SEA Games: Former prince aims to lead Thailand to the throne again

NAYPYIDAW - It has been a barren spell at the SEA Games for Thailand, who won the football title eight straight times before crashing out in the first round of the two previous tournaments.

To arrest the dramatic slide, the former kingpins have turned to their one-time prince, who swears by his brand of all-out attack. It takes less than a minute of speaking to the Thais' Under-23 coach Kiatisuk Senamuang to understand his tactical philosophy - the very same one he will adopt in tonight's semi-final against Singapore.

"Football is about attack, entertaining the fans, scoring many goals, making people happy," the country's former striker supreme told The Straits Times yesterday.

But the main goal extends beyond regaining ASEAN supremacy.

The man, nicknamed "Zico" by Thai fans, after the Brazilian star, wants to revive the glory days when the kingdom's team were among Asia's finest.

While he has won four SEA Games titles (1993, 1995, 1997, 1999) and three ASEAN Football Championships (1996, 2000, 2002), he has also twice finished fourth at the Asian Games (1990 and 1998).

On display tonight is Thailand's next generation, aiming to follow in the footsteps of local heroes like Tawan Sripan, Natipong Sritong-In and Surachai Jaturapattarapong.

Workaholic Kiatisuk put his charges through a month-long training camp in Chiang Mai before the SEA Games, not hesitating to join in to demonstrate exactly how he wants a pass or a run to be made. "I don't like to show videos or get my players to read reports - everything we do, we do on the field," said the affable 40-year-old, who struck 70 times in 131 international games.

"The players respect what I did as a player so we can talk like brothers."

The band of brothers, who have honed their skills in Thailand's competitive Premier League, have showed no mercy on the field.

In June, they thumped China's national side 5-1. This past week, they hit eight in four games - including a 4-1 mauling of fellow semi-finalists Indonesia.

Like many of Kiatisuk's teams in the past, threats exist all over the pitch.

Captain and left-back Theerathon Bunmathan, nicknamed the "Thai Philipp Lahm" by the country's media, drives the team forward.

In midfield, the emphasis is on skilful players beating opponents on the dribble rather than a pass-and-move system. Thitipan Puangchan and Pokkhao Anan are given free rein to bomb into the box, and so far it has worked wonders, the duo accounting for four goals.

"Coach gives us freedom to express ourselves - if we want to dribble, he says, 'Go ahead, just don't lose the ball'," said 22-year-old Pokkhao, who plays for Police United.

The match is also a chance for Kiatisuk to renew his rivalry with Singapore. In 2002, he scored 15 goals to propel Singapore Armed Forces FC (now Warriors FC) to the S-League title. In that season, he played against a certain Home United defender named Aide Iskandar.

Tonight, Aide, 38, stands in his way again, but this time, as the opposing coach. The duo share many similarities - both skippered their nations, surpassed a century of international caps and winning three AFF titles.

But, while he looks forward to catching up with his old friend, pleasantries will be put on hold at kick-off. Leaning in to whisper for effect, Kiatisuk, who also spent one season in England as a player, said: "I want to win my first SEA Games gold as a coach before Aide."

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