- Theerathon Bunmathan reflects on the end of Thailand's 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ dream
- War Elephants' captain predicts they can reach World Cup in eight years
- Reveals future career plans
Just like every cloud has a silver lining, Thailand excelled during Asia's second qualifying round for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™, progressing to the decisive phase for the first time in sixteen years. From there, however, things for the War Elephants have been distinctly grey, becoming the first to be eliminated after losing twice in March.
In what proved a miserable stint in Group B so far, the Thais suffered four straight opening defeats during the third round which saw their hopes hang by a thread. A spirited 2-2 draw against Australia may have briefly reignited their hopes, but Saudi Arabia and Japan sent them crashing out with three games to spare. Thailand’s lofty aim of reaching a maiden World Cup qualification was brought down to the earth.
"Of course, I am disappointed that we were not able to advance," Thailand captain Theerathon Bunmathan told FIFA.com in an exclusive interview. "We worked hard and prepared well, doing our best to follow the game plan. But the teams we drew in this group are very strong. It was a great challenge for us to tackle countries like Japan, Australia and Saudi."
I think it will take us eight years before we are ready [to qualify for a World Cup] – it may take as long as 12.
Despite the early exit, though, Thailand did spring a surprise or two during the qualifying. They twice drew against favourites Iraq in the previous round as they stunned even their own supporters by advancing as group winners. Even in the ongoing phase, they bravely held Australia at home last November – their first ever point gained against the Socceroos. For Bunmathan, it is a result from which they can take heart for the years to come.
"The match with Australia was especially difficult for us," continued the 27-year-old Thailand and Muangthong United defender. "We had just lost our King and the entire country was in mourning. It was important to us to play well and to help lift the spirit of Thai people. So, we got a good result there."
— FIFA World Cup (@FIFAWorldCup) November 15, 2016
The failed campaign cost coach Kiatisuk Senamuang his job, announcing his resignation after losing 4-0 in Japan. Despite this, the progress Thailand have made under the legend cannot be understated.
During his three-year tenure, Thailand underlined their regional dominance by twice winning the AFF Championship and their resurgence culminated in storming all the way to Asia's last twelve on the road to Russia 2018. Even more important was that the team have improved mentally and tactically, a fact which Bunmathan was quick to acknowledge.
"Some may target speed and counterattacking as our strengths," he said. "But, for me, Thailand’s strengths lie in our team work and each player understanding the others. For the future, of course, we need our next generation of footballers to be even stronger; this is the key."
- Ranked 129th in FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking – reached highest placing of 43rd in 1998
- Unbeaten in Round 2 of Asia’s Russia 2018 qualifying
- Finished third at AFC Asian Cup in 1972
- Reached AFF Championship final in eight of 11 editions, winning five
With their World Cup hopes shelved, the seven-year Thai international has begun to look to the future. "For the time being, [World Cup qualification] remains a difficult task for us. I think it will take us eight years before we are ready – it may take as long as 12. We need the younger players to develop through training academies.
"We can do it, but I think not in my time. When I retire from playing, my goal is to coach the next generation. As I said, this is the key, and maybe Thailand can be in the World Cup sooner than I expect."
His hopes of a first-ever FIFA tournament remain bright, with Muangthong well on course to progress in the ongoing AFC Champions League group competition. The Thai champions have so far remained undefeated, leading the likes of Kashima Antlers, Ulsan Hyundai and Brisbane Roar. Should they maintain this form, few can question their chances of progressing to the FIFA Club World Cup by winning their first Asian title.
“Now my goals are to help Muangthong United be league champions once again and, especially, to win the AFC Champions League. I want to play in the Club World Cup in United Arab Emirates in 2017.”
— The-AFC.com (@theafcdotcom) November 15, 2016