, they will lose the benefits as the system has to become more transparent. This election may disrupt their strong network that they have built.”

Surawut also casts doubt on Narinpong’s legal status as the FAT’s lawyer, as he was part of the body’s executive committee that was suspended by Fifa along with Worawi. “I’ve asked Fifa. Narinpong isn’t an executive of congress. He’s not a member. He is a member of one committee at the FAT. I’ve asked Fifa about his status. The thing is, the whole council has expired so why he is still representing it? If he acts as a lawyer of the club, it’s okay. But he’s now representing as the lawyer of FAT.”

Narinpong dismisses such talk as nonsense. It would be too easy to present him as the mouthpiece of the bad guy, but he is a respected lawyer with a history of helping the disadvantaged in Thai society. Now he is helping Worawi who, he insists, may have made mistakes but has not been found guilty of anything. “Those are just accusations. I represent Mr Worawi. There are lots and lots of accusations but all the accusations still cannot make Worawi be disqualified from being a candidate. I can’t say if he is good or bad, it is up to the Fifa Ethics Committee, but as you see from the past, he has been developing Thai football all the time. If everything is correct and everything is fair, then fine, it stops. A person who never does anything will never be wrong. A doer will always have something wrong. Yes, Mr Worawi has done a lot of things and yes, there may be some mistakes he might have committed.

“We can’t deny that we [he and Charnwit] are on the same team but he came according to the process, he is not the nominee of Mr Worawi but we can’t deny we are on the same team. We also can’t deny that Thai football has been developed, partly thanks to Mr Worawi’s work. He is a football person and played when he was very young and has done many things for Thai football. I think he wants to continue that success, I think that is his aim. If everything is resolved then we will see him back in football.”

Somyot was the clear victor in the February 11 ballot amid heavy security, winning by sixty-four votes to four. Legal avenues are still being explored.