Thailand: First Asia, then the world for an emerging football giant

Southeast Asia has a new super power in its footballing ranks. John Duerden takes a closer look at the rise and rise of Thailand...

In football, there are goals that win games. And sometimes, there are goals that mean something more.

On October 15 this year, there was one such strike and it came in front of 40,000 fans in Hanoi.

It came from Thailand and it silenced the vast majority of the crowd, although they weren't singing much anyway as the Thai side was already two goals to the good and operating on a different level.

After 70 minutes there was a home throw-in intercepted just inside the Vietnamese half. Fifteen passes later, there was Theerathon Bunmathan lifting the ball into the net from close range.

The move lasted just a few seconds, went from the right to the left, forward, then back, to the middle and then into the area. Who had ever seen (War) Elephants with such dainty feet?

It was a move that underlined the fact that right now in Southeast Asia, Thailand are dancing to a different beat and passing their way out of the region and potentially on into the wider world.

They are the first ASEAN team in the modern era to look like becoming a continental force.

Malaysian fans are forever talking about their clashes with South Korea and Japan in the ‘70s, but these meetings have been forgotten in Seoul and Tokyo and were never quite as meaningful as fans in Kuala Lumpur like to think.

But Thailand? This looks different. There is something happening in the Land of Smiles and that third goal was the proof.

Here was a Southeast Asian team, going to the home of a regional rival for what was a genuinely vital World Cup qualifier, and playing football that would be celebrated anywhere.

The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) called it, inevitably, tiki-taka but really this deserves a label all of its own. Nobody goes to Hanoi and plays like that – until now.

Superstar Theerathon Bunmathan in action

It didn't just seal the win; it confirmed that something special is happening.

It wasn't random, but a continuation of longer-term policies in a region that is not known for such thinking.

Coach Kiatisuk Senamuang has been in charge for two years. The former Thai captain has slowly built a team with a clear identity – it's young, has a pass-and-move groove and the confidence to play its way. 

ALSO ON FFT.COM

Chanathip Songkrasin and Theerathon are two of the best players in Asia at the moment, as is Charyl Chappuis when he is fit.

The younger stars, starting with the impressive Sarach Yooyen, obviously enjoy playing for the national team and welcome the growing responsibility.

Terrasil Dangda is a senior statesman at 27 and seems to be relishing it all. The one-time golden boy of Thai football is not only there to score goals – although with 32 in 69 internationals, that’s obviously not a problem – but is also getting more involved, literally leading from the front. This new maturity is welcome.

The teamwork that is developing is key, meaning that new players can come in to what is an increasingly well-oiled machine and perform straight away.

One of the most encouraging things about the situation – apart from the relative youth of the squad – is that it is not unusual for players to perform better for their country than they do for their clubs.

Coach Kiatisuk is making it very comfortable indeed. The team has evolved through tournaments like the (under-23) 2014 Asian Games, where it reached the semi-final, only to lose to hosts and eventual winners South Korea.

Kiatisuk Senamuang has transformed a stellar playing career into the coaching ranks

Korean coach Uli Steilike remarked to his bosses at the Korea FA that Thailand are going to be a force in Asian football before long.

But "before long" may be right now. Thailand have two games left in the second round of 2018 World Cup qualifying. Four points will ensure they progress to the final round and be one of only 12 teams still standing.

Given that the first of those games is home to Taiwan it really should mean that a solitary point in the final game will be enough.

The thing is, that is the toughest game in the group, away at the temporary Tehran home of Iraq, the group favourites and top seeds.

This Thailand, though, are capable of getting the job done.

For now, that would be enough. To be part of that deadly dozen left in the hunt after 34 others have been eliminated would be clear evidence that Thailand are progressing.

To play against South Korea, Japan and Australia in competitive games – more than that, games that the big boys are desperate to win – would be more valuable experience.

Thailand would also in all likelihood be the only ASEAN nation to make it. There would then be 10 matches and over a year of big-game action and none of it involving the home region.

Southeast Asia can be a bubble in football terms – a fascinating, vibrant, maddening and exciting bubble, but a bubble all the same. Once you are in, it can be tough to get out. So a chance to engage with the continent's giants on a major level could be a real turning point.

And then if Thailand do make it, they also gain an automatic spot at the 2019 Asian Cup and once again could potentially be the only Southeast Asian team to do so.

The challenge for Thailand is to enjoy the AFF Suzuki Cup and the SEA Games, but no longer see these regional meets as the be-all and end-all.

It is time for fans, players and media to start thinking in continental terms. That goal against Vietnam, that third goal was a thing of beauty but there was much more to it than that.