Bangkok: When Thailand lined up against United Arab Emirates at home in their third Asian Qualifiers outing in qualifying for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 and AFC Asian Cup China 2023 on October 15, few gave Akira Nishino's hosts side any hopes of winning.
After all, the visitors boasted a dominant record having won four and drawn one in the two sides' past six World Cup qualifying meetings.
The game, however, ended in a surprise 2-1 scoreline in Thailand's favour. Rising to the occasion was an unsung hero, 20-year-old Ekanit Panya who played in only his third international appearance.
The young attacker set up Teerasil Dangda for the opener before latching on to Nitipong Selanon's pass to strike the match-winner as the War Elephants stunned the AFC Asian Cup UAE 2019 semi-finalists.
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"I was very pleased to have offered my contribution in our victory," the Chiangrai United midfielder told FIFA.com. "Particularly, I scored my first international goal which sealed the crucial three points.
"When the cross came from Nitipong, the first thoughts flashing through my mind were that I wouldn't be able to deliver. But I put the ball through the net just like how we practised in training.
"When I saw the ball roll into the back of the net, it really meant the entire world to me," he continued. "Before this game we hadn't won against UAE for 15 years so we had all the motivation to end the long wait. I was so happy."
Born on 21 October 1999 in Chiang Rai, Panya started playing football as a little child encouraged by his father. As a 14-year-old he joined the Chiangrai United Academy where he cut his teeth. He made such progress that the next year he was promoted and played in the Thai league within a year.
The teenager exploded on to the local scene, scoring in a match against Thai giants Muangthong United in October 2015 - at the age of just 15 years, 11 months and 28 days, making him the-then youngest-ever goalscorer in the Thai league. He continued his development with the club and won his first league title with Chiang Rai this year.
Panya's form didn't go unnoticed as coach Nishino gave him the first national team call-up ahead of the Asian Qualifiers opener against Vietnam.
The youngster didn't let the chance slip away, improving game after game and repaying the coach's faith through his fine displays against UAE.
"Coach Nishino asked me to be brave, aggressive as well as smart on the pitch,” he said. “This gave me confidence. Though, there are still many areas where I can improve."
Standing at 170 cm – the same height as Andres Iniesta, Panya revealed he has drawn inspiration from the Spanish legend down the years.
"Iniesta is my idol, because I love his style of play and we play in the same position [attacking midfielder]. Every day I train very hard and after the session I watch clips of Iniesta and other players to learn their bits of game so I can adapt that to my play."
In a sense, the ongoing Asian Qualifiers campaign proved a launch-pad for Panya as he explained.
"The World Cup qualifying is so important for me," he said. "Especially, it was in this campaign that I received my first national team call-up. I have had the chances of expressing myself on the pitch and helping my country. It is such an honour as well as valued experience."
Awaiting Thailand next is a formidable task - nemesis Malaysia at the Bukit Jalil National Stadium in Kuala Lumpur.
"We know Bukit Jalil is a very difficult venue. Malaysia have strong home support there and they will capitalise on the atmosphere. We need to focus our concentration on the match, sticking to the game plan while being pragmatic. We will do our utmost to return home with three points.
"I think we have a good chance of qualifying to the next round but of course, we will have many difficult games ahead of us. At this level, there is no room for error.”
Sources: FIFA.com, AFP, AFC
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