Thailand was a surprise competitor at last year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup™ in Canada, with the South-east Asian nation making their bow on the world stage. They suffered hefty defeats against Germany and Norway, but managed a stirring 3-2 comeback win over Côte d’Ivoire, winning many hearts in the process.
Now, having made that leap into the global spotlight, Thailand’s aim is to continue building momentum. They will finally have an opportunity to test themselves again in international competition when the AFF Women’s Championship commences on Tuesday in Mandalay, Myanmar.
Thailand enter the ten-day, eight-nation event as champions, but they face a stiff challenge from several fellow South-east Asian nations. The Thais have been grouped with Vietnam, Singapore and the fast-rising Philippines. The other side of the draw includes Timor-Leste, Malaysia, and an Australia U-20 side who are aged 19 or under, with the Young Matildas focussed on the 2018 FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup. Completing the group are the hosts, now coached by former long-serving Netherlands mentor Roger Reijners.
The tournament will be the first competitive matches for Thailand since Canada 2015. Spencer Prior assumed the national team reins two months ago, and the veteran of over 500 league matches in England, has immediately set his focus on making up for lost time. More recently, Prior has coached Australia’s U-20 side and was the Matildas’ assistant coach at the 2011 Women’s World Cup. Now he is based in the ‘Land of Smiles’ and boasts a long-term vision for growing the game there, though the first challenge is the regional championship.
“It will be tough, though I’m optimistic,” Prior told FIFA.com, about the upcoming tournament. “Primarily, I want to focus on the process of how we play which will allow us to win games, as opposed to how we are going to win the tournament. We can’t only look at the end goal.
“And managing expectations internally and externally is important too. Being ranked No1 in the Asean region brings a level of expectation, but that shouldn’t be on the players, that is for me to manage.
“I think the girls will be able to use the experience they gained at the World Cup to be able to deal with tournament football better. They know now the challenge, and level they need when we come up to the next World Cup qualifiers. Asia is a super tough confederation to qualify from, but the players have a lot more belief now. That experience [Canada 2015] certainly whet their appetite to qualify again.”
Rousing a sleeping giant
There are numerous indicators which suggest that South-east Asia - a region with an enormous population - could be a significant force in the game. There were half a million views on *Facebook *for Thailand’s recent friendly against Myanmar, while their play-off for Canada 2015 was witnessed by a passionate five-figure crowd in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. “They were popular after the success of qualifying for the World Cup, and I would hope that has seeped down to popularity at grassroots level,” said Prior.
But with no women’s national league in Thailand in recent years, most players currently feature for University clubs. Prior says the latent potential in Thailand is enormous. “There is a great platform here to set up a league again, and that is critical,” he said. “[Men’s] Thai Premier League clubs are well resourced. It would be great if the clubs took a holistic approach to football and developed a female program. The model is being worked on now. It just needs to be sustainable and certain standards maintained.
“A longer term strategy is building the game at grassroots, and having full-time programs for talented players. The Thai players are technically good, with good football brains, they just need that exposure and opportunity.”