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The pitch ahead

Thailand women’s football coach Nuengruethai Sathongwieng has been in seventh heaven ever since her girls made football history last month by qualifying for the 2015 Fifa Women’s World Cup, which will be held in Canada.

Thailand women's football coach Nuengruethai Sathongwieng.

The women defeated Vietnam 2-1 in the fifth place play-off of the 2014 AFC Women’s Asian Cup in Ho Chi Minh City in late May, making them the first Thai team in history to qualify for the World Cup at the senior level.

The 42-year-old former national footballer knows all too well about what it takes to compete for her country. In sports, she said, playing under high expectations should be used as fuel to yield the best results.

“Blood, sweat and tears went into achieving this stupendous feat,” she said.

The day the team arrived back in Thailand, May 22, was also the day the coup was invoked, overshadowing celebrations and a golden opportunity to be the focus of media attention. But that’s not to say their spirits were dampened.

“I would not go so far as to say [we were] disappointed ... we were able to enjoy front page news and we are pretty satisfied with that.

“Our victory is the victory of the nation. Getting Thai people’s spirits up during the unstable political situation in the country has brought us a lot of joy.”

The road to success, however, has been anything but rosy for the squad, which consists largely of players from lower- to middle-class backgrounds. Their love for the sport and the honour of playing under the national flag are two of the most salient reasons they continue to play, she noted.

In the past, the players’ only income was generated during encampment periods for national competitions, and when they won medals at international events such as  the Southeast Asian Games, Asian Games and the Olympics. 

To lift team spirit and encourage players to focus on football, Nuanphan Lamsam, the team’s manager, hired the players at one of her companies so they would not need to worry about finding a source of monthly income and could put their heart and soul into competing for the country. 

Since then, team performance has improved in leaps and bounds, Nuengruethai said, as the team went on to clinch the SEA Games gold medal in Myanmar last year in addition to its World Cup qualification.

“They now have a career to fall back on after they retire, and that is a heavy weight off their shoulders.”

Nuengruethai, who was selected to coach the team just months prior to the World Cup qualifiers, said the short time frame wasn’t necessarily an impediment, because she had previously coached the players when they were on the national youth team.

“I was able to set up a strategy plan for the team because I am well-aware of each player’s strengths and weaknesses. Also the previous coaches and team managers very much set the stage for us to qualify for the World Cup.” Nuengruethai readily acknowledged that overwhelming support for the men’s football team, which at times seemed to overshadow that given to the women, was at times disheartening.

“We have resigned ourselves to the fact that women’s football has never drawn a crowd, but after qualifying for the World Cup I believe this will soon change. One has to also keep in mind that sponsors will throw their support behind teams that are marketable.”

The idea that it is easier for women’s teams to qualify for the World Cup, Nuengruethai said, isn’t entirely false, although earning a spot in a world event is never a breeze. There are a far greater number of men’s teams vying for a coveted spot in the World Cup, she said.

However, women footballers today are very competitive and hugely talented, especially players on teams from China, Japan, North and South Korea and Australia, all of which have been World Cup champions in various age groups.   

Nuengruethai said the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea later this year will serve as a practise ground for the World Cup. There, focus will be on improving players’ stamina, tactics, self-confidence and competitive experience at the international level, she said.

She said star footballer Kanchana Sangnguen, who scored the team’s only two goals against Vietnam, will play a significant role in spearheading the country’s efforts at both the Asian Games and the World Cup.

“Kanchana is the fastest and the most dependable player we have on the team,” she said.

“The fact that she has experience competing on a Japanese football club in the past also gives us reason to believe that she has it in her to give our opponents a run for their money. We will have her share these experiences with her teammates in hopes that this will give them a better understanding of what it means to play with top-notch players.

“Pitsamai Sornsai and Napa Seaserm are also experienced players who will be leading our attack. I am confident that my girls will be doing their best to give a spirited performance.”

As for the chance of being replaced by another coach prior to the World Cup, Nuengruethai has taken a no-nonsense, worry-free approach.

“I am not attached to my position, and frankly, I am ready to leave if my superiors have someone more competent to fill my shoes. As long as the person will not put Thailand to shame in the country’s first World Cup outing, I have no objections.”