|Withe's men earn plaudits in World Cup qualifying bid||Inside Story Archives|
|By ..Tor Chittinand, Bangkok Post December 30, 2001 Edition|
was an encouraging year for Thai soccer highlighted by the national side,
led by former Aston Villa and England player Peter Withe, making the
final 10 teams in the Asian qualifying round for the World Cup finals.
The success of the national squad rubbed off on the domestic scene, too, with the new GSM Thailand League attracting much better crowds than in previous years.
There were also high-profile visits of two of the most famous club sides in the world, England's Manchester United and Liverpool, and their throngs of Thai fans were ecstatic at the opportunity of seeing such famous players as David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Michael Owen and Robbie Fowler.
In their early preparations for the World Cup, Thailand experienced mixed fortunes. After an exhilarating come-from-behind 5-4 victory over Kuwait in a friendly _ at one stage they were 4-1 down _ Thailand hosted the King's Cup in February.
But the team suffered a 4-1 defeat against Sweden, a 3-1 loss to Qatar and a 5-1 thrashing by China. The only compensation was that Tawan Sripan showed good form, scoring in each match. At least Thailand defeated Qatar 2-0 in the playoff for third place, both goals being scored by skipper Kiatisak ``Zico'' Senamuang.
In the first round of the World Cup qualifying Thailand were drawn against Lebanon, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
For their preparations Thailand trained at the Liverpool Academy and it seemed to pay off. All the first-leg matches were played in Lebanon. After disposing of Sri Lanka 4-2 and Pakistan 3-0, the big test came against the hosts.
It did not begin well when a freak own goal by Sakesan Pituratana gave Lebanon a 1-0 lead. But Thailand fought back well with Sakesan himself getting an equaliser and then Kiatisak grabbing the winner for a 2-1 victory.
The second leg matches were all played in Bangkok at Suphachalasai Stadium. As expected Thailand had little trouble with Sri Lanka or Pakistan, Kiatisak scoring twice in the 3-0 defeat of Sri Lanka and four times in the 6-0 thrashing of Pakistan.
Once again the key match was against Lebanon. A draw would be enough to see Thailand into the next qualifying round, but a defeat would mean Lebanon go through instead with a better goal difference.
A crowd of 45,000 turned up to cheer the team on and it turned out to be quite a nailbiter. Thai fans were looking concerned when Lebanon took a shock lead. Once again Thailand fought back with Sakesan making it 1-1 and then Tawan putting the hosts 2-1 up. But Lebanon equalised with two minutes left and Thailand suffered a nervous few minutes before the final whistle.
For Thailand it was an achievement in itself to reach the second qualifying round. However their luck ran out in the draw which was held in Bangkok.
Thailand found themselves in the much harder of the two groups with Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq and Bahrain.
Although Withe put a brave face on it saying Thailand still had a chance, deep down he must have been cursing his luck. The other group with China, UAE, Qatar, Uzbekistan and Oman looked much more inviting.
Thailand couldn't have had a worse start. A long and complicated journey to Iran saw a tired Thai team arrive in a very hot Baghdad. The result was a disappointing 4-0 defeat.
Said team manager Virat Charnpanich: ``The marathon journey was a problem for us and we only had one day to get used to the weather.''
The team regrouped well to hold the strong Iran side to a 0-0 draw in Bangkok and came very close to winning it.
There followed a well-earned 1-1 draw away to Bahrain with Kiatisak getting the equaliser for Thailand.
There was much excitement in the middle of the year with the arrival of Liverpool and Manchester United on their Asian tours. Both teams received great receptions from the Thai fans and expressed surprise at the support.