For a foreigner travelling in Thailand, exotic coastal scenery and delicious sea food are by no means the only things to impress. Passions for football in this Siam state are as famous and abundant as her natural resources. Few could argue with this, given that they are involved in two FIFA events simultaneously - hosting the FIFA U19 Women World Championship and taking part in the FIFA Futsal World Championship.
In recent years, futsal has made bigger strides in Thailand than its 11-a-side brother. With a Brazilian coach at the helm, Thailand are looking to make history on their second appearance in a FIFA Futsal World Championship.
Despite starting relatively late in Thailand, futsal received a massive boost with the inaugural AFC Futsal Championship in 1999. "Futsal made good and quick initial progress at the very beginning due to the good organization and management of our Football Association," Adisak Benjasiriwan, manager of the Thailand futsal team, told FIFA.com. "The smaller football game drew immense interest from the players and fans and many of them began to try this new game."
Their efforts paid off as one year later, the Thail team finished third as hosts in AFC Futsal Championship, an result that sent them to Guatemala 2000. Despite the early exit following three group losses, their first-ever FIFA Futsal Championship appearance triggered further interest from fans and enhanced confidence in the FA for international expansion.
"We tried many ways to promote the game that looks particularly attractive for Thai fans," Benjasiriwan continued. "Futsal matches were even staged in department stores and malls, with thousands of customers watching with obvious interest.
"Now futsal tournaments and matches are organized in all seven provinces in Thailand. We have two levels of national futsal tournaments, one senior and another U-16. The senior national competition is staged annually with 100 teams vying for the title throughout the country."
With the smaller football game spread throughout the nation, the Thailand Football Association are working on a planned national futsal league to be launched next year. "It will be a semi-pro league with 12 clubs at the beginning and I'm hoping it will be professional within 3-5 years," added Benjasiriwan.
Keen on international expansion
This April's 2004 AFC Futsal Championship saw Thailand winning bronze for the third time in a row, plus a spot at Taipei 2004 of this November. Their Brazilan coach, Glaucio Castro, appears confident they will improve on their performances at Guatemala four years ago.
The man who guided Thailand to third-place finishing at AFC Futsal Championship this April after only a two-week tenure told FIFA.com: "Thai players are good futsal performers. Individually they are as good as Brazilian players in terms of techniques and skills. But they have mental problems as many of them played football before joining national futsal team. It takes time for them to understand more about the smaller game."
Targeting a place in the last eight, Castro thinks the opening game with Czech Republic will be decisive: "A victory over the Czech Republic will enhance our chances to advance to the knockout stages as we could beat Australia, who are of an equal level to us. But we have less chances to defeat Brazil."
According to him, Thailand's strength lay in their "solid defense and swift counter attack", but the former Brazilan U-21 coach admits there are many aspects for his team to improve. "The former football players have yet to totally adapt to futsal principles. Generally speaking, they need to quicken their movements on the pitch."
However, he vows to battle against Czech Republic, formidable opponents who are more "intelligent and experienced". But the run up to the tournament has gone well: "We took a two-week training camp in Brazil early this month and we have prepared the team well for this match. We will keep to our plan until we succeed."