Senamuang spurs Thailand’s rise
Thailand continued their impressive progress up the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking at the start of 2016, gaining 12 positions in January's edition to move up to 121st. In doing so, the Warring Elephants emerged as the biggest movers during a quiet period for international football in general, and indeed for the Thais themselves.
Their current position may still be some way off the team’s best-ever ranking of 43, which was reached in September of 1998. However, it served to underline the eye-catching progress that has taken place since they slumped to the all-time low of 165 in October 2014. Under coach Kiatisuk Senamuang, the Thais have been on a relentless upwards march, rising 44 places in the space of 16 months amid much-improved results.
Success and silverware Their recovery began with Senamuang's appointment ahead of the 2014 AFF Suzuki Cup, a Southeast Asian showpiece which kicked off in November of that year. Thailand entered the campaign in the aftermath of plummeting to that all-time ranking low, and awaiting them in the tournament curtain-raiser were defending champions and arch-rivals Singapore. Even their own supporters cast doubts over their chances and yet the Thais, inspired by their new boss, opened brightly by defeating the holders 2-1 before edging a resilient Malaysia 3-2.
The reward for these morale-boosting results was an immediate 21-place rise in the world ranking – a sign that the team’s downward spiral was finally at an end. Thailand would go on to claim the trophy too as Senamuang, a former Thai international who helped his country to three regional titles during his illustrious playing career, became the first man to win the tournament both as a player and coach.
The title-winning campaign sparked a rejuvenation of Thailand. A series of fresh talents, whom Senamuang had nurtured when he took the U-23 side to the last four in the 2014 Asian Games, broke into the senior side to supplement the experience of players such as star striker Teerasil Dangda and captain Theerathon Bunmathan. As this mix of old and new began to gel, Thailand emerged as a force to be reckoned with in Asia's ongoing 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ qualifiers.
Senamuang's outfits got off to a good start by gaining a hard-fought 1-0 victory against Vietnam SR before seeing off Chinese Taipei 2-0, with Dangda scoring a brace. They then pulled off one of the campaign's biggest surprises by coming from two goals down to claim a memorable 2-2 draw against favourites Iraq. Inspired by this spirited comeback, they cruised to a 3-0 win in the return fixture against the Vietnamese and maintained their unbeaten record with a comfortable 4-2 win over Chinese Taipei 4-2. Consequently, Thailand gained 11 ranking places to reach 133rd last month ahead of this latest double-digit move.
Qualifying showdown The Thais have surprised everyone, even their own supporters, by the extent of their recent successes. Certainly, when Senamuang’s side began their group campaign last March, few would have expected them to make any waves in a section that Iraq were expected to dominate. Nine months later, though, it is the Thais that who have emerged as unlikely front-runners, with a five-point cushion over Iraq, albeit having played a game more.
Unsurprisingly, hopes are now soaring that the team can reach the continent's final qualifying round for the first time since 2001. A point against Iraq in the return fixture this March will be enough to guarantee them a place in the last 12, and even the usually-understated Senamuang is bullish about their chances.
"The last game against Iraq won't be easy," he said. "But we have more than 90 per cent chance of progressing to the next stage. We want to keep this momentum going."