Kuala Lumpur: In the latest of the-AFC.com's 'My Asian Home' series, we speak with Thailand international Tristan Do about swapping France for Southeast Asia.
Born in Paris to a Thai father and French mother, Tristan Do attended the world-renowned INF Clairefontaine academy in France as a teenager alongside the likes of Real Madrid goalkeeper Alphonse Areola and Borussia Dortmund midfielder Raphael Guerreiro.
From there he signed his first professional contract with RS Strasbourg before spells with Lorient and Gazelec Ajjacio. But in 2014, an unexpected call from Thailand led to his first trip to Southeast Asia and, six years on, Bangkok has become home.
Speaking exclusively to the-AFC.com, Do reflects on his life-changing decision, becoming a key member of the Thai national side and a renowned figure among adoring fans, as well as a business venture in one of Bangkok's trendiest neighbourhoods.
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To the fatherland
I don't come from a rich family. There were five of us, meaning travelling back to Thailand would have been expensive, so I had actually never been before I came to play football.
My father has many brothers and sisters in France and they all spoke Thai together, but the younger generation, the cousins, spoke no Thai – only French.
But there is the Thai family connection and when I was in the final year of my contract with Ajaccio, in the transfer window, I was contacted by BEC Tero Sasana. If I’m honest, I had never heard of them and didn’t know much about the Thai league, so I started to do some research.
Their offer was straightforward: ‘Come to Thailand, look at the team, check out the facilities and if you like it we’ll give you a contract. If you’re happy with our offer, then sign. If not, we’ll buy you a ticket back to France.’
So there was not much risk involved. It was the December break and I felt it was also a chance to go and see my father’s homeland, where I come from.
Coming from Europe, you hear a lot of things about Thailand, especially the beaches and the tropical life, but arriving in Bangkok I saw how big it was and I was so impressed by the lifestyle. And I recall seeing the massive malls and huge buildings, which we don’t have in France.
The language was not easy. At that time, I didn’t speak English very well and I didn’t have any Thai. I also remember the weather was horrible – so humid. In France it’s hot, but we don’t have the humidity.
The first training session I did, I felt like I was playing against Real Madrid players because I could not keep up with them, I couldn’t run fast, I could hardly breathe. In my first season, I only played a little towards the end because all my documents needed to be prepared, but we won the Thai League Cup and I played in the final.
My first full season was actually a year later (2015) and we had a lot of young Thai internationals such as Chanathip, Tanaboon, Peeraphat, Adisorn, Adisak … basically the whole national team. We didn’t have a great season but we grew together.
We also didn’t really have foreigners at the time, but that was good as I bonded with these players and the next thing I know, I’m spending every day with Thai people.
The question of representing Thailand obviously came up among my family. My dad always told me stories of when he was living in Bangkok as a child, his dad would take him to watch the national team at Supachalasai Stadium.
I didn’t know anything about it back then, but when I played for Thailand for the first time, it was a very, very proud moment for my family. By February 2015, I had already played for the Thai U-23 side. Then we played the SEA Games in Singapore and won it.
But my debut for the senior national team was against Iraq (September 2015) at a full Rajamangala Stadium, so that was amazing. I’d never seen an atmosphere like it before. When I used to watch the French national team in big games, it always felt like a club game, but here it was like the whole country was behind us and I remember it so clearly.
I was lucky because when I arrived in Thailand I took some Thai classes so I could understand the basics. My teacher told me that the first thing I needed to do was learn the national anthem, so I would be able to sing it if I ever played for the national team.
When we arrived at Rajamangala the bus made its way through the crowd and everyone was wearing the team jersey. This is Thailand: they love their country and everyone supports you.
It’s really cool to be part of something like that and you realise that playing for your country is bigger than anything you can experience with a club.
I didn’t play at the AFF (ASEAN Football Federation) Cup in 2014 as I had just arrived so when I could play in 2016 it was very special. There are such big rivalries between the countries and so much history.
I remember in Indonesia we couldn’t even hear each other, the noise was crazy. It’s hard to understand how much love people have for this tournament, and it’s really something to experience.
The fan culture is something that’s really changed for me since coming to Thailand because you’re a public person. In France, people might know you, but they don’t care unless you’re Neymar, Mbappe or Ibrahimovic. I was just a normal player for a normal team.
Now everywhere I go, people stop me to take pictures and that’s something I had to adapt to. But it doesn’t take much of your time and it’s good to give back to the people who support you. Before, I was the person being crazy when I saw a player, so I totally understand the fans.
I have a tattoo in Thai that says ‘Mai Khey Leum' (never forget), which I actually got before I moved here. I did it because, even though I had never visited, Thailand was a part of me. For me it’s always important to remember where you come from, the people that mean something to you and your values. I know I’m very lucky to be living this life.
Success at club level
Muangthong is the team where I’ve spent the biggest part of my career so far and a group of players who knew each other well all moved there.
I think nine of us played for the national team, it was an amazing group and I remember the incredible atmosphere at the stadium at the time. It was a very small stadium, like British ones with the fans close to the pitch, and it was always full as we were winning a lot of trophies.
We beat Kashima Antlers in the AFC Champions League and had a good run [to the last 16] in the competition. We achieved something really special, had a lot of success and made a strong connection with the fans, as well as among the players and coaches.
The team split up after that, but this is football and there comes a point when people have to follow their own paths and aim to achieve their career objectives. The club also made the choice to break the team up faster than some players would have liked, so it was hard but you have to understand that players only have one career.
Joining Bangkok United (in late 2018) was a natural decision because it was the end of a cycle for Muangthong. Bangkok told me of their ambitious project where they had already put a lot of things in place and were not scared of investing.
They really wanted me in the centre of that project and I was seduced by the idea of challenging myself here. I had opportunities to leave Thailand but, taking everything into consideration, I thought it was right to stay.
The team might not have the history of some, but we are a big club, an ambitious one that wants to win titles. It takes time to build something, but you have the confidence and belief.
Off the pitch
As I said, I’m not from a rich family and I know I’m lucky to be in football, living a good life. I see it as a great bonus that I can help set my loved ones up for a better future, so I’ve always been interested in investing to maximise this period of my career.
My family owns a Thai restaurant in France and I remember being there and helping out when growing up. Doing something similar appealed so when the chance of opening a [French] restaurant with my business partner came up, it was perfect. We’d been talking about it for a while and it was a long process to find the right place, the right concept.
In the beginning I spent a lot of time there, trying to help build the business and, as footballers, we have time. But now we have all the right people in place so it can pretty much run by itself and that was always the objective because I don’t want to take too much time away from my career.
What lies ahead
If you asked a young me whether I saw myself in Thailand in the mid- to long-term, I would have said: ‘100 percent no’. But here I am enjoying a life that I could never, ever have dreamt of, so it’s a complicated question.
Right now my life is here, but France is also part of me because that’s where I grew up and spent 20-22 years. So it depends on what opportunities I have after my career, but it's something I'm really looking into right now.
I’m not sure coaching is something I’d want to do, especially because of the lack of stability, and it would mean keeping the same lifestyle as a footballer, going from short contract to short contract and nothing being long term.
I feel when you start a family, stability is something you should give to your loved ones because they have to accept your life when you’re playing. But while I don’t see myself going into coaching, maybe the business side of football – like a sporting director – would appeal.
This is what I’m looking into, but nothing is closed and nothing is decided.
Photos: Bangkok United, Muangthong United
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