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“It makes me feel so proud” – The night Kanjana took Thailand to the World Cup

Bangkok: May 21, 2014. A full stadium, a fiercely competitive regional rivalry and, at the time, the biggest match in the history of the Thailand women’s national team.

It was the sort of stage Kanjana Sung-Ngoen was built for.

The speedy forward played a key role in what was arguably the defining match in the history of the women’s game in Thailand, scoring both goals in a momentous 2-1 win over Vietnam to take the Chaba Kaew to the FIFA Women’s World Cup for the very first time.

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“Time flies fast, but I always remember how it felt to reach the World Cup,” Kanjana, now in her 12th year of senior international football, told from Thailand.

“It makes me feel so proud and grateful every time I think of it.”

Thailand came to the 2014 AFC Women’s Asian Cup in Vietnam not only dreaming of World Cup qualification but considering it their best ever chance.

Asian champions in a truncated field back in 1983, Thailand hadn’t advanced beyond the group stage since the follow-up tournament three years later as China PR, Japan and DPR Korea exerted their dominance over the rest of the continent.

The arrival of Australia to the Asian scene in 2006 made the field even stronger, but with the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup in Canada being expanded to 24 teams, Nuengrutai Srathongvian’s side needed only to finish in the top five in the continental Finals to make their dream a reality.

But Thailand were quickly awoken from their slumber.

They made a poor start to the tournament in Ho Chi Minh City, where an opening day 7-0 loss at the hands of a rampant China (pictured above) was followed by a 4-0 defeat to Korea Republic (below), before a Kanjana penalty kick helped them seal third place in the group with a 2-1 win against Myanmar in their third match.

“We had nothing to lose coming into the tournament, so we motivated ourselves with that belief and played without any pressure,” said Kanjana, who has retained her lightning speed despite approaching her mid 30s.

“We were in the stronger group and the rest of the teams in our group were better than us, but we gave it all we had and did our best throughout the competition.

"(The win against Myanmar) gave us hope, and gave us much more confidence to be among five teams to qualify for the World Cup.”

Thailand’s two heavy losses eliminated them from the race for the Women’s Asian Cup, but their narrow success against Myanmar took them through to a fifth-place play-off; one which, crucially, doubled as a direct qualifying play-off for Canada 2015.

They would face regular foes and ASEAN neighbours Vietnam in the match, taking an already strong rivalry to unprecedented new heights.

Some 18,000 fans creamed into Thong Nhat Stadium for the clash – nearly twice as many as the crowd figure for the tournament’s final four nights later – to see which Southeast Asian side would carve out a piece of history.

“We had nothing to lose,” repeats Kanjana. “We just did the best we could and played as it if it was the last game in our football career.”

In steamy conditions, and an unforgettable atmosphere, the sides remained locked 0-0 at half-time, but two goals within 20 minutes after the interval sealed Thailand’s place in the global Finals, and Kanjana’s place in the history books.

She drew first blood with a typical Kanjana goal – tricking her way past two defenders before poking the ball beyond Dang Thi Kieu Trinh in the 48th minute – but the second owed as much to good fortune as good planning.

Receiving the ball on the right flank, the diminutive forward sent in a speculative cross which caught the Vietnamese goalkeeper out, floating beyond the goal-line before Thi Kieu could push it clear and ensuring all the noise in the packed stadium was now being made by a handful of Thai players and staff.

“It was the biggest game of my career at the time” Kanjana declares.

“At that moment, I didn’t think that I would score because I was actually trying to cross the ball to my teammate, but I was so proud that I could score the goal to take us to the World Cup for the first time. It was great to bring joy to Thai fans.”

Vietnam pulled a goal back through substitute Nguyen Thi Tuyet Dung with four minutes remaining, but Kanjana’s brace was enough for Thailand to seal fifth place in the tournament, making them the first senior national team from the country to qualify for a football World Cup.

“Everyone in the team, the team manager, the FA Thailand staff and Thai fans proudly celebrated,” recalls Thailand’s play-off hero.

“We also couldn’t believe that we did it.”

That famous win in Ho Chi Minh City turned out to be the start of a remarkable new era for the Thailand women’s national team, who went on to claim a first World Cup win when they beat Côte d'Ivoire 3-2 in Canada the following year.

They would enjoy an even better AFC Women’s Asian Cup run four years later, reaching the semi-finals, and pushing world number six Australia to a penalty shootout in a tournament where Kanjana starred with four goals in five matches.

That result meant another World Cup appearance in France, and while the Chaba Kaew suffered a record 13-0 defeat against the world champion Americans in their opening match, Kanjana earned a moment of personal glory when she scored against Sweden, with the team’s emotion and resilience earning them admirers the world over.

When asked which moment stands out between her Vietnam brace and her strike against the Swedes, Kanjana says it’s an impossible decision.

"Both moments were memorable and remarkable because it put us in the spotlight and made the world recognise the Thailand women’s national team,” she said.

“We gained a lot of experience, and we were able to perform beyond expectations because we worked hard and stayed united.”

Turning 34 this September and used largely in cameo roles during Thailand’s recent attempt to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics, Kanjana remains unsure she will feature in another major tournament, with her next opportunity coming at the 2022 AFC Women’s Asian Cup.

“At the moment I am working and I also workout at home every other day during this COVID-19 situation,” she says. “I will turn 34 this year, so if my fitness condition allows, maybe I will see you in the next two years.”

Whatever the future holds, Kanjana’s 2014 heroics have guaranteed the 164-centimetre forward will always be a giant of the Chaba Kaew.

Photos: AFP, AFC, FA Thailand

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