(Headline Photo Credit: Asean Football Federation)
Football fans in Thailand are having it awesome these days. The good days of Thai football are back following the exploits of national and club sides in Southeast Asia and beyond in the first half of this decade.
As the Southeast Asian football scene reaches the second half of the 2010s, here’s a recap of how Thailand have restored themselves at the regional football summit after years in mediocre wilderness.
- Men’s National Team: 2014 Asean Football Federation (AFF) Championship winners (Suzuki Cup), the first time since 2002 have they emerged as champions.
- Men’s Under-23 National Team: Successful defence of their Southeast Asian (SEA) Games football title in Singapore in June 2015, and semi-finalists in the 2014 Asian Games football tournament in Incheon, South Korea.
- Women’s National Team: AFF Women’s Championship winners in 2015 – their first title since 2011, FIFA Women’s World Cup finals participants in 2015.
- Men’s Club Football: Chonburi FC reached the semi-finals of the AFC Cup in 2012, while Buriram United advanced into the quarter-finals of the AFC Champions League a year later.
All in, Thailand are largely dominant in all the AFF-sanctioned events they have participated in, except the AFF Beach Soccer Championship (won by Malaysia in 2014) and the discontinued AFF Under-16 Women’s Championship (won by Australia in 2009).
They are that good at this moment, but be prepared, they could get even better yet. In this post, we zoom in on the renaissance of the men’s football in Thailand.
The influence of Kiatisuk Senamuang in Thai Football
Prior to the appointment of Kiatisuk Senamuang in the Thai national football set-up in mid-2013, the kingdom were reeling in more than a half-decade of mediocrity.
The Thais’ last appearance in the AFC Asian Cup finals was in 2007 when they were one of the four co-hosts. The last time they reigned supreme in the AFF Championships was way back in 2002.
High-profile foreign coaching appointments of Peter Reid, Bryan Robson and Winfred Schafaer had not worked out as the closest they got was finishing second twice in the Suzuki Cup in that period.
Poor World Cup and Asian Cup qualifying displays had also eroded the confidence of the Thai football-watching public as the national team slumped to among the also-rans in Asia.
Confidence was also low on the Under-23 side as the Young War Elephants saw their Malaysian counterparts clinch back-to-back SEA Games golds in 2009 and 2011.
Renowned as one of the best regional predators of all time, the charismatic 42-year-old had been learning his coaching roles with modest Thai clubs for a few years when the call came.
The rejuvenation was immediate when his charges responded brilliantly to thrash China away 5-1 in his first international match in charge of Thailand.
Morale lifted, the former striker’s canny guidance saw the national Under-23 team wrest gold in Myanmar that year. More honours followed as he reformed the squad with a fresh influx of hungry young players and built depth with quality local talents from the now-thriving Thai Premier League.
Players respected the immense reputation and charisma Kiatisuk carried from their younger days as they worshipped him as a national hero. They were now willing to go the extra mile for him in training and matches, and the results reciprocated their dedication to the cause.
Now no longer are they easy prey for the stronger Asian sides, they are beginning to match them shoulder to shoulder. The recent international draws with Bahrain and Iraq this year, albeit at home, are indicative of this.
The Thais are presently, at the time of writing, in a strong position to advance into the next round of FIFA World Cup 2018 Asian qualifying and qualify for their first Asian Cup finals in United Arab Emirates, to be held in 2019, since 2007.
With a strong and prosperous domestic league as the foundation for the emergence of possibly the generation to succeed Kiatisuk’s cohort as the great Thai team of all time, what they have only achieved so far is just the beginning.
Challenges ahead though…
As much as a new golden generation of international footballers have played a major role in the Thai men’s resurgence from the doldrums, it was also mainly down to the inspirational and charismatic leadership of national hero Kiatisuk who made it possible.
Given the volatile politics surrounding Thai football, he would have done well should he be able to keep his post for five years on his own terms. The last national coach to have such longevity was former Aston Villa striker Peter Withe from 1998 to 2002.
The position of international football strongman Wowari Makudi, the present president of the Football Association of Thailand, remains in question, especially when he has been implicated globally in the scandals that have blighted the world football governing body FIFA.
The production line of talented players has never been in doubt, but the off-the-field shenanigans have been largely the reason why Thailand have only fleetingly made their mark outside of Southeast Asia.
This failure to create an impression beyond the region is also applicable on the pitch. Thai football legends Piyapong Pue-on and Withaya Laohakul made their marks in South Korea and Japan respectively between the 1980s and 1990s.
While former Thailand midfielder Vorawan Chitavanich was in Denmark in Viborg FF for two years in that period and Withaya graced the German leagues in the 1980s, neither made an impact in the manner Singapore football legend Fandi Ahmad or South Korean legend Cha Bun Kum did in Europe.
Kiatisuk did not make a single first team appearance in his solitary year with English lower league side Huddersfield Town in the late 1990s, while Teerasil Dangda could not force his way into the first team of Spanish La Liga side Almeria in the first half of last season before cutting short the loan to return to his parent club Muangthong United.
Excluding Swiss-born midfielder Charyl Chappuis, who was trained in Europe and featured in the Switzerland national youth team, the inability for the locals to make their mark in the most advanced football continent in the world continues to linger doubts on the Thais’ ability to make a splash in Asia and beyond.
With highly comfortable salaries in the domestic Thai Premier League, it will take bravery and commitment for the Thai internationals to be willing to step out of their home comfort zones and expand their playing horizons beyond the region.
Until the likes of Chanatip Songkrasin and company begin to establish themselves the way Son Heung Min, Shinji Kagawa and Keisuke Honda have done, Thai football’s breakthrough to the next level of establishing themselves as one of the leading Asian football nations remains a pipe dream for them – as well as the rest of the region – in the present.