Since Chanathip Songkrasin left Thailand to join Consadole Sapporo in 2017, there has been a steady stream of Thai talent making the journey north east to Japan.
The results have been mixed, with the outstanding success of Chanathip in contrast with the failure of Chakkit Laptrakul to make an impact.
Here is an evaluation of the Thai exports to Japan over the last three years.
Chanathip has exceeded the expectations of most by not simply proving good enough for the J League, but excelling and becoming one of its biggest stars.
A prodigious talent from a young age, the playmaker only truly hit his stride in Thailand after joining Muang Thong United for their title winning campaign in 2016. Outstanding performances at international level marked him out as a player who rose to the occasion, and he was one of the top performers in the group stage of the 2017 AFC Champions League as Muang Thong reached the last 16.
Chanathip’s move to Japan (initially on loan) came when he was approaching 24 years of age, and he had already had plenty of international experience. He quickly adapted to life in Sapporo, despite the huge contrast in climate with his homeland, and became a fan favourite. In his first full season in 2018, he hit eight goals – the best return of his career to date.
Now 26 and at the peak of his powers, Chanathip continues to be linked with a move to Europe. It remains to be seen if a European club will take a chance on him, but he has proved that he has what it takes to be one of the best in Asia’s top league.
When Theerathon left star-studded Vissel Kobe after a one-year loan in 2018, it felt somewhat disappointing. He had become a regular starter at the J.League’s Hollywood club – playing alongside Andres Iniesta and Lukasz Podolski.
But things were about to get much better as former Australia head coach Ange Postecoglou brought Theerathon back to Japan with Yokohama F. Marinos. Having been somewhat constrained by more rigid defensive duties at Vissel, Postecoglou’s more expansive playing style seemed more suited to Theerathon, given his attacking talents.
The former Muang Thong United and Buriram man became a J.League champion as Marinos stormed to the title with an outstanding second half to the campaign. At 30 years old, Theerathon has a few good years left in him and it doesn’t get much better than playing for the champions.
Teerasil’s year on loan at Sanfrecce Hiroshima in 2018 can be described as a moderate success. The Muang Thong United legend started brilliantly and struck the winning goal in a man-of-the match performance on his debut.
He remained very much part of the first-team set-up, but starts became less frequent and he ended the season with a modest six goals. It was reported that Sanfrecce wanted to extend his loan deal for another year, but Teerasil returned to Muang Thong where he had an injury-plagued 2019.
It was somewhat surprising, therefore, that Shimizu S-Pulse wanted to bring the striker back to Japan. But, apparently in decline and approaching 32, Teerasil repeated the trick from two years previously by netting on his debut, though the match ended in defeat.
You can’t help thinking that 2014 – when Teerasil tried and failed at UD Almeria – would have been a much better time for him to go to Japan and enjoy his peak years.
The fourth former Muang Thong United player to head to Japan, though Thitipan made his move via BG Pathum United. The midfielder joined Oita Trinita on a year’s loan in 2019 as the club from Kyushu had an excellent year following promotion from J2.
Thitipan made a positive start and quickly established himself as a regular starter, but injuries saw him lose his place in the team and he was usually on the bench at the end of the year.
He returned to BG for their return to T1 in 2020, but the 26-year-old might feel he has some unfinished business in Japan.
While Chanathip hit the headlines after his arrival in Sapporo in the middle of 2017, Jakkit Wachpirom was already in Japan. The full-back was at FC Tokyo U23 on loan from Bangkok United and his time there was a success, as he featured regularly in the starting XI for the J3 club.
His form was such that it was expected that he would return to Thailand and make a big impression. Unfortunately another loan move – to Samut Prakan City – did not work out due to a serious injury. With Tristan Do blocking his path to the Bangkok United first team, he needs a break to get his career back on track.
Chaowat had twice been a T1 champion at Buriram United by the time he joined Cerezo Osaka U23 from BG in 2018. The midfielder was regularly used by Cerezo but he also saw his playing time limited by injury.
He returned to Thailand to play a key role as BG were promoted back to T1 in 2019.
Pongrawit followed Chaowat from BG to Cerezo Osaka U23 in 2019, but failed to make the same impact – not surprising given his lack of experience compared to his fellow midfielder.
The winger was another BG player who swapped Thailand for a loan deal in Japan, but it failed to work out at J2 club Tokushima Vortis and he returned without making a first-team appearance.
He recently left BG for Samut Prakan City.
Like Jakkit, Nattawut was a loan signing for FC Tokyo U23 from Bangkok United. Though far from prolific, the striker did reasonably well in Japan.
It certainly seemed to have given him added confidence as he started the first T1 match of the 2020 campaign for his parent club and scored after just 12 minutes.
Thai players are now regularly linked with moves to Japan, with the J.League considered the best destination for those whose talent seems to have outgrown the domestic league. Supachok Sarachat and Ekanit Panya are among those who are said to be on the radar of Japanese clubs. Time will tell if such moves materialise and if the next to try their luck will follow in the footsteps of Chanathip and Theerathon.