Kawin and Etheridge lead a golden age of goalkeepers in ASEAN football

John Duerden John Duerden

John Duerden believes Kawin Thamsatchanan and Neil Etheridge are just two examples of why the goalkeeping situation in ASEAN football has never been healthier.

It was sad to learn of the news this week that Malaysian goalkeeping legend Chow Chee Keong passed away at the age of 69. An international for his country at the age of 15, he was also named the best goalkeeper in Asia by the Asian Football Confederation at the age of 18 – the first of five successive times.

Chow had an amazing career, playing in Hong Kong and England. In football terms, it may have provided the legendary number one some comfort to know that goalkeeping in Southeast Asia has never been in better hands.

Chow had a short spell in England with Bedford Town but – these days – there are goalkeepers playing at a much higher level. Just look at Neil Etheridge. The Philippines number one has played 32 out of 33 games in the English Championship for Cardiff City, something that is a fine achievement in its own right. But there’s more.

With 13 games of the 46 game season remaining, Cardiff are second and on course for automatic promotion to the English Premier League. The Bluebirds are four points clear of Aston Villa in third. Etheridge was signed in the summer as cover for the injured Lee Camp.

Fifteen clean sheets and many more plaudits later, Etheridge is the undisputed number one at the club and Camp, now fully recovered, has been sent out on loan. It shows the mental strength of the goalkeeper, now 28, that he bounced back from being released from clubs and, for a time, without a club.

“Neil has done an incredible job in the last couple of years,” Chris Greatwich, former Philippines international team-mate and coach of Kaya FC in the Philippine Football League, told FOX Sports Asia.

“He has progressed from the lower reaches of the English football pyramid to be playing in the Championship. He has worked really hard. He has a good manager who is proven at this level and has shown he can guide teams to promotion. It would be great to see Neil playing in the English Premier League.”

It would be an amazing achievement. To get to the top tier of English football via the long slog of a promotion season in the Championship is doing it the hard way.

In Asia, only the Chinese Super League has an average attendance greater than that of England’s second tier. The Championship possesses three European Cups, more than the whole of France. It is one of the most watched leagues in the world and full of big clubs that have spent big to get back to where the really big money is.

Etheridge seems to have improved as the season has progressed. His performance in the recent 4-1 win over Leeds United was top-class. If Cardiff do make it to the top, manager Neil Warnock will look back at signing the 28 year-old and allow himself a smile of satisfaction. If Etheridge does make it then anyone who has watched him will know he is more than capable of handing the Premier League.

If that wasn’t enough for the region, there was more this week. While Etheridge has been working hard in England, Kawin Thamsatchanan was doing the same in Thailand. The Thai international goalkeeper was studying English and trying to find a way into Europe – very difficult for a Southeast Asian goalie.

He made his debut in Belgium this week for First Division B club OH Leuven in a 1-1 draw. He made some fine saves.

“I’m pleased to play the debut game tonight,” said the 28-year-old. “I’ve done my best tonight, I’ll take this fantastic opportunity to develop the quality on the pitch. [Playing in an] European league is not easy; I have to prove myself to the coach and the team. I want to give my best for Thailand, OH Leuven and the team”

Kawin has been a big star in Southeast Asia for years. He could have stayed where he was. He could have lived a very nice life at Muangthong United and lived in one of the most vibrant cities in the world. He could have lived off the adulation of fans at home.

Instead, he chose to move to Belgium, not, with all due respect from a non-footballing perspective, the most exciting of destinations. Few Asian players have moved so far out of their comfort zone. All hope he will be successful in Belgium but making the first step is half the battle for him and others to follow in the future.

Southeast Asia may have lost a legendary goalkeeper this week but there are worthy successors to old ‘Crazy Sword’ Chow. Goalkeeping has never been better in Southeast Asia. This is a golden age.