Few in Asia, and perhaps just a limited number of Futsal players across the world, enjoy such a stellar status as Suphawut Thueanklang with Thailand.
At 26, he has firmly established his place as the Warring Elephants' all-time scoring great with 90 goals from 145 international appearances. Thueanklang's impressive tally includes three goals at the last FIFA Futsal World Cup in his homeland, where he excelled throughout as his side progressed to the second round of the last 16 for the first time as hosts. More recently, the dynamic goal-machine found the net fourteen times in February's AFC Futsal Championship as he finished as the tournament’s top marksman and Thailand sealed their fifth consecutive global appearance at Colombia 2016.
After his outstanding performances and record, it comes as no surprise that the Thailand and Chonburi Blue Wave striker has set his sights on breaking new ground on the international stage. "My goal for this Futsal World Cup is to make it to the last eight," Thueanklang, training with Santiago Futsal in Spain, told FIFA.com. "During the last edition (at Thailand 2012), I had set my goal which was to reach the Round of 16 and we made it. So it is possible for us to realise our wish this time around."
Natural futsal genius
A number of footballing icons started off playing futsal before switching to the eleven-a-side game. Lionel Messi, Pele, Cristiano Ronaldo, Xavi and Ronaldo all learned the trade in the sports hall during their early years. Unlike these legends, Thueanklang went the other way around.
"I played football first," he recalled. "I didn't start playing futsal until I was thirteen. Thereafter, futsal became my main sport because I feel it suits me better. I have the skills eligible for the game. To be honest, I have better understanding and more knowledge of futsal than football. Of course this is down to training and learning."
As expected, it didn't take him too long to impress the local giants through his talents. As a teenager, he was signed by Chonburi Blue Wave in 2007 and the potential he showcased was such that the club president, Adisak Benjasiriwan, arranged a two-week training with Santiago Futsal. It was during the short overseas training spell that Thueanklang learned what has taken him head and shoulders above his Asian peers.
"Mr Adisak took me there (Santiago Futsal) for a short time and this proved important for me,” he said. “In the period of two weeks that followed, I learned a great deal about futsal and that is what has made me what I am today."
It proved to be a launching pad for Thueanklang, who would open up a new chapter of his own. He has since been unstoppable on the local scene, notching up 143 goals across 229 matches as Chonburi won the Thai Futsal League four times as well as lifting the FA Cup trophy twice.
Even more significant is his goal-scoring form with the national team. He earned his first international cap before Thailand's appearance at the Futsal World Cup Brazil 2008. The then 18-year-old scored six times as Thailand retained the regional title in the 2008 AFF Futsal Championship. Despite missing that year's FIFA Futsal World Cup, he became the team's top striker four years later and steered Thailand to that milestone Round of 16 finish. Thueanklang stood out in the recent AFC Futsal Championship and notably completed a brace in the 6-1 rout of Australia in the quarter-finals which sealed their progression to Colombia 2016, before netting four times as they thrashed Vietnam 8-0 in the third-place playoff.
Cuba, Egypt and Russia are the hurdles that Thailand must overcome if they are to progress and despite the difficult assignments facing them, Thueanklang voiced confidence of getting good results.
“In this squad, all the players have good skills and plenty of experience,” he said. “This is a team in which the players have been playing together for several years, and we are united as a team. Perhaps lack of concentration is the main problem we need to straighten up. Because playing in the World Cup, we can't play as planned if we lose our focus. A second’s lapse of concentration would do us damage. But if we improve in this regard, we can spring a real surprise."