To hell and back: Thailand's rise to prominence
Thailand is celebrating its centenary of football this year. In that time, the country has enjoyed many successes on the pitch. Some of the great eras have included Wittaya Laohakul, the first Thai footballer to play in Europe; midfield legends Chalermwut Sa-ngaphol and Worawan Chitawanich; and the greatest striker of all time, Piyapong Pue-on.
But the most memorable of Thai football’s golden eras came during the Asian qualifiers for the 2002 World Cup. Under the tutelage of English coach Peter With, the team became the first from Thailand to make it out of the first round, dating back to the first attempt in 1973. The side was led by Kiatisuk “Zico” Senamuang, to date the only Thai striker to be granted a UK work permit, along with heralded teammates Tawan Sripan, Dusit Chalermsaen and Seksan Piturat.
From an initial pool of 40 Asian teams, Thailand would top their group and be one of just 10 teams to make the next round. That was where their journey ended, propping up their second-round group with four draws and four defeats from eight games, but it was the first glimpse of real hope for the War Elephants and their fans that perhaps a World Cup berth could one day become a reality.
That qualifying campaign was part of an era when Thai teams won consecutive gold medals at the 2000 and 2002 ASEAN Football Championships, a string of SEA Games crowns and finished fourth in back-to-back Asian Games in 1998 and 2002.
The national team rocketed up the FIFA rankings all the way to No.45, leading to greater expectations from the fans. But just as the good times seemed to be rolling, it all came crumbling down.
Act 1: The beginning of the decline
When Thai fans witnessed the War Elephants stomping through to Asia’s last 10 in those 2002 World Cup qualifiers, the dream of seeing a Thai flag on the sport’s biggest stage began.
A fourth-place finish behind Iran, Japan and South Korea in the 2002 Asian Games continued the optimism until the first shuddering halt – limping out in the first round of the Asian Cup two years later.
German Siegfried Held, the head coach at the time, selected a squad full of players aged 20-24 for the tournament and left with three heavy defeats. Those ASEAN Football Championship gold medals in 2000 and 2002 were followed by a shock first-round elimination at the 2004 event, held in Vietnam and Malaysia.
The poor results really stemmed from poor management at the time by the Football Association of Thailand. Throughout 2004, the Thai national team didn’t have any FIFA-sanctioned friendlies, badly affecting their FIFA ranking.
By 2005 Thailand’s world ranking had dropped from 45th in 1998 all the way down to 111th. That marked the first time in the history of Thai football their ranking exceeded the 100 mark.
What had taken place over the course of seven years to cause such a dramatic decline?