AFC Under-23 Championship elimination shouldn't spell the end for perfect pair Thailand and Zico

Thailand will not be at the 2016 Olympic Games after crashing out of the AFC U23 Championship group stages, but John Duerden says that doesn’t mean the country should deviate from its current path.

Kiatisuk “Zico” Senamuang and his Thai team arrived in Qatar 10 days before the under-23 tournament kicked off, but still left at the earliest opportunity. It started with a 1-1 draw against Saudi Arabia, turned ugly with a 4-0 loss at the hands of Japan and ended with a 2-2 tie with North Korea.

In Southeast Asia – as in most football regions – a failure to achieve targets and apparent underachievement often meets the same response: the sack, the silver bullet, the chop – call it what you will.

For these young War Elephants to be in with a chance of progressing to the last eight until the very last seconds of the last group game was enough – for now.

It is to be hoped that the Football Association of Thailand (FAT) show the virtues of patience, wisdom and far-sightedness that could set a new paradigm in the region. Granted, two points from three games doesn't look great. But it all needs to be put into context.

Thailand have improved in recent years. Much of this is thanks to a more settled coaching situation at the national team, which has the same boss as the under-23 team, some talented youngsters and a willingness to trust them and give chances.

Throw in an improving Thai Premier League and the signs are promising.

There is little doubt that Thailand is the leading country in Southeast Asia at the moment. And while it would have been great had the ASEAN flag still been flying in Doha, the region's reputation has not suffered, at least in the minds of people who look past simple results.

The group was tough. All three of Thailand's opponents harboured genuine hopes of winning the tournament or, at the very least, finishing in the top three and qualifying for the Olympics. It was always going to be tricky but these are the tests that are needed.

An early AFC U23 Championship elimination should not detract from Thailand's progress as a football nation

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For these young War Elephants to be in with a chance of progressing to the last eight until the very last seconds of the last group game was enough – for now.

Japan need no introduction. For many, this is Asia's No.1 football nation: the best league, the best players, the best youth development system, the best everything.

Then there is Saudi Arabia. Until recent years, this country gave Japan a run for their money as the continent’s top dogs: four World Cup appearances, five Asian club titles, a strong league, lots of talent and bags of money.

The games against Saudi Arabia and North Korea were the ones that showed Thailand can mix it with the bigger boys of Asian football.

And North Korea not only appeared at the 2010 World Cup, but their under-16 side won the 2014 Asian title, their under-19s were finalists and the under-23s reached the same stage at the 2014 Asian Games. This is a country that may not say much but produces plenty of talent.

Only the game with Japan was disappointing. The Samurai Blue were a class above but then they are when they play most Asian teams. It won't be the last time Thailand lose against the cream of the continental crop.

These are results that have to be borne. It was a scoreline that flattered the East Asians too. When it was 2-0, Thitiphan Puangchan slipped as he ran up to take a penalty and slammed the spot kick against the bar. Two late goals from Japan gave the win the look of a thrashing and while the three points were deserved, the four-goal margin was not.

The games against Saudi Arabia and North Korea were the ones that showed Thailand can mix it with the bigger boys of Asian football. Both games could have gone either way and at this stage of development in the Land of Smiles, that is progress.

The evidence is clear: Kiatisuk “Zico” Senamuang is the right man to take the country forward

This is a tournament that shows Thailand still has some way to go, but it also demonstrated how much ground has been made. For the moment, the development of Thai football is not about making the team the best in Asia, it is about making it one of the better ones.

To reach the top 10 is the major target and that is not a million miles away. To compete with Saudi Arabia and North Korea is enough for now. To be disappointed not to reach the quarter-finals is enough for now.

Just to be seen as one of the teams that could make the final round of qualification for the 2018 World Cup – much more important on many levels than this tournament – is enough for now.

In a few years it won’t be as there are improvements that must be made.

Thailand and Zico should stay the course. They are progressing together.

"We showed that we could play against some of Asia's top teams. Although we failed to reach the next round our players have gained a lot of experience,'' Kiatisuk said. "What we need is … the players must improve their fitness levels to become stronger physically.

"We used almost the same line-up in the three matches and some of them looked tired. Our opponents proved stronger.”

Clubs have a big part to play in this. In the past, national team coaches have complained that after spending lots of time training and developing players, they sent them back to clubs only for them to regress. This is less likely now given the strides made by the top Thai clubs in recent years. Teams such as Buriram, Muangthong and Chonburi are crucial.

And it is important that Zico continues to have the full backing of the FAT. After all, he is learning too. The young tactician should be a better coach now then he was two weeks ago and will be better four or five years down the line.

Thailand and Zico should stay the course. They are progressing together.