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The Thailand National Team

Cultural and Education Section of the British Embassy - British Council
 This article was generously provided to ClubFootball by the British Council, which operates in China as the Cultural and Education Section of the British Embassy.

 

The Next Asian Football Superpower? How Peter Withe is laying the foundations for Thai football's ascendancy.
 
When Peter Withe took over as national coach of Thailand, Thai football was at an-all time low, its reputation badly tarnished by the disgrace of the 1998 Tiger Cup match with Indonesia when both sides tried to lose in order to avoid favourites Vietnam at home in Hanoi in the semi-finals.
 
With the match level at 2-2 in injury time, (only as a result of sponsors and match officials ordering both teams at half-time to make an attempt to score goals), Indonesian player Mursyid Effendi turned and shot into his own net, past a goalkeeper who made no attempt to save the shot and Thai players trying to guard the Indonesian goal.
 
The scandal prompted the resignation of the Thai management team and there were forecasts that Thai soccer would never recover when the country was banned by Asia's governing body in September.
 
However, Thailand's ban was subsequently lifted on appeal, and just four weeks before Bangkok hosted the Asian Games in December, Thai FA General Secretary Worawi Makudi concluded a deal with the English Football Association to secure the services of former England international Peter Withe as coach.
 
At the time Withe was the head of European scouting for Aston Villa. Why would someone leave the comforts of the Western world to take a job with a team in disarray in another country and leave family and friends behind?
 
"I was missing the day to day involvement with players," Withe said. "I was missing coaching. I felt that I was a good motivator and a good coach. I wanted to work with national players. When I found out it was Thailand, I thought to myself, 'What a great opportunity to help build a nation up', so I grabbed it with both hands."
 
The first problem that Withe noticed about the Thai players was their inherent lack of self-belief. "When I first came here there seemed to be a little bit of a doubt when we played certain sides. Their technical skills were excellent, but maybe because of their own cultural background and the fact that most of the team are part-time players, they felt a little bit inferior. So I said to them, 'there is no one in the world that you can't beat as long as you're mentally prepared to go out and face the challenge.' It was definitely the first time that many of the players had ever been told to think like that"
 
His focus on changing players' attitudes paid almost immediate and dramatic dividends. The Thais surprised the soccer world by beating World Cup competitors South Korea 2-1 in the quarterfinals of the Asian Games, less than two months after Withe had joined.
 
Even more impressive was the fact that victory was achieved with only nine players. Withe was an immediate national hero, and one Thai newspaper deemed the triumph "The BIGGEST VICTORY EVER in Thailand sports history."
 
An accomplished victory over Vietnam in the finals of the South-East Asian Games was followed by an impressive performance in the 2000 Asian Cup. During this time, Thailand moved up the FIFA World rankings under Withe, from 75th place prior to his joining to 60th place.
 
This made Thailand the 5th best team in Asia, well ahead of local rivals such as Vietnam, but also teams such as China and United Arab Emirates, who had far greater resources and a more experienced squad.
 
Most importantly, Withe's long-term planning means that Thai football has an incredibly bright future. Its Under-23 squad recently won the South-East Asian Games tournament. And in its young players, such as the 16-year old Teeratep Winothai, currently playing with the U-19 team at First Division English club Crystal Palace, Withe is building a team to compete at the highest level.
 
Even though Thailand failed to reach the 2002 World Cup, the team has progressed significantly enough to secure results such as the well-deserved 0-0 draw against one of Asia's footballing superpowers, Iran, in August 2001.
 
As for his commitment to Thailand, Withe has no doubts. "Thailand is my team," he explained. "As far as I am concerned I am employed by the Thai people, not just the Football Association. So I ask the players to play with their heart, play for the flag and to play with the mind. I say that to them because I believe it myself."

 

 

Mike Lee, December 2001

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