Chanathip Songkrasin is a man in demand but the Thailand wizard who barely puts a foot wrong on the pitch has a big decision to make off it.
‘Jay Messi’ is perhaps the most talented player currently playing in the football-loving region. The playmaker has been showing his worth this season, helping Muangthong United to a first title since 2012 and then Thailand in World Cup qualification for Russia 2018 and, currently, the AFF Suzuki Cup.
On November 15, there the 23 year-old was at the Rajamangala Stadium, pulling the strings behind the strikers, cutting open the defence of the Asian champions on more than one occasion but most notably for the hosts’ equaliser.
A through ball that was as delicious as the shredded pork on rice that was available in the press room, took out almost the entire backline for Tristan Do to run on and feed Teerasil Dangda.
After the game, the Socceroos were talking of the playmaker and his quick feet with much admiration. There had been plenty of talk of the former BEC Tero man and his skills but then there always is ahead of big games. This time though, there was no disappointment. The hype was justified.
Not long after the Australians had left, Thai officials were being asked whether it was true that the player had agreed a one year deal with Consadole Sapporo in Japan. There had been interest from the J.League before, the tournament is always interested in South-east Asian talent, but Chanathip felt that the time was not right.
Now it is different. It is time for the best players in South-east Asia to head outside the region as Thai coach Kiatisuk Senamuang told FoxSportsAsia.
“At the moment, all our players play in Thailand but it is good for everyone if we have players overseas. They can improve, play with different players and coaches and come back as better players.”
Europe could be an option but at 23, Japan offers a perfect next step for ‘Jay Messi’. Technically, Japan is still the best league overall in Asia and there is much that can be learnt there.
Sapporo and FC Tokyo are the frontrunners for Chanathip’s signature. According to Thai sources, the player is inclined to head north to Sapporo as he feels there is more playing time to be had at the newly-promoted team than in the capital.
With Tokyo ready to pay Muangthong more than Sapporo for the services of the 2014 AFF Suzuki Cup MVP, there could be a conflict between the player and his club.
There is another option. For the past few years, the J.League has been the best league in Asia on and off the pitch. That accolade is less clear-cut these days thanks to the challenge from the Chinese Super League.
China is an option too. There have been hundreds of millions of dollars spent in the Middle Kingdom just in 2016 alone on high-profile foreign players like Hulk, Alex Teixeira, Jackson Martinez, Ezequiel Lavezzi and plenty of others. There are more set to arrive over the next few weeks and months.
As well as the big stars on the pitch, there are more and more world-class coaches heading there too. This season had Luiz Felipe Scolari, Manuel Pellegrini, Alberto Zaccheroni, Mano Menezes, Sven Goran Eriksson and Felix Magath. Andre Villas-Boas is already signed up for next season and, like the players, there are going to be more where they came from.
No league in Asia and only a handful in the entire world can match such experience, star power and talent. Some Chinese teams and the national federation are starting to think about looking towards South-east Asia as a region. At a time when the country is making inroads there politically. They are behind the J.League in this regard China has been known to move quickly.
Chanathip going to China would be huge news in Thailand and the region as a whole. By choosing the right team, he could not only be playing with and against some of the best players in the world, he could be coached by world-famous coaches.
In terms of importing both playing and coaching talent, Japan has fallen behind in the past three or four years. A new $2 billion broadcasting deal that will come into effect next year and run for the whole decade will make a difference but it will take time.
Japan is a good option for Chanathip Songkrasin but with more of the world’s best players heading to China then the best player in South-east Asia may find the Chinese Super League a more exciting fit.