Scroll through any online post about Myanmar football and you will almost definitely see one phrase repeated by fans in the comments section: AT9, AT9, AT9.
At 9? They mean Aung Thu, Myanmar’s number 9 and the country’s brightest hope for an international football star. After making waves for the national team at the 2015 FIFA U20 World Cup, 2016 AFF Suzuki Cup and 2017 SEA Games, there have been calls for Yadanarbon FC’s young striker to take his game to the next level abroad. And at the end of the 2017 season that’s exactly what he did with a move to Thai League 1’s Police Tero FC.
While comparisons between Aung Thu, 21, and Thai superstar Chanathip Songkrasin have been made thanks to the Police Tero connection—Chanathip having played there from 2012 to 2016 when the club was known as BEC Tero Sasana—there’s still a long way to go before he can reach the level that Chanathip is at now.
There’s no shortage of players who have impressed in their home country’s domestic leagues and yet failed to make a real impact following an ambitious move abroad—Chan Vathanaka, a former Cambodian League top scorer, currently relegated to the bench in Japan’s third tier competition comes to mind. Both players carry the hopes of a nation on their backs, but while Vathanaka’s progress seems to have momentarily stalled in Japan, the road ahead remains wide open for Aung Thu.
Though Aung Thu’s choice to move to a neighbouring country’s league—widely regarded as the best in the region—seems at first glance a better fit compared to a further East Asia or even Europe switch, plenty of uncertainty remains.
While the Thai League 1 has recently changed its rules regarding foreign players—with every club now reserving a spot for one ASEAN player out of five foreign players on the roster—these players don’t often go in with as many expectations to perform as Aung Thu has.
The closest trajectory for Aung Thu to follow could be that of Philippines’ striker Javier Patiño, who joined Buriram United from Spain’s second division in 2013. In Buriram, Patiño went on to score 35 goals in 54 appearances while also impressing in limited appearances for his national side.
Even more important than his personal career, Aung Thu’s success on a foreign stage could be the key to encouraging more of his countrymen to expand their horizons and ply their trade abroad. Myanmar players’ general reluctance has addressed by national team coach Gerd Zeise, who laid out his thoughts on a potential overseas move for Aung Thu himself back in 2015:
“You cannot go alone, you must send part of the family or another player. Otherwise, he dies. That is Myanmar culture.”
A similar point was raised in the Bangkok Post on Singapore club Balestier Khalsa’s signing of three Myanmar players, where the presence of a strong local community and opportunity for a higher level of play outweighed the fears that might have surrounded a foreign move.
The last group of Myanmar players to play in Thailand’s top tier was back in 1996, so Aung Thu’s move has been a long time coming. Will he make a name for himself and lift his country to greater heights? Fans will have to wait until next season to see how it all unfolds, but eyes will surely be peeled for the Myanmar prodigy’s Thailand debut in 2018.
Featured image via: Myanmar Football Federation/Facebook