Soccer successes leave Thais hungry for more
After recent glory at Asean level, the next challenge is to attempt to replicate it on the world stage
Thailand is the undisputed king of Asean football, holding regional crowns at both full international and under-23 levels.
The national team regained the AFF Suzuki Cup last year while the under-23 side ripped through the opposition to retain the SEA Games crown in Singapore last week.
With six full internationals, including midfielder Chanathip ‘Messi Jay’ Songkrasin, Thailand were far too strong for their opponents at the 28th SEA Games.
They won all of their seven matches in Singapore, scoring 24 goals and conceding only one.
Their brilliant campaign ended with a convincing 3-0 win over Myanmar in the final as Thailand lifted the title for the 15th time at the biennial event.
SEA Games team coach Choketawee Promrut was heralded as an instant success.
Though Kiatisak Senamuang is officially coach of both the full national and U23 teams, he assigned his assistant Choketawee to oversee the SEA Games team as he focused on the full national squad for the two recent World Cup qualifying fixtures.
“I would like to thank Kiatisak for giving me a chance to prove myself," said Choketawee who played alongside Kiatisak in the national team during their playing days.
“I was under pressure before the SEA Games began because everybody expected us to win the title again. But we finally did it.”
With the triumph, Thailand are looking forward to success at a higher level.
“Our next target is to play at the  Olympics,” said Worawi Makudi, president of the Football Association of Thailand (FAT).
“Many players in this SEA Games team will be eligible to play at the Olympics. Qualifying for the Olympics will be difficult but nothing is impossible.”
The football tournaments at the Olympics and Asian Games and SEA Games are for U23 players.
“We finished fourth at last year’s Asian Games so we only need to move a step farther for an Olympic spot,’’ Worawi said.
“We are kings of Asean and we want to move up to the Asian level.”
Thailand are a participant at next year’s U23 Asian Championship where the top three teams earn tickets to the Rio Olympics.
While the SEA Games team was playing in Singapore, the full national squad won twice in their first two games in Group F of Asia’s second qualifying round for the 2018 World Cup.
Under Kiatisak, the Thais beat Vietnam 1-0 in Bangkok and won 2-0 away in Taiwan.
With Indonesia suspended by Fifa, Group F now has only four teams with the other side being Iraq.
The Iraqis, who are the top seeds in Group F, have not yet played because their scheduled match against Indonesia was cancelled.
The eight group winners and four best runners-up go through to Asia’s final qualifying round for the 2018 World Cup.
Kiatisak is now confident that his men can beat Iraq when they meet in Bangkok in September.
“If we are well-prepared, we can beat Iraq,’’ said Kiatisak.
It was Kiatisak who steered Thailand towards regaining their Asean crown.
In 2013, he was appointed coach of the U23 team who won the SEA Games trophy later that year ending Thailand’s six-year title drought in the tournament.
The following year, his U23 team finished fourth at the Asian Games. After the Asian Games, he was assigned to also oversee the full national team who regained the AFF Suzuki Cup title after a 12-year barren run in the championship.
Meanwhile, the Thai women have enjoyed a good spell since winning the 2013 SEA Games title.
Last year, they beat hosts Vietnam to finish fifth at the Women’s AFC Cup and qualified for the ongoing Women’s World Cup in Canada.
It was Thailand’s first ever World Cup berth at the senior level in either gender.
In Canada, Thailand secured their first ever World Cup points with a 3-2 win over Ivory Coast.
Although the Thais were eliminated after the first round, following their 4-0 defeats against both Germany and Norway, they won many fans’ hearts.
The team will return home today and hundreds of fans are expected to turn out to greet them at Suvarnabhumi airport.