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Thailand's Messi Jay promises another stellar effort in football final

LIKE many Thais, Kongpob Songkrasin loves football and his idol is Diego Maradona. His son, however, grew up to be slightly different.

Now aged 21, Kongpob's boy has matured to be Thailand's own shining football star. Chanathip is otherwise known as "Messi Jay" to his army of fans for the similarities in his playing style with the real McCoy.

But, as the 1.57m-tall attacking midfielder told The Straits Times through a translator, he would be happier being known as Jay, his childhood nickname.

"Messi is a far better player and I don't want people to think I am copying someone's playing style. I am adapting the strong points of my favourite players to suit myself," he said.

"I hope to be known as 'Jay Chanathip' eventually."

Curiously, "Jay", Chanathip's nickname given by his father, means "vegetarian" in Thai.

It is unclear why the player was given the moniker but there is no denying that he is the War Elephants' top predator now.

Quietly effective as Thailand won the SEA Games' Group B with five straight wins, he burst into life in a 5-0 semi-final humiliation of Indonesia, capping a rapid passing move with a grass-cutting drive into the bottom corner in the 89th minute to set up a showdown with Myanmar tonight.

Chanathip said: "I am confident but it is going to be difficult in the final. We have to be confident given how we have played so far but we cannot be overconfident. We have to fight hard.

"I will do my best to be a difference. I have a standard and I will always try to reach that when I play. I always look to improve on my performances.

"In the final, my first target will be to do a killer pass to my team-mate to score. If my team scores, I will be more than happy."

Already, Chanathip's market value is soaring.

An unnamed Malaysian Super League team have offered him a 500,000 baht (S$20,000) monthly salary, a big improvement over his current five-year deal with BEC Tero Sasana that is worth $6,000 a month. But the Thai Premier League club have slapped a 10 million baht transfer fee on their prized asset.

As he is set to shine brightest under the National Stadium's floodlights tonight, Chanathip's face lit up when he recalled the journey that took him from his home in the central Thailand province of Nakhon Pathon to the brink of SEA Games glory.

From the tender age of four, he was taught by his father, who read coaching manuals and watched videos.

"He always emphasised the importance of good foundation skills," said the footballer.

Perhaps, the most vital lesson Kongpob imparted was teaching his son to use his low centre of gravity, speed and movement to compensate for his small stature.

Now, it is absolutely clear to the young player that he has to focus on making sharper decisions on the field.

But the soft-spoken youngster, who was friendly and obliging throughout the interview, refuses to be complacent.

He said: "My journey has only just begun and my only wish is to keep improving. I now have two goals - to help the Thai team win every match and for us to compete on the World Cup stage.

"I do want to play in the J-League some day. If I can make it there, I just know I will be closer to reaching my goal of playing in Europe."

But, to take a step closer to playing in the big leagues, Chanathip, or Jay, or Messi Jay, needs to leave his mark at the National Stadium tonight.

And he is ready to rise to the challenge.

He said: "Myanmar are a very good team but I am only thinking about becoming champions."

yzchoo@sph.com.sg

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