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Thai soccer targets Asia-wide goals

ASEAN's strongest national team looks to World Cup as league clubs thrive

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Thailand's national football team celebrates their victory against Indonesia in the ASEAN Football Federation (AFF) Suzuki Cup at Rajamangala Stadium, Bangkok on Dec. 17, 2016.   © Reuters

BANGKOK -- The 2017 Thailand Premier League soccer season kicks off on Feb. 11 with the local league and the national team firmly established as the strongest football powers in Southeast Asia. While Thailand is yet to make it to the World Cup, the country's ambition now is to become a continental soccer force.

That was apparent in December at Bangkok's Rajamangala Stadium, as Thailand defeated Indonesia to secure a record fifth victory in the ASEAN Football Federation's Suzuki Cup, a biennial tournament for the national teams of the 10 member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

"To come second in the AFF Cup is nothing for us," said Kiatisuk Senamuang, commonly known as "Zico," a former player who took the job permanently in 2014. "Only being champion is a success, and it is something we need to build on."

Thailand is doing that as one of just 12 Asian teams to progress to the final round of qualification for the 2018 World Cup, to be held in Russia. It is the country's best campaign since the qualifying rounds for the 2002 World Cup, held in South Korea and Japan.

Thailand's team coach Kiatisuk Senamuang celebrates victory with his players against Indonesia on Dec. 17, 2016.

Those two countries and Australia will be Thailand's chief Asian competition in the future. But Kiatisuk is looking beyond Asian dominance. "It is not just about beating the top teams in Asia," said the 43-year-old coach. "We want to challenge ourselves and improve."

The team is still very much a work in progress. Thailand carried off the Suzuki Cup by winning six out of seven games, but results in the final round of World Cup qualification have been very different. The group, comprising Australia, Japan, Saudi Arabia and Iraq -- all former Asian regional champions with past World Cup experience -- is tough. Thailand has lost four and drawn just one of the first five games.

But football success for Thailand is not just about results -- not yet. More important for many Thai football officials and fans is the experience that will enable a young team to grow.

"We used to lose to Saudi Arabia 5-0, but now we are disappointed to lose 1-0," said Kiatisuk, referring to an unlucky defeat in Riyadh in September that followed a late, hotly-disputed penalty. "The next step is to start winning these games. This is good experience for us, and the next five games will be better than the first five," he said.

The Thai team's most recent international performance, in November, was the best. Current Asian champions Australia were relieved to escape Bangkok with a 2-2 tie after trailing for much of the game.

The road to Russia 2018 continues, inevitably with further ties ahead in March, but Kiatisuk believes that 2018 is too early for Thailand to achieve qualification for the final stages. The next tournament, scheduled to take place in Qatar in 2022, is a better possibility.

Yet the 2026 tournament, which will take place in a location yet to be determined, is probably more realistic. FIFA, soccer's world governing body, agreed in January to expand the tournament from 32 teams to 48 from 2026 -- a move which is expected to double Asia's current automatic allocation of four places.

"Thailand can definitely make it in 2026," said Darren Buckley, country head at Citibank in Thailand, a major sponsor of the national team. "The team has come so far under Zico and he is the right man," he said, adding: "All Thais should be proud of where the team is right now.''

In addition to the World Cup run, Thailand's qualification for the 2019 Asian Cup, an international association football tournament run by the Asian Football Confederation, the governing body for Asian soccer, is already assured.

Corruption battle

The fight against corruption in soccer at world, continental and national levels is helping Thailand's cause. Long-standing Football Association of Thailand CEO Worawi Makudi was suspended by FIFA in 2015, and banned from soccer for five years in October 2016 for election forgery. Somyot Poompanmoung was elected CEO in February 2016 on a promise of reform and transparency.

"It's important that the game is clean -- and not just for sponsors," said Buckley. "That is why our investment is ring-fenced; it goes to pay the coaching staff and we can see exactly where it goes. There has to be transparency."

Toyota sponsors the Thailand Premier League, which benefits heavily from the national team's success, not least because its clubs supplied all 23 players on Zico's roster at the Suzuki Cup. Since then, the country's biggest star, Chanathip Songkrasin -- nicknamed "Jay Messi" for his similarity in physique and style to Barcelona's Argentinian star Lionel Messi -- has joined Japan's Consadole Sapporo on a one-year loan.

"The way the national team performs is a reflection of the league," said Benjamin Tan, deputy CEO of the league. "It shows that youth development is going well, and reflects well on our sports science and training facilities. Clubs play a vital role in all of this."

Like the national team, the Thai Premier League is regarded as the best in Southeast Asia, and is the only league in the region ranked high enough by the AFC to have automatic representation in the AFC Champions League, the continent's most prestigious club tournament.

Muangthong United won the 2016 domestic title, and has been placed in Group E. There it will likely meet Chinese Super League team Shanghai Shenhua, whose star striker, the Argentinian Carlos Tevez, is reportedly the highest-paid player in the world.

"Clubs such as Muangthong, Buriram United, Bangkok United and Bangkok Glass are increasingly professional, with squads that are improving," said Tan. "Playing the best clubs in Asia is a real benefit."

According to Tan, the secret of the league's success is not just better players and coaches but the set-up of the clubs. "They are investing more on the facilities and stadiums. Clubs are becoming more creative and thinking of ways to attract fans, and a better product on the pitch will help."

There is also the Leicester City phenomenon. The English club, owned by Thai duty-free giant King Power International Group and its chief Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, amazed the world in 2016 by winning its first ever English Premier League title despite sitting in bottom spot for much of the previous season.

''It all adds up,' said Tan. ''Fans in Thailand were proud to see a Thai-owned team win. It helps people dream. If Leicester can win the [English] Premier League, why can't Thailand go to the World Cup?''

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