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AFC Champions League - MVP Memories: Therdsak Chaiman

Bangkok: With the 2020 AFC Champions League (EAST) set to resume in the coming weeks, begins a series where some of the players who have lit up the competition since its inaugural edition in 2002-03 recall their memorable campaigns, starting with Thailand's Therdsak Chaiman.

Mention Thai football these days and the names of Chanathip Songkrasin and Theerathon Bunmathan are likely to crop up. The pair have excelled in Japan with Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo and Yokohama F. Marinos respectively, with Theerathon being crowned a J1 League champion in 2019.

They are part of a generation of players who have raised the bar for club football in the Southeast Asia country, with their performances in the 2017 AFC Champions League helping Muangthong United claim some notable scalps en route to the Round of 16.

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Prior to that campaign, though, you had to go back to 2013 for the last time a Thai side progressed to the knockout rounds, when Buriram United made it to the quarter-finals. In the nine years previously, there had been no Thai presence beyond the group stage.

Indeed, it was the first-ever edition of the AFC Champions League, in 2002-03, where a Thai team produced their best performance as BEC Tero Sasana – now known as Police Tero FC – stunned their more illustrious opponents to make it to the final.

The then Thai champions had the advantage of the centralised group stage being played on home soil, with Japan’s Kashima Antlers, Daejeon Citizen of Korea Republic and China’s Shanghai Shenhua the visitors to Bangkok.

Among their ranks was Therdsak Chaiman, who was widely regarded as one of the best Southeast Asian players of his generation, having helped his club win two Thai Premier League titles and his nation twice lift the AFF (ASEAN Football Federation) Cup trophy since the turn of the millennium.

Not too dissimilar to Chanathip, both in style of play and stature, the attacking midfielder produced some standout performances as Asian club football moved into an exciting new era.

“It was the first year of the AFC Champions League and the games were in Bangkok, but only one team could go to the semi-final,” recalled Therdsak.

“The Thai league was not professional at the time and the players still had to work. But we played at home so we had the advantage of the home crowd.”

Unlike in today’s competition when the top two advance from the group stage, there was little margin for error with only the group winners progressing.

The hosts almost gave themselves a mountain to climb as, with the clock ticking down in their opening game against Kashima, they were on course for defeat until a last-minute equaliser salvaged a 2-2 draw.

Two days later, BEC Tero returned to Supachalasai Stadium to face Daejeon and ran out 2-0 winners, with Therdsak grabbing the second as they moved to the top of the standings.

Going into the final group match against Shanghai, the Thai side knew a win would guarantee them a spot in the semi-finals and they opened the scoring in the first half, but the game was left on a knife edge after Shanghai levelled.

Then, with five minutes to play, Therdsak picked up the ball on the right side, cut inside two players and drilled home a fizzing left-foot strike from 20 yards to seal victory and a place in the last four.

“The highlight for me was when we played against Shanghai Shenhua because we had to beat them, we could not draw,” said the Suphanburi native.

“We were drawing 1-1 until about 86 minutes. Then I scored and we won 2-1. If we drew, maybe Kashima or Daejeon would have qualified, so I was very happy.”

Uzbekistan’s Pakhtakor awaited in the semi-finals and, with BEC Tero to travel away in the second leg, a strong performance in Bangkok was needed. With the hosts 2-1 up in the final 10 minutes, Therdsak again proved the hero as his free-kick ensured they headed to Central Asia with the breathing space of a two-goal lead.

And that goal proved crucial after Server Djeparov’s late strike in Tashkent secured a 1-0 win for Pakhtakor that was ultimately insufficient for them to progress.

“We didn’t expect we would come top of the group, but that gave us more confidence,” admitted the now 47-year-old. “In the semi-final we played against Pakhtakor, the best team in Uzbekistan with a lot of international players.

“I scored the third goal, a free-kick, and we beat them 3-1. It wasn’t easy in Tashkent, it was very cold and they attacked a lot. We defended well and made the final.”

The final showdown pitted BEC Tero against Al Ain of the United Arab Emirates, but a 2-0 away defeat in the first leg left them with it all to do at Rajamangala Stadium. An hour in and with the game still goalless, Therdsak converted a penalty to offer real hope to those inside the packed national stadium.

The hosts almost got the second but had a goal ruled out and, despite a gallant effort, had to settle for the runners-up medal. Therdsak had netted four goals in the competition and was also named the Most Valuable Player as he showcased his talent to the entire continent.

“After I scored we had a chance and we became more confident as a team,” he added. “We couldn’t get the second goal but I was still happy because, even if we were not champions, we beat them in Thailand. It was not easy to get to the final."

“I never expected to be named MVP, so I was so shocked when the officials came to me and said: ‘Go to get the MVP award’. When I retired, I still had this award so it makes me very happy.”

Fast forward to present day and, after positive showings from Muangthong and Buriram in recent years, it is Chiangrai United competing in the 2020 AFC Champions League after they pipped Buriram to the post to win their first title in 2019.

Much has changed since a semi-professional BEC Tero, inspired by the competition's first-ever MVP, reached the showpiece event but with Thai club football seemingly moving in the right direction, the northern side will also be aiming to upset their more illustrious opponents.

*This article was adapted from the interview originally published in AFC Quarterly Issue 26, April 2019.

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