Like India, football revolution in Thailand took place in the North Eastern part of the country. Unlike India, the Thais did something about it, and are reaping rich rewards.
Away from the bustling streets and exotic nightlife of Bangkok, Buriram was once among the poorer provinces of Thailand. The locals were gifted footballers but they spent more time on the rice fields than the football fields, until a local politician, Newin Chidchob, bankrolled a team eight years ago. Today, Buriram United is not only the most successful club in Thailand but also among the best in the continent, routinely challenging the Chinese and Japanese teams in the Asian Champions League.
When India meets Thailand in their Group A opener of the Asian Cup next year, half-a-dozen players in the squad are expected to be from Buriram United alone. They represent everything that Thai football is — young and confident, constantly punching above weight and challenging Asia’s best.
When the draw for next year’s Asian Cup was held last week in Dubai, India were seen to be handed a rather favourable deal. They, after all, are the second-best team in the group going purely by FIFA ranking. India are expected to struggle against UAE and Bahrain as they always have.
Thailand, though, could be an eye-opening contest. In the recent years, both India and Thailand have staked claim to be Asia’s fastest-improving team.
India have pointed at rankings; Thailand at performances. However, it is widely held that the match could prove just how much India have fallen behind the rest of Asia in terms of development — tactical and technical. India captain Sunil Chhetri fears as much. “Thailand is the most improved side in Asia in the last six years,” Chhetri says. “We played against Thailand in six-seven years ago and it was a 2-2 draw (India had actually lost 2-1). (Today) They are competing with the best in Asia. Australia and Japan are finding difficult to beat Thailand.”
This 53-second video (https://bit.ly/1LuI4Gr) is enough to get a glimpse of what India will be up against in Dubai. It’s a clip from Thailand’s 3-0 win over Vietnam in 2015 — the move starts in the 70th minute from the right, slowly at first. By the time the ball changes flank and enters the box through the centre, it gets frenetic.
The speed at which the ball exchanges feet is blinding. Vietnamese stand as though hypnotised by the movement as the Thai players with dainty feet dance around them, scoring a goal that mutes 40,000 people in Hanoi. That they were toying like that with Vietnam, the other fast-improving side from the region, made it even more impressive and reaffirmed what many already believed — this Thai team was shedding its tag of being regional bullies and were emerging as a continental force.
This was happening at a time when the Indian players were unable to string even three accurate passes, losing to sides like Guam as the rankings plummeted to an all-time low.
Although Thailand have always held an edge over India, the gap was never this yawning. The last time when the two sides met, in a friendly in June 2010 at Delhi’s Ambedkar Stadium, Thailand earned a narrow 2-1 win. Despite the result, there was a semblance of equality in terms of the level.
Both were bullish about their future, banking on restructured professional leagues that were launched around the same time in 2008.
But India would trip on its own feet, first due to nearly three years of inactivity from 2011 to 2014 and then because of external forces meddling with an already fragile domestic structure.
During this period, Thailand really zoomed ahead. Unlike India, who under the influence of IMG, adopted a top-down approach, the Thai FA went about things in a more conventional manner.
Steve Darby, a former Thailand national team coach who later managed clubs in India, says the launch of Thai Premier League was the turnaround.
“The game has always produced talented players but since 2008 when the Thai Premier League was introduced, the game has took off. Money has flown into the game…” Darby, who has coached Mohun Bagan in I-League and Mumbai City in ISL, says. “The biggest difference is that football is the number one sport, virtually no opposition — no cricket — and hence the media and sponsorship flows into the game.”
The clubs, owned by businessmen and politicians, have splurged money on foreign players. Like India, there have been instances of signing yesteryear stars but largely, they were smart buys — players like Brazil’s Diogo Santo (Buriram United) and Erik Paartalu (Muangthong United, now with Bengaluru FC), who had the experience of playing in competitive leagues.
They didn’t just spend on the players, the clubs have invested heavily in stadiums and training facilities too (so good the facilities are that even the ISL teams go there for pre-season). Because of the heavy sums involved, clubs often run into financial problems, according to Thai football expert Paul Murphy, making the league unstable.
“However, things are much better than they were 15 years ago,” he adds.
Today, the Thai Premier League is considered to be the best in South-East Asia and is the only league from the region to get a direct entry in the AFC Champions League, where the clubs have started to leave their mark by routinely making it beyond the group stage. The national team ultimately benefitted from this, with a certain ‘Zico’ at the helm. Not the Brazilian legend, who was coaching FC Goa in the ISL at the time, but Kiatisuk Senamuang, fondly called Zico back home. Senamuang is to Thailand what Bhaichung Bhutia is to India. He was appointed the national team’s manager in 2014 and masterminded a turnaround.
Few understood Thai football like Senamuang did.
A legend in his country, scoring 71 goals in 134 international appearances, he could convince the clubs to release players for longer durations for the national team and ensured the federation kept the team busy. “He was also lucky to have several of Thailand’s finest ever players available. The best four are now playing their football abroad. Playmaker Chanathip Songkrasin, striker Teerasil Dangda and full-back Theerathon Bunmathan are all with J League sides, while goalkeeper Kawin Thamatchanan is with OHL Leuven in Belgium,” Murphy says. (No Indian player currently plays abroad and from the current squad, just two have — Chhetri and goalkeeper Gurpreet Singh Sandhu).
Zico set the ball rolling for Thailand’s best World Cup qualifying campaign since 2002. Senamuang was sacked last year after it was felt the team was starting to stagnate. The Thai FA received a dozen applicants, including Dutch legend Frank Rijkaard, for the post. They eventually appointed Serbian Milovan Rajevac, who led Ghana to the quarterfinals of the 2010 World Cup.
Under Rajevac, they’ve only gotten stronger, although it may not reflect in the rankings. India overtook them in the charts last year by remaining unbeaten in 13 matches, by mostly playing against lower-ranked teams, Thailand went toe-to-toe against some of Asia’s top teams to test themselves.
A team that used to lose by five goals to Saudi Arabia had narrowed the deficit to just one goal while Asian champions Australia were held to a 2-2 draw.
The ambitions of the two teams can be gauged from the fact that when, before the draw took place, India approached Thailand for a friendly next month to prepare for the Asian Cup, the South East Asians snubbed the offer and instead chose to test themselves against heavyweights China.
The clash in January will be unavoidable. A match that might prove whose boom real and who lives in a bubble.
India (rank 97) head to head with Asian Cup opponents.
vs UAE (rank: 81)
Played: 11, Won: 2, Lost: 8, Draw: 1.
vs Thailand (rank: 122)
Played: 21, Won: 4, Lost: 11, Draw: 6
vs Bahrain (rank:116)
Played: 5, Won: 0, Lost: 4, Draws: 0