Bangkok, Nov 16: It was billed as a ''historic day for Thai football'', but English soccer club Manchester City's signing of three Thai players today came with more than a whiff of domestic politics.
Coinciding with the final day of candidate registration for a December 23 election, the glitzy ceremony was dominated by a video address from ousted Prime Minister and new City owner Thaksin Shinawatra, who has been in exile since a September 2006 coup.
In the video, Thaksin -- whose television appearances were blacked out in the weeks after the coup -- took a barely disguised swipe at the generals who kicked him out and their efforts to introduce what is being dubbed ''managed democracy''.
''My fellow Thais, when I was your Prime Minister, I ran a government that promoted and defended free and fair elections,'' he told a packed Bangkok news conference, which included his son and two daughters and City manager Sven Goran Eriksson.
''As the December elections approach, I hope the military junta and the next government will do the same. The new government must govern for the many, not just for the few.'' Although Thaksin's hugely popular Thai Rak Thai party has been disbanded since the coup and 111 of its top members barred from politics, it remains a potent force in the form of a spin-off called the People Power Party (PPP).
Most analysts and polls predict that PPP will win the most seats in the election thanks to solid Thaksin support in the rural heartlands of the northeast.
However, it is unlikely to get an outright majority and the generals who led the coup -- and who stand to lose a great deal if PPP gets into power as a Thaksin proxy -- are expected to make it very difficult for PPP to form a coalition.
Although Thaksin insisted his $164 million purchase of City in July was inspired purely by his passion for the game, it has proved a cunning way of keeping in with the soccer-mad Thai public.
City's fortunes on the pitch -- they are lying third in the English Premiership after one of their best starts in decades -- are helping the cause, as are his plans to open a soccer academy in Thailand and promote City as a major Asian brand.
While applauding his signing of the three Thai players, who include attacking fullback Suree Sukha, newspaper commentators accused Thaksin of playing politics with football.
''The country should be alert to the possibility that he is manipulating the moment for personal political gain,'' the Bangkok Post said in an editorial.
In his address, Thaksin also alluded to soccer as an antidote to youngsters dabbling in drugs, a problem he tried to eradicate in 2003 with a campaign in which 2,500 people were killed.
His administration insisted most of the deaths were drug dealers shooting each other, although human rights groups said police had been given a licence to kill.
In August, New York-based Human Rights Watch said the ''war on drugs'' and Thaksin's heavy-handed approach to an insurgency in Thailand's Muslim-majority south made him unfit to own a soccer club.
The generals who ousted Thaksin primarily on the basis of ''rampant corruption'' have also launched a probe into how he financed the City purchase, saying the telecoms billionaire appeared to have failed to declare the assets used.