When it comes to Asian football, traditional powerhouses like Japan, Korea Republic or Australia are the first names that tend to spring to mind. Yet while those nations enjoyed almost undisputed superiority in the past, the situation has become increasingly different in recent years.
Smaller teams such as the Philippines and Thailand have been steadily closing the gap on the continent’s biggest sides. “We’re catching up with Japan and South Korea, but we need to play against them in order to see where we stand,” Thailand coach Winfried Schafer told FIFA.com in an exclusive interview.
Thailand's fortunes have improved since the German took charge in June 2011. The War Elephants finished as runners-up to Singapore at the AFF Suzuki Cup and were close to breaking into the continent's top 20 in the latest FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking.
Nevertheless, Schafer is not getting carried away with his side’s success. “Our good performances at the Suzuki Cup created a football craze here, but that doesn’t mean we can stop there, we need to work even harder,” he said.
“We’re definitely making progress. We dispensed with our English style of play and now have a more Spanish or German style, but obviously not to such a high quality. We’ve worked on tactics a lot and can now change things around during matches. We won our games at the Suzuki Cup thanks to our targeted pressing.”
The 62-year-old knows first-hand just how long and difficult the process of improvement is. Schafer has enjoyed an extensive coaching career - filled with highs and lows - thanks to spells at Stuttgart and Al Ahli among others, as well as with the national teams of Cameroon and Thailand.
Schafer is universally popular in Thailand, to the extent that fans have coined a song in his honour: ‘Thailand loves Winfried Schafer’. Despite being held in such high regard, the coach has not ruled out returning to his homeland in the future.
“The Bundesliga's great, but there are clubs there and in the second tier that are playing well below their expected level,” Schafer told FIFA.com. “I’d be very tempted by the prospect of taking those teams back where they belong through systematic hard work.”
Yet for now, Schafer is focusing solely on his task in Asia. “We’re in a good position to continuing improving our national team. There’s plenty of talent in Thailand and I want to foster its development as best I can. We need to keep looking forward and I’m confident Thailand have what it takes to reach the next level.”
The first step along the way is securing qualification for the AFC Asian Cup from a tough group.
In the coming eight weeks, Thailand face awkward opponents in Kuwait, Iran and Lebanon. Schafer is optimistic about his side’s chances and believes the better the rival, the more his players will learn.
Until now the Thai side has been made up entirely of locally-based players, although that could still change. Schafer considers Kawin Thammasatchanan one of the best goalkeepers in Asia and is confident that striker Teerasil Dangda could make the grade in Europe, to name but two of his squad.
Schafer himself could make his charges' dreams of playing abroad come true in the not too distant future. After all, where better to make a good impression than with the national team - and that goes both for those on the pitch as well as in the dugout.