Thai football brought crashing down to earth

opinion January 20, 2018 01:00

By The Nation

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The young internationals’ staggering failure in China can only be read as a bad sign

In football, they say, you’re only as good as your last game. Players on the Thai under-23 team were given three chances, three games, to prove themselves against Asia’s best, average and up-and-coming opponents. The Thais failed utterly at the Under 23 World Cup in China, and rubbing salt in the nation’s wound were their counterparts from Malaysia and Vietnam, who were not supposed to do better than the young “War Elephants”. They obviously didn’t read the scripts.

Fingers are being pointed all around after the losses to North Korea, Japan and, most remarkably, Palestine – which thrashed Thailand 5-1 – sent our lads crashing out of the tournament. Some blame the coaching, while others criticise what they perceive as poor youth development. Clubs not releasing important players were also frowned upon. The country’s football association has landed in hot water after a cautious honeymoon period with the public following the election of Somyos Pumpanmuang as chairman last year.

The association chief raised eyebrows when he came out strongly against former national team coach Kiatisuk Senamueng, calling an unimpressive performance “embarrassing” before manoeuvring for Kiatisuk’s exit. Now the association is seen as being apologetic for the young Thais’ failure and the coaching as a whole, leading to charges of double standards.

Politics aside, the bottom line is that the U-23 team, an important foundation for the future of Thai football, is doing quite badly, while Vietnam and Malaysia, neither of which can match Thailand on bigger stages, are developing their youngsters admirably well. Neither country has a better or more popular league football than Thailand, but young Malaysian and Vietnamese players went toe to toe impressively with Asia’s big guns.

Critics have started to look upon the popularity of the Thai Premier League as a curse. Money from advertising and TV broadcasts has made Thai clubs so eager for immediate success that it’s become the norm to import foreign players at the expense of local talent. Despite limits on the number of foreigners a team can deploy, the influx has been staggering. In addition, charges of nepotism linger concerning player selections at top levels.

Defenders of the Thai Premier League insist its high popularity is inspiring more kids to get on the pitch than never before. The truth is that foreign players dominate the key rankings, like scoring and passing. On the one hand, having talented foreigners on the squad forces Thais to perform at their best. On the other hand, clubs need to be far more committed to developing local talent.

Somyos represents an intriguing aspect of the whole situation. The 17th man to chair the Thai FA isn’t the first who cannot be described as a career footballer or who doesn’t know the difference between 4-4-2 and 4-3-3 play. Like it or not, the man typifies Thai football management, which attaches greater importance to senior “outsiders” than the players and how they’re selected, trained and protected.

Attendance at the tournament in China was abysmal, but its importance and the significance of the Thai team’s failure are enormous. What Thailand has learned is that its young players – who will form the backbone of the national team in the near future and carry the country’s World Cup hopes on their shoulders – are nowhere near good enough. Nevertheless, they are the last ones to blame for the letdown.