By Marcus Chhan in Bangkok
If you were to put me on the spot and ask me what the real deal is about Nike ‘The Chance', I would probably be a bit sceptical about the motive behind the question. As journalists, we can sometimes find ourselves on shaky ground when we're flown out by corporations on ‘press junkets' to cover the launch of something which doesn't seem all that important at first glance.
However, this wasn't the case for me when I got the call to report on some of the developments around the region regarding Nike's global amateur football talent spotting competition.
I've gone to most of the events Nike has held in Singapore, and I've had the privilege to experience the Country Finals in Malaysia, Indonesia and now I am in Bangkok to watch five youngsters who will be picked on Sunday to represent Thailand at next month's Regional Finals.
Time for a full disclosure: Nike have footed the bill for my travel and accommodation in Malaysia, Indonesia and now Thailand.
So, back to my earlier statement on how I would react if someone asked me honestly about Nike ‘The Chance'. Yes, I'd be a bit sceptical at first, but only because I wouldn't be sure if the person asking the question fully understands why this initiative - which I am sure critics will wrongly just see as a marketing gimmick done by Nike to sell boots - is a relevant news story about football for the region.
Football is a fantastic game which is able to break down social and economic barriers like few other things on the planet. And as a Southeast Asian who will never be more in the sporting context than a ‘couch-potato' athlete, nothing makes me feel more proud than to see one of ‘us' succeed at the highest level in a global sport, especially football.
If you know anything about ‘The Chance' programme you'll know that Nike's Elite Training system is one of its key components. All around the region coaches and young footballers (all aged under 25) participating in ‘The Chance' are being exposed to world-class training methods - and the importance of this is something which will be outlined later in interviews with former Philippines national football team coach Simon McMenemy as well as current Chonburi [the club that finished second in the 2011 season of the Thai Premier League] coach Witthaya Laohakul.
The idea is that SE Asian footballers can make an impression on the world stage but only if the right support is behind them.
This is the kind of legacy that ‘The Chance' can leave in SE Asia, a long time after the Global Finals wrap up in Barcelona months from now.
If you build it - with the right infrastructure - he will come
It's a famous line from an old but famous Hollywood baseball movie called ‘Field of Dreams' where the lead character, played by Kevin Costner, hears a voice whispering to him: "If you build it, he will come". Similarly, for football in SE Asia, if we want somebody from our region to be good enough for European football then the right infrastructure needs to be put in place.
Chonburi coach Witthaya Laohakul, who was the first Thai player to play in the German Bundesliga, with Hertha Berlin, believes a lack of support for coaches from the Thailand FA is hampering player development in his country.
"Most of Thailand players come straight from school. Unfortunately, our FA is not interested to help the coaches at a school level," he told ESPNSTAR.com on Saturday.
"I think we need more coaching courses and investment in more academies for players and to give more knowledge to the coaches.
"We don't train them properly from a young age. I know Thai players have really good skills. They are very talented but talent only is not good enough."
The Chonburi coach believes Thailand do have the money to start making these changes in the country but at the moment "we don't know how to use the money" yet.
Thailand are undoubtedly one of SE Asia's powerhouses in football and there is plenty of reason to feel optimistic about the future. The Thai Under-12s recently finished a very respectable second in the Danone Nations Cup 2011 - only losing 4-0 to mighty Brazil in the final. The fear isn't that Thailand's talent pool of players will suddenly dry up; you only needed to have been at Friday's training session in Bangkok for ‘The Chance' to see this.
There were plenty of players around who - considering their amateur status - were very impressive. The fear is that we'll miss the boat; that we'll not be able to give players even younger than those who participated on Friday and are about to come through Thailand's football ranks every chance of making it at the top level.
Critical to this is ensuring that youth prospects understand the game, which is where tools like Nike's 7-a side GPS testing comes into play. Here players are equipped with a little chip which converts what they do during the 7-a side training session into meaningful numbers to score a player's speed, power and the number of sprints he does or his average speed.
"I think Thai footballers still don't understand that it is not only skill [which is important] but how they understand the game especially the conditioning [aspect]," Witthaya Laohakul said.
"The GPS can improve a player and let you know how they move and how the run and total speed. We used it in Japan also; at first we used this for one month and after that we didn't need to use it because the players now understood how important conditioning was."
One of the first things former Philippines national football team coach Simon McMenemy notices when he takes the participants from Nike ‘The Chance' Indonesia through training is how awkward and uncomfortable they look. Then last Friday, he watched as these same 30 boys looked perfectly at home on the pitch in the scheduled 11 vs 11 match which ultimately decided the identities of the five boys who will represent Indonesia at the Regional Finals of the competition.
"I worked with these group of players twice now and what I've noticed today [Friday] is that when they get to 11-a side it's almost like they feel a little more comfortable. They understand what's going on. That would say to me that they are probably not being coached properly in that they are not used to doing drills, they are not used to structured training," McMenemy said.
"They are good players and they can play but they don't know the game, they don't understand the game. They are not knowledgeable about different positions.
"I had it [this issue] when I was [head coach] at [Indonesia Super League side] Mitra Kukar. I had to do weeks and weeks of coaching just to get them to get the ball forward and be direct and score goals.
"It takes drilling into them, it's a mindset. The mentality of ‘keep the ball' doesn't win you games.
"You know Manchester United have the ability to go direct and they have the ability to keep the ball. [Players] have to be adaptable and be able to do everything."
Regular exposure to some of the training methods I've seen at ‘The Chance' can only help. Most of the contestants we spoke to in Singapore, Malaysia and Jakarta believe it has benefitted them enormously.
Bangkok was no exception.
"This was a good chance for me and the other boys to get a chance to practice and come up to professional level," said Mongkol Woraporn, one of 30 boys who will be hoping to win Sunday's Country Finals in Bangkok.
"Normally I play at the back. Today [Saturday] I had a chance to play in many positions in the practice," he told us with the help of a translator.
"I want to be able to play in every position because I think that good players must be able to play in every position."
Overseeing Saturday's training in Bangkok was Witthaya Laohakul and he cut an enthusiastic figure on the sidelines, giving his advice to anyone who would listen during the 7-a side GPS testing via a microphone hooked up to several loudspeakers.
For me, the message from ‘The Chance' is loud and clear. Let's hope enough people are listening.