Chanathip Songkrasin has led the way for Thai football this year. The midfield maestro dazzled Asia in the 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifiers and in the 2017 AFC Champions League with Muangthong United. And a new adventure in Japan is the latest chapter in this rising star’s story.
It’s fair to say that with just three months of the year remaining Chanathip Songkrasin has already had a 2017 to remember.
The midfielder, who turned 24 on October 5, began the New Year eager to participate in his maiden AFC Champions League Group Stage and will conclude it having played in his first J. League season following a loan from club Muangthong United.
“This year has been a dream for me,” says Chanathip, whose diminutive stature is dwarfed by the leather couch he is engulfed by at the Kawasaki City-based hotel ahead of Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo’s match with Kawasaki Frontale.
“I always had a dream that one day I would be able to play in the J.League, and it is also the dream of many players, including myself, to get to play in the AFC Champions League against the top teams in Asia.
“So, I guess we can say that – sitting here today – I have achieved those dreams.”
Chanathip’s star had already begun to rise five years earlier in 2012 when he debuted in the Thai Premier League for BEC Tero Sasana. Such was his impact that by the 2013 season, Japanese clubs including Gamba Osaka and Shimizu S-Pulse were already courting the youngster.
Indeed, Chanathip had a 10-day trial with the Shimizu but nothing came of it.
“I don’t know what happened. I wasn’t given a chance to train with the first team; maybe I just need to improve more,” he says. “I wanted to sign with them but the offer didn’t come.”
Nevertheless, his 2013 concluded with a happy ending after he was named Thai Premier League Young Player of the Year.
Two more seasons honing his craft with BEC Tero Sasana occurred before a move to Thai giants Muangthong United and a first chance to enters Asia’s premium club tournament, the AFC Champions League.
Unfortunately for Chanathip and Muangthong, the Thai club faced Chinese heavyweights Shanghai SIPG at the final hurdle in the play-offs and the likes of Elkeson, Dario Conca and Wu Lei proved too difficult an obstacle in a 3-0 elimination.
“Last year the team was completely new,” recalls Chanathip.
“The coach was new; the players were new and the tactics were new. We weren’t yet able to adapt to the new tactics and didn’t play well in the early stages.
“We might not have performed as we wanted against Shanghai SIPG, but that was the just the beginning for this team.”
A year later and a year stronger, Muangthong returned to the continental club competition, this time qualifying directly for the 2017 Group Stage.
Drawn alongside Japanese champions Kashima Antlers, who were coming off a 2016 FIFA World Club runners-up finish to Real Madrid, 2012 winners Ulsan Hyundai and Australia’s Brisbane Roar, it looked a tough test for a side that had picked up just a single point in their only previous AFC Champions League outing in 2013.
“Ahead of the AFC Champions League, I was very excited. I believed it was a good opportunity to face Asia’s best,” says Chanathip.
“My first personal target was simply to improve myself to reach the next level as a player and my second one was to put on good performances. With Muangthong, we were aiming to reach at least the knockout stages.”
A prediction that proved to be correct as the Thai side picked up 11 points from their six Group E games to reach the Round of 16. A run of results that was based on impressive home form as Muangthong enjoyed a perfect record in front of their own fans.
A 2-1 win over Kashima Antlers was particularly memorable after striker Xisco scored an injury-time winner but the 3-0 victory over Brisbane Roar on Matchday Five was especially sweet for Chanathip after he scored a spectacular goal.
Collecting the ball midway through the Brisbane half, the midfielder showed superb acceleration to motor past one opponent before stepping inside a sliding challenge from another.
One on one with goalkeeper Tomislav Bilic, Chanathip shuffled and shimmied before rounding the custodian to tap into an empty net to the acclaim of the Muangthong fans.
“For this goal, I wasn’t so confident with my shooting at the time,” he admits.
“I thought to myself if I were to take the ball with me, I would have a better chance of scoring a goal.”
While the fans celebrated, up went Chanathip’s fingers on both hands to form a rectangle. Telling people to take a picture of the moment? Not quite.
“Actually, the idea for this celebration came from my comic book ‘Fantasista’, it’s just a reference to that,” explains Chanathip.
“I am actually crazy about comics and it’s not every day I can do a celebration like this, as I don’t score that many goals!”
Fantasista is a sports manga series by Michiteru Kusaba whose protagonist, a countryside boy called Teppei Sakamoto, aims to become a successful football player in Japan and compete in the World Cup. It is a comic that also includes Samurai Blue icon Keisuke Honda amongst its fans.
And so for Chanathip, who was born in the Thai country district of Sam Phran, his belated move to Japan this summer and club Consadole Sapporo could have been seen as life imitating art, or at least a comic book fan following a strand of his favourite character’s journey.
“I had been playing in Thailand for quite a while by this point and I had already achieved what I’d set out to do there, having already won the Thai Premier League (in 2016),” he says.
“I wanted to show the whole of Asia that Thai players can play in the very best Asian leagues. There were other teams interested but Consadole made it clear they were the most serious in bringing me over.
“I also liked that they had the initials ‘CS’ [Consadole Sapporo] the same as my name!”
Since his summer move, Chanathip has impressed in the Consadole shirt although the team’s results have been mixed so far with the club hovering just above the relegation places.
And the experience of a new challenge and a new footballing adventure – both on and off the field – has been one that the Thai has fully embraced.
“Of course, the level of competition here is much tougher than Thailand,” he says. “As well as adapting to the new team and establishing my style of play here. But I’m very happy getting a chance to play.
“I didn’t find adapting to Japan that difficult, maybe because both Thailand and Japan are not far apart. Initially, I thought it would be tough as I’ve never play abroad, so I was afraid of people looking down on me and not accepting me as a player.
“However, since I have settled down the coaches, staff and teammates have all treated me like a family member which helped me greatly. I really enjoy living in Sapporo. It is such a peaceful town with fresh air and friendly people.
“In my spare time after training, I have my camera snapping photos, reading my comic books and watching movies – these things make me happy. Apart from that I spend my time having coffee in cafes and learning Japanese.”
For Chanathip, the time in Japan is important not just for his own sake but also as a representative of his nation. A positive impression left upon the J.League and the fans by the young star could open the doorway to more of his countrymen getting a similar opportunity.
He is not the first Southeast Asian player to attempt this. Vietnam’s Le Cong Vinh, Indonesia’s Irfan Bachdim and Cambodia’s Chan Vathanaka are among the names who have endured mixed spells in Japan.
“Actually, I have no concern about those who have come before me,” insists Chanathip.
“I’m very happy getting the chance to play in the J.League and did not pay much attention to the history of other ASEAN players in the past. I’m here to achieve my dream, because I want to be here and to make the Thai people proud.
“Of course the main goal is to help the club realise their objectives – such as avoiding relegation – but another target here is to be successful so that other Thai players will have the chance to prove themselves here in the J.League, which will in turn improve our abilities,” he says.
“If I can show the fans and clubs here how well Thai players can do then hopefully that will pave the way for more footballers from Thailand to come over here.
“In a way, I’m here representing the Thai people as well as my country, in the same way as I do when playing for the national team.”
When it comes to the Thailand side, Chanathip has often stood out in the War Elephants’ FIFA World Cup qualifying campaign and forced many previously uninformed football pundits to sit up and take notice of the silky skills of the petite playmaker.
Just two points from their 10 games in Group B by no means tells the full tale with Chanathip and his compatriots enduring a large helping of misfortune in several games, and only losing by a single goal in several of the encounters with Asia’s best sides.
“It’s been a long time since the Thailand team has played in the final stage of the World Cup qualifiers and it’s not easy for us but in all the matches we had a chance to win – which is a positive sign,” says Chanathip, a two-time AFF Championship winner (2014, 2016) with the national team.
“Of course, the results haven’t been great, but it’s been a good experience for the team to take the next step and play against the best sides in Asia.
“I have had the opportunity to play against some of the best players I’ve ever faced in my career so far including stars like Takuma Asano, Omar Abdulrahman and Shinji Kagawa.”
Although he won’t be appearing at the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia, Chanathip still hopes to bring the dreams of his favourite footballing cartoon to reality. But it is another of the game’s superheroes he is most commonly associated with in his homeland, Argentina’s Lionel Messi, given the nickname “Messi Jay”.
“There are many players I try to look up to: Maradona, Zidane, Berbatov, former Brazil strikers Ronaldo and Ronaldinho,” he adds.
“And of course, I am proud that people call me ‘Messi’, but obviously I’m not Messi.
“I am not anyone else. Chanathip is Chanathip. I’m a representative of my country and I play to make the Thai people proud.”