Stunning manager behind Thai women's football team

Stunning manager behind Thai women's football team
PHOTO: The Nation/ANN

Nualphan Lamsam would be a football pitch, yet the Muang Thai Life Insurance CEO is revelling in her role as an architect of the recent renaissance of Thailand's women's football team.

Now in her late 40s but looking a lot younger, Nualphan is so stunning that people spotting her at a venue could be forgiven for thinking she's a celebrity who just happens to be a fan of the game.

But behind that beautiful face is an iron will and a determination that has been instrumental in the Thai team's meteoric rise through the rankings, culminating in their historic appearance at the Women's World Cup finals in Canada earlier this year.

It was Thailand's first ever appearance in the finals of either the men's or women's World Cup and despite being cast as lightweight by foreign pundits, the Thai women made the country proud with spirited performances on the world stage.

The Thais did exit the tournament at the group stage but they went out with their heads held high after managing to claim not only first goals but also a maiden victory in the finals with a nerve-jangling 3-2 win against Ivory Coast.

The Thai team's qualification for the World Cup, achieved by snatching the fifth spot with a 2-1 victory over hosts Vietnam in last year's Asian Championship, was the crowning glory of Nualphan's efforts since becoming involved in Thai football six years ago.

"After taking on the role of manager for Thai disabled athletes at the FESPIC Games in 2006 in Malaysia, I continued for two years before returning to oversee my family business," she explains.

"Then, Khun Worawi (Makudi, the Football Association of Thailand president) called me and tried to convince me to take on the responsibility of manager for the Thai women's team. I was frank and told him that while that I liked watching football, I was not a player and had no football-related experience.

"But I was interested and after meeting the girls, I decided to accept the job," says Nualphan, who is affectionately called "Madame Pang" by fans and the media.

Over the past six years, she and the Thai players have experienced plenty highs and lows but there's no doubt that the history-making feat achieved by the team in clinching the World Cup berth was the moment she will never forget.

"I've been with the team since the days when nobody knew us. People began to pay attention when we won the SEA Games title in Myanmar, where there were plenty of dramas including our semi-final victory over the hosts following a marathon penalty shootout.

"Then came the moment we made history by grabbing the fifth spot and the final ticket that everyone wanted with the win against hosts Vietnam at the Asian Championship last May. Initially, we didn't realise the magnitude of our achievement. Then we saw our story on social media and became fully aware that we had written a new page in the history of Thai football.

"When we returned home on May 22, we weren't allowed to leave the plane immediately after landing as the crew wanted to give us celebratory drink. Once we finally disembarked we were greeted by a contingent of reporters. It was such a pleasant day."

Having overseen the Thai team's rise from the depths, Nualphan, who looked after the girls off the field while leaving football matters to coach Nuengruethai Sathongwien, was understandably ecstatic with the Thai displays at the biggest tournament of women's football.

"We were quickly written off as many saw our success (in clinching the World Cup berth) as a fluke. And yes, we know that we were the beneficiaries of Japan's triumph at the previous World Cup. We got that extra spot for Asia.

"But the girls proved people wrong and made the country proud with their performances in Canada. We were drawn in arguably the most difficult group with top-ranked Germany and Norway, two countries that had already tasted the World Cup glory, and Ivory Coast, who were physically superior to us.

"Yet we managed the historic win against the Africans and lost to Germany and Norway by a respectable margin (both 4-0). We achieved it even though we're the youngest team with an average age of 24 and have the smallest players in terms of size and build."

As her affection for football grew, Nualphan decided to deepen her involvement in the sport by acquiring Thai Premier League club Port FC in February. The Muang Thai chief executive admits that she still has to get to the grips with managing the football club despite her experience with the national women's team.

"It's quite challenging and it's tough as it something completely new for me. It's totally different from managing the national team as we have a game to play every week. I still have a lot to learn."

Nualphan's presence, though, has already been felt at the TPL club, which is notorious for the uncontrolled behaviour of its supporters. Since she became the president, they have not received a ban or a fine as the result of an incident involving their fans.

But then that's probably to be expected: they now have a "angel" watching over them and her name is Madame Pang.

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