Last week, two men displayed very different ways of dealing with embarrassment after the Thai national football team were humiliated by Japan in a World Cup qualifier. Football Association president Somyot Poompanmoung went public to announce “I’m ashamed.” Soon after, team coach Kiatisak Senamuang thanked his players, fans and family and promptly quit his job.
Whether or not Somyot’s comment led to Kiatisak’s resignation we may never know. What we do know is this: Kiatisak bowed out in an honourable way, having taken the team as far as he could and helping them reclaim supremacy in Southeast Asia along the way. Somyot’s supporters said he too had taken immediate responsibility, though opinions are divided as to whether he did it in a proper way.
Kiatisak, nicknamed Zico, has devoted his life to the thing he loves and is pretty good at. The former star Thailand striker’s passion for football has never been in doubt, but his passion was no match for the overpowering ambition of many compatriots, who took one look at the team he had carefully nurtured and decided the players were capable of something the country had never achieved.
In these situations it’s always the coach who faces the axe. Somyot, a former police chief, had the luxury of not being the head fans were calling for. He also has the luxury of leading the nation’s football development without needing to know anything about kicking a ball or tactics on the pitch. When he announced that he was ashamed, the repercussions for the Thai football landscape were enormous.
But his remark could come back to haunt him. What if the next coach leads the team to more embarrassing defeats? As soon as Thailand suffer another 3-0 or 4-0 loss, reporters will immediately ask how Somyot feels. How much “shame” can he express before he starts feeling ashamed of saying it?
If it was true that the coach alone dictates a country’s footballing fate, then the likes of Pep Guardiola, Antonio Conte, Jurgen Klopp and Jose Mourinho would all be working in the Middle East. The truth is that a lot of other things contribute to a nation’s football status, and those in Somyot’s position are just as responsible for it as men like Kiatisak.
Locating and nurturing talent and laying the groundwork for that to be easy, effective and consistent are beyond the coach’s power and responsibility. Making local football fair, transparent and attractive so that the game inspires the right kind of passion in Thai kids is not the coach’s duty, either. And the coach cannot kick out crooked referees, end fan violence or wipe out ticket racketeering, all of which are major barriers to the emergence of talent. He can’t even bang the table and say “No more foreign players in our leagues, because they are hindering development of local talent.”
The coach is responsible for team tactics and short-term preparation. A different coach might have produced a better or worse national team, but Kiatisak is obviously not the reason why Thailand failed to reach next year’s World Cup. Simply put, even with Guardiola at the helm the Thai team would still have been beaten convincingly by Japan.
It’s been said that fans are too impatient with their teams, while citizens are too tolerant with their governments – whereas it should be the other way around. Why is it that a football coach has to lose his job straight after a 4-0 defeat whereas a politician suspected of corruption can spend months in office before being investigated and even then often escapes rightful punishment?
Kiatisak can take pride in the fact that he is not one of the many thick-skinned individuals out there. His decision will impact on Thailand’s football development, but he has set a strong example of taking responsibility when things on your watch don’t go to plan.
Somyot has also fulfilled his responsibility as head of the FA, his supporters say. Otherwise, they insist, he would rather stay home and watch TV. Whether that responsibility includes going public to announce that he was “ashamed” and “there must be changes” is open to debate though.
Here’s a translation of what he said: “I’d like to know what other Thais think and whether their thoughts are the same as mine. [Some may say] it’s okay to keep on like this, winning the SEA Games and Suzuki Cup but losing 3-0 or 4-0 at the continental level, but I’m ashamed. I cannot accept it. If you want me to do nothing in the circumstances for the remaining three years of my tenure, I’d rather quit now. If I can’t improve things, I’d rather have someone else take my place.”
It’s a fine and reasonable quote but for one tiny detail. It was not said in private, face-to-face with Kiatisak, but delivered as a public bombshell, leaving the coach with no choice but to thank everybody and leave his job. Both men were embarrassed, apparently, but there is a thin line between embarrassment and humiliation. Kiatisak, who suffered both, found a dignified way out.