SINGAPORE – The 2014 AFF Suzuki Cup kicks off today with co-hosts Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines and Laos in action in Group A in Hanoi, followed by Group B on Sunday with Myanmar taking on Malaysia and co-hosts Singapore facing Thailand.
In football-mad Thailand, Kiatisuk Senamuang is one of the few players who enjoy celebrity status with the kingdom’s fans.
In a storied playing career that spanned 17 years, the player nicknamed “Zico” — after the Brazilian great — won the hearts and minds of Thai fans with his silky skills, megawatt smile and trademark somersault celebrations.
But Kiatisuk, whose tally of 70 goals in 131 international matches for Thailand are both national records, knows his reputation will cut little ice should he fail to guide Thailand back to their perch as South-east Asia’s footballing kingpins.
Traditionally the region’s dominant side, Thailand last won the ASEAN Football Federation (AFF) Championship, now known as the Suzuki Cup, in 2002.
Tomorrow, they will open their 2014 Group B campaign against co-hosts Singapore, whom they lost to in the two-legged final two years ago, at the new National Stadium.
“The Thai football fans are a demanding lot,” Kiatisuk, 41, told TODAY. “They take pride in their national team and get upset when the team loses. I know the pressure is on me and the team, but it’s my responsibility to deliver what the fans want.”
Himself a three-time winner of the AFF Championship in 1996, 2000 and 2002, Kiatisuk revealed he had turned down an earlier offer by Thailand Football Association president Worawi Makudi to become his country’s national coach.
Worawi was convinced Kiatisuk would be the right man for the national role after guiding Thailand to the gold medal at last year’s SEA Games in Myanmar.
“When he (Worawi) approached me with the offer to coach the Suzuki Cup team, I told him to look for someone else,” said Kiatisuk.
“At that time, I was in charge of Thailand’s under-23 side for the Asian Games in Incheon and, if I failed in Incheon, how could I face the Thai FA and the Thai public? So I turned him down at that time.”
But Thailand’s run to the semi-finals of the Asiad helped convince the former Krung Thai Bank, Royal Thai Police, Huddersfield Town and S-League side SAFFC (now known as Warriors FC) forward to answer the call of his nation.
Since taking charge, Kiatisuk has led Thailand to wins over New Zealand (2-0) and the Philippines (3-0) in their pre-tournament warm-ups without leading marksman Teerasil Dangda, the top scorer at the 2012 AFF Suzuki Cup with five goals, who is now with Spanish side Almeria.
“The players respect him and are willing to play for him, which is so evident in the SEA Games and Asian Games. He has the right touch,” said former Thailand midfield stalwart Surachai Jatturapatarapong.
Thailand’s other Group B matches are against Malaysia on Nov 26 and Myanmar on Nov 29, both at the Jalan Besar Stadium.
While Teerasil and midfield schemer Datsakorn Thonglao will not feature this time, Kiatisuk’s squad still retains a mix of youth and experience, with captain Adul Lahso, Sompong Soleb, goalkeeper Kawin Thamsatchanan and defender Anucha Kitponsori — the squad’s oldest player at 31 — complementing the likes of Charly Chappuis, 22, and forward Adisak Kraisorn, 23.
“Co-hosts Singapore are a favourite because of home advantage, Myanmar have never been easy and Malaysia are always dangerous,” said Kiatisuk. “But it would be nice if we can win it again after such a long time.”
THAILAND FACT FILE (PIX OF THAILAND FOOTBALL ASSOCIATION BADGE)
Nickname: The War Elephants
Coach: Kiatisuk Senamuang
FIFA world ranking: 165
AFF Suzuki Cup record: Winners in 1996, 2000, 2002.
Matches: Group B — Singapore (Nov 23), Malaysia (Nov 26), Myanmar (Nov 29)
Goalkeepers: Kawin Thammasatchanan, Chanin Sae-Eae.
Defenders: Chayapat Kitpongsritada, Suttinan Phuk-hom, Narubodin Weeratnodom, Tanaboon Kesarat, Artit Daosawang, Peerapat Notchaiya, Adisorn Promrak, Pravinwat Boonyong.
Midfielders: Adul Lahso, Chanathip Songkrasin, Kroekit Thaweekarn, Sarach Yooyen, Mongkol Tossakrai, Sarawut Masuk, Charyl Chappuis, Prakit Deeporm.
Forwards: Kirati Keawsombut, Sompong Soleb, Adisak Kraisorn, Chainarong Tathong.