Thailand's Zico keen for Asean football to get better

The Thai football team, led by their coach Kiatisuk Senamuang (second from right), are odds-on favourites to defend their AFF Cup title. Thailand begin their campaign against Indonesia today.
The Thai football team, led by their coach Kiatisuk Senamuang (second from right), are odds-on favourites to defend their AFF Cup title. Thailand begin their campaign against Indonesia today.ST PHOTO: LIM SIN THAI

MANILA • Camera flashes followed him everywhere. Questions cascaded upon him. Some journalists even asked for wefies.

There is no doubt Thailand national coach Kiatisuk Senamuang is a genuine star of Asean football.

The former striker was nicknamed "Zico" for his wizardry on the ball - not unlike the Brazilian star - during a stellar 15-year playing career for the national team.

His Midas touch did not desert him in his current role as Thai national coach, as the War Elephants romped to the 2014 Asean Football Federation (AFF) Suzuki Cup title in splendid style.

Still, the 43-year-old wants the rest of the region to follow his lead in improving playing standards.

He said: "Our goal is to retain our championship, but every team is a strong team, we will focus match by match.

"Let's try to improve Asean football together. I hope to see an Asean challenge (on the world stage). I want other teams to challenge our standard and improve."

The Thais are coming into the tournament with their confidence high as firm favourites.

On Tuesday, they pulled off a creditable 2-2 draw against Australia in the World Cup qualifiers. They are the only South-east Asian team left in contention for a place at the 2018 finals in Russia but are bottom of Group B in the third round of the continental qualifiers.

Still, with a strong core of players, from acrobatic goalkeeper Kawin Thamsatchanan to commanding midfielder Charyl Chappuis to the kingdom's own Lionel Messi - pint-sized striker Chanathip Songkrasin - Thailand bristle with technique and firepower.

Kiatisuk is the conductor on the sidelines, orchestrating his side's rapid short-passing style.

They begin their title defence today against Indonesia, and there is another reason for Thailand's determination to win a record fifth AFF Cup.

"We are playing for our King," said Kiatisuk, referring to their beloved late monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, who died last month. "He gives courage to us. We are doing it for him."

Wang Meng Meng

THAILAND V INDONESIA

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 19, 2016, with the headline 'Thailand's Zico keen for Asean football to get better'. Print Edition | Subscribe