Chanathip trailblazing the way for Southeast Asians
It was perhaps fitting that the shy child who had to be coerced into football training by his father’s bribes of sweets made his J.League debut at a club whose shirts are emblazoned with ‘Shiroi Koibito’ – the famed cookie that’s synonymous with Chanathip Songkrasin’s new home town of Sapporo.
Months of anticipation finally came to a head this week as the Thai star joined Consadole Sapporo on loan.
Anyone who had watched or followed the diminutive playmaker’s career knew instinctively that he had the quality to succeed in Asia’s best league
He then proceeded to exceed expectations in a star cameo off the bench in a midweek cup clash and a starting role that saw his club take down the might of Urawa – who sacked their coach in the wake of the loss – in the league at the weekend.
Anyone who had watched or followed the diminutive playmaker’s career knew instinctively that he had the quality to succeed in Asia’s best league but as is often the way it’s not always just down to talent.
As was the case with Le Cong Vinh, Irfan Bachdim and others from Southeast Asia before him, the style of football, on and off the pitch, as well as cultural and linguistic issues has seen players with just as much quality fail to make the grade in Japan.
That then was the concern over just how quickly Chanathip would be able to adjust to life in the J.League.
When word started to filter out that he was set to make his debut in the first match that he was eligible to do so – the midweek playoff tie in the league cup – then anticipation only further grew.
There were numerous fans – both Thai and locals – waving the Southeast Asian nation’s flag that filed into Kincho Stadium in Osaka where Chanathip was named amongst the substitutes.
With not a single shot on target over the first 45 minutes, Chanathip’s presence gave the club a new attacking edge
Those fans though weren’t to be kept waiting too long as the 23-year-old emerged from half-time break to help ignite a Sapporo team that had been struggling mightily.
With not a single shot on target over the first 45 minutes, Chanathip’s presence gave the club a new attacking edge.
Instantly dispelling fears that he would be overwhelmed by the occasion, from his station on the right of the midfield he was eager to get on the ball and even more so to run at players.
Such was the danger that he presented that he was hacked down from behind inside the first 90 seconds of his arrival to earn his team a free-kick.
Thereafter he hardly put a foot wrong as his crisp passing kept attacking moves ticking over for the visitors and he provided a couple of crosses that led to shooting opportunities for his side. Even when he was muscled off the ball he was eager to track back and win it again.
With a quarter of an hour to play he sent off his first shot – one that was well blocked - and eight minutes after that delightful piece of control saw him bring down a misplaced goal-kick from a tricky angle and create another scoring opportunity for his side.
In the end though, Sapporo lost 1-0 on the evening to be bundled out of the cup.
Sapporo boss Shuhei Yomoda handed him a starting role, thus making him to first Thai player to start a J1 match
The main event though, was always likely to be the league clash though against Urawa at the weekend.
Against expectations that he would be named on the bench, Sapporo boss Shuhei Yomoda, was clearly impressed enough from his efforts in the cup to hand him a starting role, thus making him to first Thai player to start a J1 match.
Lining up as one of two attacking midfielders in a 5-4-1 formation, within a hectic first three minutes he’d both sent off the first shot of the match and picked up the first yellow card following an over zealous tackle from behind.
Thereafter he again quickly settled into the rhythm of the contest and was a real threat as he laid off a series of well-weighted and directed passes.
In the 22nd minute he played a smart chipped pass to help Sapporo work their way out of their own half and in first-half stoppage time he sent off a shot that was well saved by the visiting keeper.
Although he would only last a quarter of an hour after the restart, again he was smart in most of his involvement – although he did lose possession on a couple of occasions – before being replaced by a man who has previous experience in Thai football in English forward Jay Bothroyd.
Of course, there are other areas that still need refinement
Post-match, his coach Yomoda was complimentary, saying that he was ‘impressed’ by Chanathip’s showing and confident that once he further integrates into the team’s structure that we’ll see even more impressive performances from the midfield star.
The good that he did was easy to see – the ease in possession, the comfort and control in his passing and the willingness to run at defenders and already with those characteristics he’s shown that he clearly ‘belongs’ at this level.
Of course, there are other areas that still need refinement including his work off the ball, not lingering quite so much in possession and perhaps crucially a greater self belief to take on shots when in good scoring positions rather than constantly looking to provide for his teammates.
What can’t clearly be questioned though is his overall work-rate – at the halftime mark he had run further than any player on either team and even at the end of the match he led his club in the number of ‘sprints’ made – and those raw numbers alone show the positive impact that he’s having.
This was a first week in Japanese football that exceeded all expectations and showed that he’ll be a key part of the club’s struggle to avoid relegation.
But what he’s also doing is acting a real trailblazer for the next wave of talent from Southeast Asia that dreams of moving to Asia’s best league.
Photos: Condosale Sapporo