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World Cup and Asian Cup - In mind or with eye on

Thai National Team Cartoon from Wat

image: Wats Toon

The World Cup 2018 in mind and an eye toward the Asian Cup 2019. Or even vice versa. It might depend on the angle of view. But at the bottom line, the result is the same. For the first time since over a decade Thailand is back among Asia's elite. And will be there for the next three years at least.

At the moment when Abdulrahman Al-Jassimden blew his whistle for the last time into the evening night of Teheran on the 23 March, the surprise was perfect. Although Iraq just scored seconds ago before the final whistle, to draw 2-2 with Thailand, it could not alter the fact: Without defeat, Thailand secured winning of Group F and qualified for the 2019 Asian Championships and the final qualifying round to the World Cup 2018 in Russia.

The last time Thailand made it to the final qualifying round of a World Cup was in 2001 when it was about to get tickets for the 2002 World Cup. That time Thailand finished last in its group with four points. And as time flies by, it is now already 13 years, that Thailand could qualify for an Asian Cup (2007 Thailand were co-host).

So well after a decade, Thailand finally belongs with the Asia elite again and is in the final round of the last 12 and will soon get to feel what it means to compete with long-established big boys as the newcomer. There wasn't much space for wishes anyway considering the other 11 teams in the pots. Nevertheless, the Thais were handed an extremely tough Group B with Australia, Japan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Iraq.

The opponents

Taking the latest call-ups of reigning Asian Cup champion Australia, the Socceroos come up with plenty of high profile league players. Leckie, Kruse, and Langerack, all plying their trade in the German Bundesliga and most notably Tim Cahill who is playing in China for Hangzhou Greentown alongside Matthew Spiranovic. The last time both teams met was in the qualifying round for the World Cup 2014. The Thai team, lead by Winfried Schafer, had a good start to the opening game of the qualification and went ahead through Teerasil Dangda. But eventually had to admit defeat in Brisbane losing 1-2. The return fixture in Bangkok in November 2011 was as close as the first one, with Brett Holman scoring the only goal at the Supachalasai Stadium.

Even more, Bundesliga players can be found if one looks at the current squad and recent call-ups of Japan. There are nine players in total who play in one of the best league in Europe and known for forming Japanese and Korean players to world class players like Kagawa. Plus Shinji Okazaki who have left Mainz for Leicester City.

The last time Thailand faced Japan in qualifying, the Samurai Blue won both ties by a 7-1 on aggregate on their way to the 2010 World Cup. The tie against Japan is also going to mark the Thais first game at home in the final round. Who wants to get a ticket, should better in front of the TTM outlets overnight. Or will have to deal with overpriced and expensive tickets on the black market.

Saudi Arabia, which recently consisted only of domestic players, has some European glamour to offer on his sideline with former Bundesliga and Netherland coach Bert van Marwijk. And the Saudis are no stranger to Thailand. Together with the Socceroos they were placed in the same group with Thailand in the preliminary round to the World Cup in Brazil (0-0, 0-3) and were group opponents 2001 (1-3, 1-4). Although Saudi Arabia's heydays are gone, with a regular World Cup appearances from 1994-2006, they are on the rise again. They could finish top of the group without defeat ahead of the Emirates.

As well as Saudi Arabia, the squad of the United Arab Emirates consist mainly of local players. The Emirates, host of the Asian Cup in 2019, currently rank 68th in the FIFA world rankings and finished third in the Asian Cup 2015 after all.

Conclusion

For Thailand, there is more to win than to lose. And the schedule doesn't mean it even very well with Kiatisuk's men. The opening game will be in Saudi Arabia on 1 September, followed by the home game five days later against Japan. A very difficult doubleheader awaits Thailand in October when the current AFF Champion will have to take on UAE and Iraq in October. With the latter very likely to be played in Tehran again.

Thailand vs Australia 2011

Thailand vs Australia 2011
image: thai-fussball.com

For Kiatisuk Senamuang, a good start to the campaign seems important "Saudi Arabia are not as strong as they were a few years ago. If we are well-prepared, I am sure that we can get a point from the first game,". And he is confident that Thailand can prove people wrong: "I want to prove people wrong. We need to focus on each game and try to take something from every match we play. We have to do a lot of homework,"

His former "Dream Team" mate Therdsak Chaiman, sounds a bit more moderate when he is saying that one win out of ten games would be a great result and Thailand could end its World Cup qualifying campaign with head held high.

There might be one or two besides Kiatisuk Senamuang who believe that Thailand could stage a surprise. But even the most optimistic War Elefant fan seems to be pretty realistic and is just putting up a good face to a tough group draw. Knowing that it will remain a dream to see a Thailand men's team at the World Cup after this round.

But anyway, Thailand showed that it is not willing to give in easily against strong opponents. For the friendly match against South Korea a few weeks ago everyone was expecting a clear win and a dominating Korean side. But this wasn't the case. Stielike's side won narrowly 1-0 and the Thais showed a good performance, played up their chances and showed even better football than three days before in a 2-2 draw against Iraq.

At the moment, the hype surrounding the Thai team is very big in the "Land of Smiles" and may reach its peak when it comes to the tie against Japan in a couple of months. The game against Australia, just a few days before the start of the AFF Championship, might be a sold out affair as well. But how sustainable the current hype really is, will be become apparent next year when it comes to the last home game against Iraq on 31 August. In the worst case, this could be the game when Thailand get its first points.

If so, it could be worse. Because it is much more important for Thailand to take and gain experience of such games against high-quality opponents. In the past, Thailand rarely had the chance to play such nations in just one round.

You can have the World Cup in mind - or dream of. But with an eye toward the first Asian Cup appearance after more than 10 years, the experience gained will be worth a mint. And that is what should count the most.

You can find the full schedule fo Group B at our 3rd round World Cup qualifier page.
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