Thai League talent pool gives food for thought to weakened War Elephants

It’s all square between Thailand and Malaysia in the final Group G match of the World Cup 2022 qualifying campaign.

As things stand, the War Elephants are out. They need three points as we enter the last minute of added time. A foul deep inside the Malaysian half gives the Thais a free kick in a good position.

Heberty Fernandes steps up to whip the ball into the penalty area and Victor Cardozo rises above everyone to score with a thumping header. The celebrations are wild as the goal means Thailand reach the final stage of qualifying for the second time in a row and only the third time ever.

It’s an impossible scenario but one that makes you think. Head coach Akira Nishino is missing some key players as he takes his Thailand squad to the UAE for the final three matches of the first stage of the 2022 qualifying campaign. Would the likes of Heberty and Cardozo give his team a better chance?

China surprised the football world in 2019 when the Brazilian striker Elkeson was naturalised as a Chinese citizen and became eligible to play for the national team. Despite having the world’s most populous nation, it suggested to many that it was an admission that they needed help after years of underachievement in football.

China, at least, have made it to a World Cup and regularly feature in the final stages of qualifying. Thailand have never come close to a place at the greatest show on earth.

Naturalisation is a sensitive and controversial topic, particularly when it comes to sport. For some, it is simply a practical decision based on a country’s need to be more competitive. For others, it is against sporting integrity as players adopt a flag of convenience in the manner of a footballing mercenary. But unnaturalised foreign head coaches have long been accepted, so why not players?

It should be stressed that there seems to be no possibility of Thailand embracing naturalisation any time soon. It is a nation that does not provide a clear pathway for foreign residents to become Thai citizens, even when they have been in the country for many years and built family ties.

In the football world, this potentially sees Thailand falling behind. As far back as the 1990s, Japan naturalised two Brazilian stars of the J.League – Ruy Ramos and Wagner Lopes. The latter played a key role in helping the Samurai Blue qualify for their first World Cup in 1998.

Bosnian Aleksandar Duric played a part in Singapore’s AFF Cup triumph in 2012, while Mohamadou Sumareh struck a huge blow to Thailand’s World Cup qualifying hopes when he netted the winner when the teams clashed in 2019. Sumareh, originally from Gambia, was naturalised in 2018.

Naturalisation has been common in many European countries over the years, with some high profile examples being Spain’s Brazilian-born pair Marcos Senna and Diego Costa, while Deco became a Portugal legend despite also hailing from Brazil.

Globalisation makes football yet another working environment featuring employees from all over the planet but international competition remains something in which patriotism unites a nation. Watching Brazilian journeymen take the place of locals doesn’t sit well with everyone regardless of the improved quality they may offer.

Sitting behind both Malaysia and Vietnam in the current World Cup campaign, and two ahead of hosts UAE (who have a game in hand), things don’t look good for Thailand.

Being honest, most fans would surely agree their hopes would be better with Heberty and Cardozo in the squad. According to FIFA naturalisation rules, players have to have lived in their adopted countries for five consecutive years as adults.

This would qualify Cardozo, who has been in Thailand since 2015, while Heberty may have chosen not to leave for Saudi Arabia for a brief spell in 2016 if he had the incentive of an international career in Thailand.

Cleiton Silva is another player who spent the best years of his career in Thailand. He may also have skipped a couple of short-term moves abroad in order to have a chance to play for the War Elephants.

Other long-term foreign residents like Dragan Boskovic, Bireme Diouf and even Diogo Luis Santo may have had the opportunity to become Thailand internationals in other circumstances.

In the 2020-21 Thai League season, Nattawut Suksum was the top scoring Thai striker on 12 goals. His tally was surpassed by 10 foreign players, highlighting one of the key areas in which War Elephants lack depth.

Centre-back is the other position where Thailand struggles to develop talent. The qualifying campaign for the 2018 World Cup was hampered by conceding soft goals due to poor concentration and positioning at the back.

If Thailand could selectively naturalise foreign centre-backs and prolific strikers to complement the talent in other positions, the War Elephants could just become a force to be reckoned with in Asia.

However, looking beyond the potential to improve the team, public acceptance would be another factor. Appeals to patriotism have long been used as a crass rallying call by populist politicians and the idea of “foreign” players representing Thailand will not appeal to everyone. Over the past decade, there has been a surge of foreign-born players with at least one Thai parent in the side. Selecting someone without a Thai bloodline may be more problematic.

Beyond the aspect of national identity, there is also the widespread belief that it is simply against the spirit of the sport.

It is within the rules of football for Thailand to naturalise players who could strengthen the team. But it is not something that currently seems to be up for debate. If the 2022 World Cup qualification campaign ends in yet another failure, will it be time for a rethink? It seems unlikely but there’s that picture of Cardozo heading in from Heberty’s cross to make the fans dream.

Paul Murphy

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