Indonesia may have emerged as the overall winner at AUG 2014 in Palembang. But in terms of football, it was the Thais who once retained the bragging rights of being Southeast Asia’s top football nation with the gold medal in the AUG men’s football.
Their gold medal in AUG men’s football capped off a year when the men’s senior team brought home the 2014 ASEAN Football Federation (AFF) Championship, and preceded the U-23 team’s victory at the 28th SEA Games in Singapore.
Thailand’s pedigree in football is well-known. The Thais had won the AFF Championship on four occasions since the tournament’s inception in 1996. They have also won the SEA Games Football Gold Medal fifteen times, the most recent being their title at the 2015 SEA Games in Singapore.
As of March 2016, the Thai men’s national team are top of their World Cup-AFC qualification group, ahead of regional rivals Vietnam and former Asian Cup winners Iraq. They also bagged a bronze (third place) at the Asian Cup in 1972.
It therefore does not come as a surprise that the Thais takes football very seriously even in competitions such as the AUG, as they look to maintain the kingdom’s status as Southeast Asia’s football powerhouse.
After their 2-0 victory against the Laotians at the Vientiane AUG in 2012, Thailand had to up their game in order to defend their AUG Football title in Palembang against their regional rivals.
Thailand and Laos were drawn in separate groups as both the 2012 Vientiane finalists were considered top seeds. Hence, the they had to contend with regional rivals Malaysia, as well as dark horses Singapore and Timor Leste in Group A.
A good start was what they got in their first game as they crushed ten-men Singapore 3-0. The highlight of the match was a beautiful curling free kick by midfielder Peeradol Chamrasamee in the 90th minute, capping off a performance that saw goals by striker Anan Buasang and Krerkpong Bunsit.
A tough second game against neighbours Malaysia saw the Thais emerge as 2-1 winners. Thailand were 2-0 up within 22 minutes of the first half after goals by striker Apiwat Pengprakon and wing-back Daengsee Sathaporn, before conceding a consolation goal to Malaysia in the final minutes of the second half.
With qualification to the knock-out round secured, Thailand only needed a draw to advance to the next round as the group winners. Against a plucky Timor-Leste team, the War Elephants won 3-1.
As group winners, Thailand were drawn against regional rivals Laos in a rematch of the 2012 Final in Vientiane. The on-form Thais had no problem of dispatching the Laos team 3-0 in the semi-finals with goals by Bunsit, Buasang and Pengprakon.
The last match against hosts Indonesia on 19th December would decide who would grab the bragging rights in the AUG. The hosts had earlier dispatched Malaysia 4-2 in the semi-finals and grabbed a spectacular 5-1 victory against Myanmar in the group stages.
As it turned out, it was the Thais who would assert their dominance in the match which ended 3-1 in their favour. Buasang bagged goals in the sixth and 62nd minute, and capped off the day with an assist for teammate Yuttana Ruangsuksut’s 25th minute goal.
The tournament proved to be a good learning experience for many of these players, some of whom had prior experience playing for their country at the U-23 level. For example, defender Komkrit Cumsokcheak had already appeared for his country at the 26th SEA Games in Jakarta.
Others such as finals hero Buasang and midfielder Chamrasasee have progressed after the tournament with transfers to Thailand’s top football clubs. The former now turns out for Thai League Champions Buriram United while the latter is currently with AFC Champions League participants Muangthong United.
With a stream of young players emerging at the youth and university level, the future for Thai football looks bright. At the upcoming AUG, stay tuned for another spectacular tournament as the Thais look set to battle it out to retain their football title.