War Elephants roar again
© AFP

For many, Thailand's footballing feats may not be as renowned as their scenery coastline landscapes. However, the south-east Asians bravely won bronze at the 1972 AFC Asian Cup and represented Asia at two Olympic Games in Melbourne 1956 and Mexico 1968, achievements which had once established them among the continent's elite.

Although they have since stayed away from Asian limelight, the War Elephants remain among the region's most successful teams, having won the AFF Suzuki Cup three times. The 2010 campaign saw them crash out in the group phase, but under German Winfried Schafer, Thailand entered this year’s ninth edition determined to put aside that disappointment. 

And they lived up to the expectations as co-hosts, cruising all the way through to their sixth final only to be edged out by Singapore 3-2 over two legs. Despite this, they were rewarded for their smooth run en-route to the final with a 16-place climb up the FIFA/Coca Cola World Ranking to 136. 

Urgent call

The current ranking is far from their highest standing of 43 in the global pecking order in September 1998. However, the double-digit progress saw them become Asia's best movers this month and restore their place among the continent's top 20. 

We can build a good national team from here. We have enough talent in Thailand and I want to press ahead with our development.
Thailand coach Schafer

 

Even more notable was the fact that the achievement came in the wake of their failed qualifying campaign for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™. The Thais did impress in the early stages of continental qualifying which included routing Oman 3-0 and holding Saudi Arabia to a goalless draw. However, they fell short when it mattered most, losing their last three games to narrowly miss a place in the final round. 


The results pushed Thailand to 139 in March, and a dearth of international fixtures over the next months saw them slip to an all-time low of 152 in November. The AFF Suzuki Cup, however, provided Schafer's side with a chance to turn the downward spiral on its head. 

Prolific form
Keen to restore some lost credibility, Thailand got off to an expected start with a 2-1 defeat of hopefuls Philippines, before firing four unanswered goals past Myanmar with striking-ace Teerasil Dangda completing a hat-trick. A 3-1 defeat of 2008 winners Vietnam booked their progression as group winners.

They had their first test in the semi-final meeting against defending champions Malaysia, with Dangda striking late to cancel out Norshahrul Idlan Talaha's opener as they negotiated a 1-1 draw at Kuala Lumpur. But it was a different story in the return leg in Bangkok, where they ran out 2-0 victors to set up the final showdown with Singapore. 

Thailand’s hopes of a record fourth triumph, however, were dealt a severe blow after losing the opening game 3-1 in Singapore. They did win last Saturday's return match 1-0, but it was the Lions who narrowly sealed the title on aggregate.

Dangda, though, grabbed the tournament's top-scorer award with five goals, while Kirati Keawsombut was on target three times including a brace against Vietnam. Panupong Wongsa excelled in his captaincy role and the team’s brilliant display provided Schafer with reason for optimism. 

“The Suzuki Cup was positive for Thailand,” said the former Cameroon manager. “We can build a good national team from here. We have enough talent in Thailand and I want to press ahead with our development. We have to look to the future and I am confident Thailand can go up to a different level. We cannot stop here.”