Two goals down inside 20 minutes in their World Cup qualifier in Saitama, Thailand’s hopes of an upset win were as good as gone but there was at least one section of the Japanese crowd hoping for a comeback.
The impending loan move of star midfielder Chanathip Songkrasin to the J.League is arguably the biggest ever transfer of a Southeast Asian player within the continent and no doubt the coaching staff of his soon to be new club, Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo, were watching his performance with a keen eye.
Looking past the 4-0 defeat they would have found plenty to have pleased them ahead of Chanathip’s move to the northern Japanese outfit this July where he’s expected to play an integral role in helping the newly promoted side preserve their top-flight status.
The pint-sized playmaker certainly impressed the victors with Japanese goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima telling FOX Sports Asia that he has noticed considerable improvement in Thailand and that he hopes Chanathip’s move to the J.League can be the catalyst for other players to also get a chance in one of Asia’s biggest leagues.
“Thailand is not what they used to be, they are a much improved side and they try to hold possession and play with good tactics and the number 18 (Chanathip) certainly played well.
“I hope that he can succeed in the J.League because then afterwards other Southeast Asian players can come to Japan and influence the J.League in a positive way.”
On a chilly evening in Japan, the 23-year-old lined up in his customary role in the hole just behind forwards Adisak Kraisorn and Teerasil Dangda but it was a tough night for the diminutive playmaker who was tightly marked every time he was on or near the ball but he still managed to display some flashes of class.
One of the few Thai players to be constantly ‘scanning,’ Chanathip plays in a role that demands a determination to drop, shift and advance, but just as importantly to shuffle and drift with space the currency by which he is measured.
As the contest started to open up over the second half he began to bank that space, first winning and then almost scoring from an early free kick, and then shuttling between the classic positioning of a number ten and acting as more advanced option in what at times became a three-man frontline as the visitors chased goals to find a way back into the match.
Other times saw him drop right back to split the central defenders to orchestrate things at the first line of possession, throughout he was the man responsible for organising much of the Thai attacking shape.
A perfectly weighted through-ball for Kraisorn with a quarter of an hour remaining was wasted by the burly striker and as the match wore towards its conclusion he danced and spun through several defenders to play a ball with just a touch too much weight, or otherwise the Thais would have been through on goal.
Playing the role of of conductor, he was forever pointing, guiding and directing those around him, choreographing the strings as the brass and woodwind struggled to hold their tune.
In one sense all those efforts were in vain as the Thais were formally eliminated from contention for a berth in Russia, but in another the showing potentially did wonders for football in Japan and Thailand and beyond.
The J.League has been chasing a foothold in Southeast Asia with a religious zeal for several years now, feverishly trying to position their ‘product’ as the benchmark for Asia in a subsection of the continent that counts arguably its most passionate fans.
Chanathip’s showing in their own backyard was vindication of the belief that he may be the player to finally deliver on those goals.
On the day of the match a MOU was signed between the Japan and Thailand football associations, continuing a process that has seen similar agreements struck between more than half a dozen countries throughout the region.
The J.League also has a special ‘exemption’ that allows an unlimited number of players to feature for J.League clubs from Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, Indonesia and Cambodia but so far their success rate in ‘hitting’ on targets from the region has been poor.
Le Cong Vinh shone in patches but Indonesia’s Irfan Bachdim barely featured in his foray into Japanese football – both at the same northern club that Chanathip will join.
Vietnamese pair Nguyen Tuan Anh and Nguyen Cong Phuong came and went from loan spells at second division clubs last year with barely any playing time in the league and this year too the highly touted move of Chan Vathanaka has so far failed to bear any fruit – with the Cambodian yet to even feature in the matchday squad for his J3 club Fujieda MYFC.
Chanathip though is the great hope – a player more than capable of matching things technically with the Japanese but with a greater vision than most who play the same position in the J.League; he’s arguably one of the finest playmakers to have emerged from Southeast Asia in a decade and it’s important for both nations that he’s handed a chance to succeed at Sapporo and that he then takes that opportunity.
More than just Chanathip though there are several others in Thailand who are easily good enough to play in Japan and if Chanathip succeeds then the floodgates could conceivably open.
Tristan Do impressed in Saitama.
Goalkeeper Kawin Thamsatchanan was another who impressed Kawashima as was the metronomic fullback Tristan Do who was again a standout for the War Elephants and is rapidly developing into one of the best fullbacks in Asian football.
Charyl Chappuis, although not featuring against Japan, has both the technical and mental capabilities to forge a successful career in the J.League and the powerful striker, Teerasil Dangda, although off his game post Suzuki Cup, also has the qualities required to play at the higher level.
First though it all starts with Chanathip; and the creative whiz even made an early start in trying to impress his soon-to-be hosts as he produced several greetings in Japanese pre-match, including the odd ‘arigato.’
If he succeeds in his Japanese adventure then there might be a whole lot of others saying thank you as well.