China loss completes Thailand’s five-year journey from zeroes to nearly men

Thailand’s exit from the last 16 of the 2019 AFC Asian Cup brought a somewhat disappointing end to a journey that began back in March 2014.

Almost five years ago, the War Elephants played more like lambs as Lebanon stuffed them 5-2 in Bangkok. It was a shocking result in a shocking campaign that ended with the Thais losing six games out of six in the 2015 AFC Asian Cup qualifiers.

Iran and Kuwait were the other teams in their group, but it was this final humiliation from Lebanon that kick-started the recovery that led them to reach the knockout stage this year.

In this context, making the last 16 less than five years later is an impressive achievement, with Kiatisuk Senamuang having taken on the head coach role and given the side the shake it needed to make it competitive again.

But Kiatisuk departed after it became clear that he had no answer to Thailand’s defensive woes when they came up against the continent’s best.

In came Milovan Rajevac, who promised to patch up the leaky defence and out went Rajevac when his players folded under Indian pressure two weeks ago and lost 4-1.

Interim head coach Siridak Yodyardthai steadied the listing ship and helped secure a place in the Round of 16 against China. But it was the India game all over again on Sunday as an impressive first half was followed by a second-half collapse. Although it was a less embarrassing 2-1 defeat, it would have been a lot worse had China been as clinical as the Indians.

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Photo credit: @Changsuek

The 1-0 victory over Bahrain in the group stage lifted confidence after the India debacle and the players responded well after going being against the UAE to secure the 1-1 draw they needed to progress to the Round of 16.

But the fact remains that Thailand have a soft centre that is too easily exposed when they come under pressure. To be fair, the Thais suffered a lot of bad luck with injuries and suspensions in the defence but all teams have to deal with such setbacks.

Thailand’s loss of their burgeoning confidence goes back almost two-and-half-years. After getting the better of Iraq in the first stage of 2018 World Cup qualifying, the War Elephants travelled to Saudi Arabia for the first game at this stage of the competition since 2001.

They were more than a match for the Saudis on their own turf and, in keeping with their recent improvements, this looked like a new and confident Thailand ready to prove they belonged among the best of Asia.

But the Saudis were awarded a highly dubious late penalty and took an undeserved 1-0 win and Thailand’s indiscipline saw Sarach Yooyen red-carded.

The Thais never really recovered and never again showed the swagger that they had against the Saudis.

When Kiatisuk was effectively run out of town by FAT president Somyot Poompanmoung in March 2017, it was ostensibly down to the public criticisms of two defeats in World Cup qualifying. The Thais had lost 3-0 at home to Saudi Arabia and 4-0 in Japan to make it six defeats in seven in an increasingly discouraging campaign.

Kiatisuk’s exit threw up many names in some wild speculation over his successor but it was Rajevac who secured the post despite having done nothing of note since leading Ghana to the World Cup quarter-final in 2010.

Rajevac decided that revolution rather than evolution was necessary and ditched Kiatisuk’s favoured 3-5-2 formation and tried to address the team’s defensive issues.

The problem was that the players were used to playing helter-skelter attacking football in the Thai League and adopting Rajevac’s style on international breaks ultimately led to conflict that came to a boil in the failed 2018 AFF Suzuki Cup campaign, then simmered angrily until the defeat to India forced action.

Managing Thai players requires not just knowledge and ability but also patience and sensitivity. Fans may look at the incredible job Park Hang-seo has done with Vietnam but there are no guarantees that he would have made a similar impact with Thailand.

What seems clearer than ever is that it might be easier to have a Thai head coach in order to preserve the harmony that is so important to the local society. The flip side is that this harmony can lead to complacency and ultimately failure as it perhaps did under Kiatisuk as he arguably stayed too loyal to a core group of players.

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Photo credit: Chiang Rai United

The alternative is a foreign head coach well versed in the challenges of working in the country. Under-23 head coach Alexandre Gama seems the obvious choice.

The Brazilian managed to work under Newin Chidchob for two years at Buriram United and was tolerant of a club president who insists on sitting in the dugout and undermining the head coach by taking the team talk on the pitch, in front of the cameras.

Apart from some rare exceptions, there is always interference from above and sometimes below in Thai football and not everyone can tolerate it. Christian Ziege made an extremely sharp exit from Ratchaburi last year when it quickly became clear that he would not be calling the shots.

While it would be great to see this change, realistically it won’t, so Thailand needs someone who can work within the system and maintain the trust of the players and the faith of his employers.

Gama has hoovered up trophies in Thailand’s domestic game, lifting league titles with Buriram United in 2014 and 2015, while also winning five domestic cups.

His Chiang Rai United side went all the way to the last four domestic cup finals, winning three of them. This is proof that Gama has what it takes to help his side rise to the occasion, sometimes as underdogs and sometimes playing on the edge of the rules.

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Photo credit: @Changsuek

If Gama is not the chosen one, the local talent pool looks pretty shallow. Sirisak has done a decent job in difficult circumstances but putting the smiles back on the faces of the players will not help them through another Asian Cup qualifying campaign.

Those who want Kiatisuk back would do well to remember how his consistent failure to improve the defence resulted in his departure almost two years ago. Former Muang Thong United boss Totchtawan Sripan has just joined Suphanburi and is unlikely to be available any time soon.

The biggest challenge is to find someone who can toughen the players up without damaging egos and that is the extremely delicate balancing act that is required.

In October 2015, Thailand won 3-0 at a canter in Vietnam. Their Southeast Asian neighbours have since overtaken them and showed what mental toughness looks like as they reached the Asian Cup quarter-finals by taking the game to Jordan, overcoming a first-half setback, and finally prevailing in a penalty shootout.

Thailand’s journey from 2014 no-hopers to 2019 respectability is complete. Now it is time to start afresh and to go the next step with the right man in charge.

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