Bangkok: Thailand have always been the dominant side in Southeast Asia, with the Changsuek Warriors having won the AFF Cup and SEA Games titles on numerous occasions.
They have been the perennial regional force at the age group level too but Asia has been more difficult to conquer, with the Continent having its fair share of high achieving nations.
Legend Sutee Suksomkit, however, believes that Thailand are ready to take their place among Asia’s elite and he shares his excitement with the-AFC.com.
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“I think the squad we have right now is better than the one we had in 2004,” said former striker Sutee.
The 2004 squad he was referring to played in the AFC Asian Cup that year, one of three editions of the continental showpiece that ‘The Bird’ Sutee featured in.
“I played in three editions of the AFC Asian Cup and my dream was to see Thailand in the knockout round. Although it didn’t happen during my playing time, it happened last year. It’s a positive sign for Thailand,” said Sutee, now 42 years old.
Another reason for his optimism is Thailand head coach Akira Nishino, with the Japanese tactician well known for his ability to get his teams to deliver.
“Under Akira Nishino’s coaching, I think Thailand will change into a better direction, especially in matters of player discipline and tactics.
“However, I think he needs some time to understand the style of each footballer. I believe Nishino will soon understand Thai football more clearly.”
Sutee also welcomed the emergence of Vietnam as a regional force, with Park Hang-seo’s senior and U23 teams having displaced Thailand as the most recent AFF Cup and SEA Games champions.
“Because of their coach Park Hang-seo, I think they have overcome their fears. They are not afraid to play, they are highly motivated and they have been doing very well so far,” said the striker who scored 17 goals in 64 appearances for the national team.
Of his 17 goals, the one that has stood the test of time was his effort against eventual champions Japan in the 2004 AFC Asian Cup, the only time Thailand found the back of the net in three group stage matches.
Played at the Chongqing Olympic Sport Center, Sutee rifled a left-footed effort past the helpless Japanese goalkeeper and it would prove to be a career changing moment.
“That goal changed my playing career for the good. Football fans in Asia started to know about me and Thailand. I was very happy. I was already playing abroad at that time, in Singapore, but after the goal against Japan, I had more opportunities.”
More opportunities did arrive in the form of English Premier League side Everton, who offered Sutee a trial, and English giants Chelsea, who were unable to sign the Thai star due to work permit issues.
Already plying his trade in Singapore between 2001 and 2009 with Tanjong Pagar, Home United and Tampines Rovers, Sutee continued to excel in the Singaporean topflight and attracted the attention of Australia’s Melbourne Victory.
“Moving to Australia was a dream come true. My dreams as a footballer were two things, to play for the Thailand national team and play professional football abroad.”
His Australian adventure, however, lasted only three months and he rejoined Bangkok Glass in December 2009.
“When Melbourne Victory contacted me, I decided to move there and live my life and play football in Australia for about three months. But at the time I was 30 years old already. And to battle with Australian players, who were younger and bigger, was quite difficult for me.
“However, I was very grateful for this experience as it opened a whole new football world to me,” recalled Sutee.
He went on to have spells with Suphanburi FC, TTM Customs and Krabi FC before deciding in 2015 that it was time to hang up his boots.
Sutee's involvement with football, however, did not end with the Thai legend now into grassroots coaching as a director of PTT Academy, handling players in the 13-15 age group.
“I think the most important thing is the mental state of the players. There is also a matter of teamwork and trust; you need to have faith in your team, and in yourself.
“You can see that many players often have problems during stressful situations in a game. They need to handle it better. And it is our job as a coach to lead them to the right path.”
With their former favourite son charting the course for aspiring players, the future is indeed bright for Thailand.
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