Thailand's Chanathip Songkrasin (center) celebrates after scoring a goal against Malaysia in the AFF Suzuki Cup final in 2014. Photo: AFP / Manan Vatsyayana
Thailand's Chanathip Songkrasin (center) celebrates after scoring a goal against Malaysia in the AFF Suzuki Cup final in 2014. Photo: AFP / Manan Vatsyayana

Having established themselves as the Asean region’s best football team, Thailand’s footballers are attempting to become a force on the wider Asian stage.

The Thai national team was Southeast Asia’s only representative in the final round of Asian qualifiers (12 teams, whittled down from 46) for this year’s World Cup, and has also won the last two editions of the AFF Suzuki Cup, Asean football’s biennial international tournament.

And as the national team has been making strides, so too have Thailand’s clubs. Thai Premier League teams have been performing well in the Asian Champions League, the continents top-level club competition. Muangthong United got to the knockout stage in 2017, following in the footsteps of domestic rivals Buriram United.

Bridging the gap that exists between region (and games against the likes of Malaysia, Singapore and Myanmar) and continent (where teams must compete against the likes of Japan, South Korea and Iran) is far from easy. It takes time, vision and patience.

Another generally accepted avenue of development is sending talent to bigger and better leagues. South Korean and Japanese players have been heading to England and Germany for some years. Many Thai players have dreams of doing the same but at the moment Europe’s top leagues are too much of a step up from Thai football. Japan is attainable, though.

In terms of profile, Japan’s J.League has been overtaken as Asia’s number one in recent years by the big-spending Chinese Super League. In terms of the technical level of the football played, however, it is still the best. It represents a whole new level for Thai players in terms of standards on the pitch, training and coaching, and all-round professionalism.

The J.League may not be as strong as the best in Europe but it is certainly demanding. Stars of Southeast Asian football – including famous figures such as Le Cong Vinh of Vietnam and Indonesia’s Irfan Bachdim – have struggled to make an impact in recent years.

In 2017, however, things took a new turn when Thailand’s biggest star, Chanathip Songkrasin, left Muangthong to join Consadole Sapporo in the north of Japan. The skilful playmaker is exciting to watch and became a valued member of the J.League team’s squad. He has acquired many new fans in Sapporo and those following back home have been pleased with his progress too.

“Chanathip is a very good player and becomes better by playing in Japan,” Somyot Poompanmoung, president of the Football Association of Thailand, told Asia Times. “It is good for him and Thai football. If we want to keep developing then we need to give our players more international experience in strong leagues. Chanathip can be an example to others.”

He is certainly that. “Messi Jay,” as he is nicknamed due to a playing style not dissimilar to that of Argentine superstar Lionel Messi, has been so good that he has inspired an exodus from Bangkok.

Teerasil Dangda, the most successful striker in the whole of Southeast Asia, joined Sanfrecce Hiroshima in December. Then full-back Theerathon Bunmathan signed for Vissel Kobe. Other stars such as Tristan Do and Sarach Yooyen have also been linked with moves east.

The J.League is not only interested in Thai and other Southeast Asian players for their talent on the pitch, however. They have a certain value off it, too. The J.League sees the region as a market for its product as it seeks to increase its audience, sponsors and profile. It wants to become the undisputed number one Asian league in all areas.

Thailand’s star midfielder Chanathip Songkrasin (right) is challenged by Myanmar’s Naing Kaung Sat in a match in Singapore on June 15, 2015. Photo: AFP / Roslan Rahman

To that end, deals have been signed with numerous Southeast Asian football federations, broadcasting rights have been sold, coaches and knowledge exported. Having famous Southeast Asian players in the J.League is seen as the best way to attract eyeballs from a market that is home to over 600 million people. Clubs in Japan are allowed to sign only four foreigners but can also sign one additional player from the Asean region.

Some will be waiting eagerly to see how the new boys perform. The new season, which is due to kick off in March, is important for Teerasil and Theerathon. If they regularly impress, then Thailand really will sit up and take notice – and more Southeast Asian footballers will see the J.League as a realistic destination. If it proves to be a stepping stone for players seeking a move to Europe, then so much the better for all of Thai football.