These Asian underdogs have teeth

Belonging to one of the wealthiest families of Thailand, a unique patron is playing a small part in the rise of women’s football in Thailand.

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Nualphan Lamsam, known affectionately as “Madame Pang”, is a fifth- generation descendant of one of the wealthiest families in Thailand. The 53-year-old is president of her family-owned Muang Thai Insurance company, oversees her side business which imports and distributes leading luxury fashion labels in her country, and is a socialite, seen in events like a charity polo match in England posing with Prince Harry.  She’s someone you could place on the set of Crazy Rich Asians.

It’s odd to see someone with that kind of background work actively in sports, but her interest and passion now see her running Port FC, a club in the Thai League fabled for producing one of the best atmospheres in Asian football.

Madam Pang is also the manager of the Thai national team that will participate in the FIFA Women’s World Cup being held in France from June 7 to July 7.

A large share of credit for the growth of women’s football in recent years deserves to go to the US national team. The way they have dominated the field over the years, and their leadership in the fight for gender equality in sports, are playing a crucial part.

The USWNT are three-time world champions and would want to add another title to their belt in 2019, but it won't come easy. From two-time champions Germany to various other teams that boast of impressive recent records, including the Netherlands, Australia, and home side France among others, this edition could be the most closely fought World Cup for women. Throw in the underdogs, and it could be the most entertaining one too.

Posing the preliminary challenge to the mighty USWNT would be the bottommost ranked Asian representatives, Thailand. Full of heart and character, they have impressed in their footballing journey over the last few years.

The Chaba Kaew sealed their place for the second consecutive World Cup with their best performance at the 2018 Women’s Asian Cup in over three decades. Like in Canada in 2015, this time too, they’re part of a tough group and face the arduous task of progressing to the knockout stage. They can, however, take inspiration from their remarkable Asian Cup performance. They were seconds away from producing a stunning upset against tournament favourites Australia in the semi-final. The sporting cliché “they lost, but won hearts” was applicable on the day.

The Thailand team is up to the task, under one of the most accomplished female coaches in Asia, Nuengruethai Srathongvian. She has guided the side to both their World Cup qualifications. So has team manager Lamsam.

She entered the sports scene viewing it as a means of social service, holding the post of manager of the Thai team in the Far East and South Pacific Games for the Disabled in 2006. She was later approached by the-then Thailand FA president to manage the national women’s team. With no experience in football, she overcame her initial apprehensions as her role was not to coach the players but to manage the team off the field, be an approachable mentor, and boost their morale. Lamsam has since found various ways to do that.

Aware of the uphill battle the team faces against South Korea in the Asian Games in 2014, she promised the team one million baht for every goal they scored to give them “some extra motivation”. When Thailand secured their historic World Cup 2015 berth, she reportedly gave the team five million baht as a bonus.

After the World Cup qualifying victory over the Philippines in the Asian Cup last year, the players ran to Lamsam at the final whistle, embraced her, and threw her in the air. The display of affection was not just because of the promised hefty windfall. Dangling the money carrot doesn’t necessarily ensure results and there are many examples of bonuses in club football falling flat (looking at you, Alexis Sanchez). There is a genuine appreciation of her presence in the dressing room, and her varied gestures seem to find resonance within the team.

Lamsam reached out to Thai pop sensation Thongchai ‘Bird’ McIntyre for the team to be part of his show, in a bid to raise fans’ interest in the side’s upcoming World Cup appearance and also instil some confidence within the players.

Skipper Sunisa Srangthaisong explained why this seemingly frivolous activity was meaningful and said, “When we were on the stage, we understood how he brought the fans together. […] We enjoyed the concert and enjoyed the fans making us feel more powerful. Going to the World Cup, we are going to see a lot of fans. We hope they can give us that same power.”

Football is on the rise in Thailand. Thai men's clubs have enjoyed breakthrough victories in the AFC Champions League, and the men’s national team qualified for the AFC Asian Cup that took place in UAE in January, for the first time in 15 years. Women’s football is also making strides alongside. Thailand have won the AFF Women’s Championship three times on the trot, and with two consecutive World Cup qualifications, their reputation is deservedly growing beyond Asia.

There are numerous factors behind Thailand’s footballing rise including discipline, development and interest in both the men’s and women’s game, as well as fan support. The aim in this World Cup — especially considering the recent slump in form — would be to finish as one of the best placed third sides for a peep into the knockout stage by registering a win over impressive debutants Chile, and not losing too badly against veterans USA and Sweden.

The World Cup performance can be the cornerstone for further growth in Thai football, and people seeking unconventional examples of countries not traditionally associated with “football culture” can look at the tiny Southeast Asian nation for inspiration.

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