Once upon a time in Europe: Why SEA’s best striker failed in Spain
Teerasil Dangda immediately got into his black Mercedes and headed to the office of Ronnarit Suewaja, Muangthong United director of football, right after he hung up the phone.
He knew that this would be one of the greatest days of his football career. Waiting for him at the office was a professional contract from Almeria – he was soon to play in La Liga, one of the strongest football leagues in the world.
Three months earlier, Almeria and Portuguese side Pacos de Ferreira, under the management of former Muangthong head coach Henrique Calisto, both made offers to sign Teerasil before the winter transfer market closed late in January.
“Two teams made an offer,” Teerasil was told on the phone by a club executive.
While naturally excited, he knew it wouldn’t be easy, not only to start a new life on the other side of the world, but also to play mid-season unprepared.
“We were in between seasons in Thailand but in Europe it was during the winter transfer window. Almeria and Pacos de Ferreira each offered me a six-month loan deal. These were the two clubs that made official offers.
“To be honest, I didn’t know much about Almeria. I just knew they played in La Liga. And for Pacos, Calisto’s son who was an agent personally contacted me and showed me the paperwork.
“If I decided to go then I wouldn’t start at zero, I would have to start below zero. The season here ended and my fitness was not at the top of my game. We only had a few days to decide before the window closed.
“I talked to Ronnarit and decided not to go. Almeria were struggling to avoid relegation. If I went there I’d have to play right away without having an opportunity to adjust into the new life on and off the pitch – learn the language or the culture.
“I did not regret the decision. I knew it wasn’t the right time.
But the Spanish side didn’t give up on the Thai marksman that easily.
“A few months after that, Almeria were still in touch,” he explains. “When I rejected them the first time I wasn’t sure they would come back. But they did and offered me a one-year loan deal. This time I’d get to start in the pre-season. This sounded just right.
“The most important thing was because Almeria truly wanted me. If the deal was just part of a marketing scheme then I wouldn’t want to go.”
Teerasil signed the deal at the office with no hesitation. It was an opportunity of a life time and he’d get to play in one of the strongest leagues in the world.
He stayed up late to watch La Liga games every week. Almeria were struggling to stay up in the top-flight and Teerasil had never followed football so closely.
On May 18, 2014, the small team from Andalusia claimed a goalless draw against Athletic Bilbao in the last game of the 2013/14 season. They survived relegation and that signalled the unofficial beginning of the story of the first Thai player to compete in La Liga.
Almeria is a province in the south of Andalusia located in the south of Spain. The city had been ruled by Muslims for centuries. The Mediterranean Sea in Almeria gets year-long sunlight, offering its 200,000-strong population and visitors a fantastic view. UD Almeria are the only football club in the city.
“I was excited,” Teerasil shared about his arrival in Spain. “This was my second time in Spain. The first time I went to train with Atletico Madrid because they were a partner club. But this time I came here as a professional football player. I was here to fight for a place – to fight in the best league in the world.
“At the airport there were fans waiting for me which was totally unexpected. They asked for my autographs, my pictures. It was surprising. Journalists were also there. I wasn’t even famous. I hadn’t done anything but dozens of fans were there for me.”
Everything was exciting for the man from Southeast Asia who would soon have a first taste of European football. It would be the type of football experience he couldn’t find anywhere else and he was over the moon about his new life.
“When I first got to the club, my competitors were Jonathan Zongo, Tomer Hemed and Thievy Bifouma. During the pre-season we trained twice a day. Of course, I had a language barrier. Zongo tried to explain to me in English. Francisco Rodriguez knew I couldn’t speak Spanish. When he talked tactics he’d ask someone to help.
“The intensity in each training was high – much higher than in Thailand. But I was always eager to go to training. I wanted to give everything. I wanted to know what I had to do to get game time.
“Some things were similar to Muangthong but a lot of things were much better. I had a shoe-shiner. It was a pretty damn good feeling. I heard about shoe-shining in England but you couldn’t imagine it because you’re from Thailand.
“My boots that I left after training would be completely cleaned and placed on the table the next day. Everything was taken care of by an official.”
Ruben Ivan Martinez Andrade, a former Barcelona goalkeeper and an experienced La Liga player, was Teerasil’s roommate. Regardless of the language difficulty, Ruben was his one true friend.
“When I first got there I didn’t have a car. Ruben would drive me to training and drop me off back home every day. We communicated in English. A lot of times he invited me to go out with him – to ride motocross and such. But I didn’t want to bother him too much.
“He has a wife and kids. Sometimes I wanted to invite him home for a meal. But the players there really cared about their bodies. They wouldn’t touch anything with a tiny bit of fat. So, I couldn’t just cook a Thai spicy dish for him (laughs).
“I had a few months to adjust myself during the pre-season. When we played against Real Murcia or Cordoba before the season started, I finally got to see bigger stadiums with fans. It helped me gradually adjust into the new environment”.
On 23 August 2014, in their La Liga season-opener, Almeria hosted Espanyol. The moment Thai fans had been waiting for finally arrived, but no one wanted it more than “El Dangda”.