African connection lifts Thai underdogs
The last time a Thai team won a game in the group stage of the AFC Champions League was in 2008, so when Buriram United FC made it into the pool stage this year, they were given little chance of doing well. In their first game they faced Japanese team Kashiwa Reysol, and even though the game was played in the Buriram Stadium, the J.League champions were considered the overwhelming favourites. However, at the end of 90 minutes, Buriram had won the game 3-2 to get their first-ever Champions League group stage campaign off to a winning start.
Interestingly, an African connection played a large part in the victory, with Ghanaian Frank Acheampong, as well as Herman Ekwalla and Franck Ohandza, who come from Cameroon, being a part of the team. Acheampong and Ohandza spoke to FIFA.com about their experiences of playing in Thailand and the thrill of being involved in the top Asian club competition.
Like most other footballers growing up in Africa, the 18-year-old Acheampong dreamed of playing in Europe, and so he sees Thailand as the first part of that journey. "I wanted to play outside of Africa, but at the time, because of my age I was not allowed to play in Europe, so I decided to start here before taking the next step," said the striker, who played for King Faisal Babes and Berekum Chelsea in Ghana. "I think this is a stepping stone to bigger things," he said, adding that bigger things did not necessarily have to mean Europe: "It could also be a bigger club in Asia, but ultimately I want to end up in Europe."
Becoming a better player
Acheampong, who has played for various Ghanaian youth teams, believes that his play has improved since he started in Asia. "The facilities here are better than those at home, especially those at our club,” he said, adding that he hopes the improvement does not go unnoticed in his home country. "Whenever [the national team] calls me, I will be ready. I have been watching the games in Ghana, and I think that the players in the national teams are not much better than me. I can't say I am the best player, but by the grace of God I have gone to a different level since I moved here. I have improved, and I think I would be able to contribute to the national team."
The Ghanaian has settled well and he says he enjoys living in Thailand. "Even though it is a very different culture from Ghana, there are some similarities and the people are very nice. They always smile,” he said. “Even the food is not all that different from what I am used to in Ghana, the only thing that I do not like is when the food is too spicy."
Whenever he gets too homesick, he goes out to an African restaurant where he eats fufu (a staple food of west and central Africa made from starchy root vegetables). He also spends much of his time hanging out with the other African players in the team, although he does not live with any of them. He says that he is not sure how long he will stay in Thailand. "It is my philosophy to decide what I am going to do when I arrive somewhere, and I wanted to be here only for one season. I wanted to move after one season, but circumstances beyond my control kept me here and now we are playing Champions League, so that is something very special."
A continental challenge
Like Acheampong, Ohandza, who is the current top scorer in the Thai league, is keen to play professional football in Europe, but he is enjoying his stint in the Champions League. The 20-year-old, who is on loan to Buriram from Belgium outfit Club Brugge, said he was pleasantly surprised by the start to their campaign. "For us it was our first match in the group phase, and it was against a Japanese team, so we did not think that we would win. We were all extremely happy with the result though,” he said.
Ohandza, for whom the Champions League is not the first time that he has competed at the highest level - having played for his country at the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Colombia last year - said that their winning start had given them hope for a successful campaign. "We can do well in the Champions League if we are strong at home, and we know that we are very strong at home. People love football in Thailand and even when we travel far to away games our fans follow us. They really inspire us, they love us, and we love them. And even at away games we have more spectators than our opponents," he said.
Having already seen off the challenge of Kashiwa Reysol, Ohandza and his team-mates are looking forward to facing Chinese club Guangzhou Evergrande tomorrow, as well as Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors from Korea Republic. Their rivals would be well advised not to underestimate the Thai-African connection and Buriram United.