Thailand will kick-off the round of qualifying for the 2014 FIFA World Cup™ with an away match against Australia tomorrow. It is a fixture which new coach Winfried Schafer says will be their most testing 90 minutes of the team’s campaign.
Achieving a top-two finish in the group, and then repeating the feat in the fourth and final stage of qualifying, is a distant dream for Thailand, with the south-east Asian nation yet to feature on the world’s greatest stage. However, after just two months at the helm of the national team, Schafer has long-term ambitions for Thailand after several years of disappointing results.
Now 61, the experienced German has a rich and lengthy resume which includes success on the international stage with Cameroon. After an extensive coaching career in his homeland, Schafer linked up with Cameroon, where he enjoyed a fruitful three-year spell. While he is perhaps best know for leading the Indomitable Lions to the 2002 FIFA World Cup, there were also other significant achievements, with victory at the 2002 CAF Africa Cup of Nations and a runners-up finish at the following year’s FIFA Confederations Cup. There followed a prosperous club spell in the United Arab Emirates, and a brief stint in Azerbaijan, before Schafer arrived in Thailand in June.
Seeking former glories
Thailand have long been one of south-east Asia’s elite nations, but the record books show there has also been achievement at continental level, most significantly third place at the 1972 AFC Asian Cup. Recent times, however, have not been so kind, with Thailand failing to qualify for this year’s Asian Cup, missing out after five successive appearances. The Thais have also failed in four attempts to be crowned south-east champions dating back to their last success in 2002.
“We have good players, Schafer told FIFA.com. “The problem currently is that before I arrived the national team had not played for around eight months. I work very well with the President of the Thai FA and we have made plans and a match calendar for the national team.
“At one stage Thailand was at a similar level to Japan and Korea (Republic). The Thailand FA and I are working well together for success, not just for one year but for the long-term. I want to help Thai football achieve major success. We are ranked 120 in the world but I think we will go up."
Rocky road awaits
Thailand overcame Palestine 3-2 on aggregate to reach the third stage of Brazil 2014 qualifying, the same round in which they suffered elimination from the South Africa 2010 preliminaries. On that occasion they finished bottom of a group which included Japan, Bahrain and Oman. This time the draw has arguably made the Thais pathway even rockier, with Australia, Saudi Arabia and, once again, Oman, their three Group D opponents.
The opening match against Australia will have extra personal significance for Schafer, who interacted with Holger Osieck on numerous occasions when the now-Australia coach worked for the German FA. Following the match-up with the Socceroos, there will be a quick turnaround for the Thais, who return home to host Oman at Bangkok’s cavernous Rajamangala Stadium on Tuesday.
An away match against Australia, the 2011 Asian Cup runners-up, is a difficult enough opening to the group, but Schafer also has to deal with a raft of defensive absentees for the match in Brisbane. Nataporn Phanrit is undoubtedly the biggest loss, with the captain instructed by doctors not to fly after collapsing in a recent domestic match. Fellow defenders Panupong Wongsa and Natthaphong Samana are also injured, as is regular first choice goalkeeper Kawin Thammasatchanan.
Nevertheless Schafer remained upbeat, pointing out that his replacements are not only capable of filling the breach, but that upsets are a part of football. “We can have good results - why not?” he said rhetorically. “We are happy to qualify for this stage and have the opportunity to play against the likes of Australia. Yes, our group is very, very difficult but with football you never know."