When Chanathip Songkrasin cynically barged an opponent off the ball less than five minutes into his J League debut, the Thai playmaker had made a statement of sorts. He may have picked up a yellow card for his troubles but it was the classic example of ‘taking one for the team’ as the Consadole Sapporo man brought an end to a dangerous counter-attack.
Just as importantly, it was an indication that Chanathip would not be physically bullied. From the start, he was more than ready to dish it out as well as take it in his attempts to prove himself outside of the comfort zone of his home country. Standing just 158cm tall, from early in his career, Chanathip has had to deal the doubters who suggested that he lacked the strength and physical stature to cut it at a higher level.
The 24-year-old’s talent has never been in doubt. His flawless first touch, mesmerising dribbling skills and eye for a pass captivated Thai football fans from his debut for BEC Tero Sasana in 2012 to his standout performances for Muang Thong United in the AFC Champions League in 2017. A man of the match display in BEC Tero’s 2-0 victory over Buriram United in the 2014 League Cup final was an early career highlight, coming during Avram Grant’s brief tenure as Tero boss.
A Player of the Tournament award in the 2014 AFF Cup brought him wider recognition at the age of 21. But there were always references to his size when talk turned to his prospects of a move abroad. It was recognised that he had the talent but in Thailand, the height of the average man still falls short of those in other East Asian nations like Japan and South Korea. Given that Chanathip was already significantly shorter than the average man in Thailand, uninformed debate among fans and pundits often focused on this aspect.
He had already attempted to earn a move to Japan in 2013 but a trial period at Shimizu S-Pulse did not result in an offer. In a 2015 interview in The Bangkok Post, Chanathip admitted that he had had to battle against the perception that someone of his size would be unable to make it as a professional footballer. He said: “I was sometimes looked down on because people thought I was too short. I had to show them that I could play well. I occasionally felt discouraged, but I couldn’t give up. Football is the most valuable thing in my life. I’m most happy when I’m playing. I had to continually improve until my day came.”
He has spoken of the tough training sessions he endured under his father’s tutelage as he worked his way up and this, combined with his determined response to teasing about his size, clearly made him mentally stronger.
A significant turning point in the public’s perception came in November 2016 when Australia visited Thailand for a World Cup qualifier in Bangkok. This was a game in which Thailand’s most talented player would be up against players who towered above him and could potentially brush him off the ball. As it happened, it was Chanathip’s lightning acceleration and dazzling ball skills that stole the show, leaving several Aussie players looking slow by comparison and lacking in mobility.
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If that was an indication, then it took some stellar performances in Muang Thong United’s run to the last 16 of the 2017 AFC Champions League to win over any remaining doubters. Chanathip picked up man of the match awards in three of Muang Thong’s six group games, with opponents coming from South Korea, Japan and Australia.
He also scored a memorable goal against Brisbane Roar when he spun his man about 40 yards out, accelerated and held off another challenge before rounding the keeper and rounding off a 3-0 win. After that game, Roar manager John Aloisi hailed the influence of Chanathip. The former Portsmouth, Osasuna and Australia striker said: “He’s a brilliant player. We knew that, and we’ve seen him not only with Muang Thong but with the national team. He’s an exciting talent, and he can turn a game on its head at times by beating players. Even if you’re well organised, he beats a player and all of a sudden you become open. That’s what he’s capable of doing. We knew that he was going to be dangerous against us.”
By this point, the move to Japan had been confirmed and the coach who gave him his debut at BEC Tero Sasana was not surprised. Englishman Andrew Ord – currently manager of the Bangladesh national side – gave an insightful glimpse into the player’s mentality when he told ESPN FC at the time: “He has played around 200 games at only 23 years old, so has the experience to step up He has carried the pressure of expectation over the last three years of being Thai football’s biggest star so that should help him. It will probably be tough for him and he will need the rub of the green to succeed. It’s crucial the coach and club back him and give him the chance to adapt.
“He needs to have an impact off the bench as he settles in, then hopefully increase his influence as he gets used to the J League. Of all the Thai players I worked with, he had the best mentality and always tries to make a difference. He needs to get over the urge to return home where life is easier and the longer he holds out, the better his chances of success.”
As it turned out, Chanathip would have no need to settle for a place on the bench as he quickly became a regular starter for Consadole.
After his debut in July 2017, it was expected that he would be involved in a relegation battle, but the club beat the drop with something to spare. This owed more to the goals of former Cardiff City and England striker Jay Bothroyd than Chanathip but the Thai played his part even if the statistics didn’t necessarily back up what you might expect from a creative attacking player.
One assist and no goals from 16 appearances did not fully support what Chanathip gave to the team in terms of his ability to quickly move play forward with his acceleration, draw opponents out of position with his dribbling and the ability to retain possession in tricky situations. These are all valuable features for a player in a team battling relegation and this is why he quickly became a regular starter.
His long wait for a goal would finally come to an end when his diving header kickstarted a Consadole comeback in a 3-3 draw at Cerezo Osaka on Matchday Two of the 2018 J League season.
While Chanathip is well on his way to being the first Thai player to genuinely make it in a bigger and better league outside of his home country, he is not the first to try. Plenty have done well in other Southeast Asian leagues but few have ventured beyond this region.
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Witthaya Laohakul – now technical director of the national team – was something of a trailblazer when he joined Hertha BSC and the FC Saarbrucken in the 1970s and 80s. While his modest success and commitment to playing overseas were commendable, this was lower league German football. He followed it up with a spell in pre-J League Japan when the game was not at the same professional level as it is now.
Kiatisuk ‘Zico’ Senamuang was an eye-catching signing for Huddersfield Town in 1999 but he left the club without playing a game for them. Teerathep ‘Leesaw’ Winothai signed for Crystal Palace as a youth and was then picked up by Everton. The Everton deal, however, was shrouded in suspicions that it was encouraged by Everton’s Thai sponsors, Chang. Like Kiatisiuk, Teerathep made no impression in England and soon returned to Thailand.
In keeping with the theme that Thai players were not signed purely for their ability, former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra may have had something to do with the attempt to sign three players from his home country while owner of Manchester City.
Striker Teerasil Dangda, midfielder Suree Sukha and centre-back Kiatprawut Saiweo were all given trials and then contracts before returning to Thailand without playing for the club amid issues over securing work permits.
Teerasil did try to make it in Europe again when he moved on loan to LaLiga side Almería in 2014 but difficulties in settling saw the one-year loan cut short, the striker having scored once in 10 appearances, mostly as a substitute. At least Teerasil appeared to have been signed on ability alone and there was no obvious agenda for UD Almeria in signing the Thailand striker.
Even when Chanathip put pen to paper on his loan deal with Consadole, there were rumours among Thai journalists that it was for marketing purposes.
In 2013, Japan relaxed its requirement for Thai tourists to acquire visas to visit the country. While the likes Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka have since reaped the benefits, the northern island of Hokkaido has also pushed itself as a tourist destination. The presence of Thailand’s top player would no doubt enhance the appeal of a trip to Sapporo for football fans.
Whatever the truth behind such rumours, it is clear that Chanathip is thriving in Japan and is there on merit. He has not only made a positive impression on fans, teammates and pundits alike, he has also apparently opened the door for his countrymen to follow.
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If there were any doubts over the ability of Thai players to succeed in Japan, Chanathip has dispelled them, and more J League clubs are now looking south-west and investigating the talents available. Clubs in Japan have a dedicated slot for Southeast Asian countries which does not affect their foreign player quota, reducing the risk of taking on a player from this part of the world.
Teerasil has again taken the opportunity to try pastures new and he joined Sanfrecce Hiroshima on a one-year loan this year. His impact was even more immediate than Chanathip’s as he scored the only goal of the game on his debut.
Left-sided defender or midfielder Theerathon Bunmathan may have the biggest challenge of them all in attempting to establish himself at Vissel Kobe. Like the other two, he is on loan from Muang Thong United but, while richly talented, he can lack discipline and may find it more difficult to adapt. Time will tell if he can match his Muang Thong teammates in the team skippered by Lukas Podolski.
For now, Chanathip is a source of national pride and a great underdog story. He is the perfect example of what a Thai player can achieve with the right attitude and the necessary dedication. The footballing culture of Thailand remains considerably short of the professional standards that can be seen in Japan and it is to be hoped that the players who spend time there bring something back to their home country.
Thai footballers have a reputation as mentally fragile. A common lament among foreign coaches who work in the country is that the players do not take things seriously enough in training and get over defeats much too quickly. The national team flatters to deceive as the players’ undoubted technical skills fail to compensate for poor defensive discipline and a tendency for heads to go down when the going gets tough.
There are cultural factors at play but Chanathip has demonstrated that things do not have to remain the same. Thailand now has a core of players who have taken a step outside and this can only be good for the country’s slow journey to becoming as professional as other countries in Asia.
In addition to the J League trio, midfielder Chaowat Veerachat is at Cerezo Osaka’s under-23 side, while full-back Jakkit Wachpirom is entering his second year at FC Tokyo under-23. Finally, goalkeeper Kawin Thamsatchanan has landed a move to Belgium where he turns out for Nigel Pearson’s OH Leuven. Leicester City sponsors King Power undoubtedly played a role in facilitating that move but Kawin has made a positive early impression.
Chanathip may be the source of the trickle that becomes a flood as word gets out that Thai footballers have something to offer. It may be at least another generation before we see a genuine world-class player from Thailand but these are clearly steps in the right direction.
By Paul Murphy @Paulmurphybkk