boy Leesaw aiming high
Teerathep ``Leesaw'' Vinothai, who scored the golden goal in Thailand's
victory over Indonesia in the SEA Games semi-finals, is starting to
shine in England for Crystal Palace's under-19 team.
For years, the SEA Games soccer gold
medal was the highest international honour the Thai national team could
achieve. The Kingdom became champions for the fifth time in a row at
this year's SEA Games in Malaysia where a Thai player made his name on
the international stage at the tender age of 16.
Vinothai was the star attraction for Malaysian journalists when the Thai
squad arrived in Kuala Lumpur back in September. The next day, a number
of local newspapers ran stories on the 16-year-old who is now a trainee
at English Division One side Crystal Palace.
The boy lived up to all expectations when he scored the golden goal in
Thailand's 2-1 victory over Indonesia in the semi-finals. Thailand went
on to win the gold by beating Malaysia 1-0 with a bizarre goal in the
dying minutes, although Teerathep did not play in the final for tactical
Teerathep might even have netted another golden goal in that game had it
not been for the bizarre winner. Thai officials said later they were
going to use him in extra time when the match looked like ending in a
goalless draw after 90 minutes.
For Teerathep, the tournament was one of the best moments in his rapidly-developing
``The experience in the SEA Games will make me stronger,'' he said.
SEA Games gold medal was added to his collection of international
achievements which include three consecutive titles in the Norway Cup
junior tournament in which he was twice the highest scorer and twice
named best player. He also helped his former school, Bangkok Christian
College, win the Physical Education Department's Under-12 and Under-14
Teerathep's road to glory started when he was a young boy. Thanks to his
father Thepchai, a sportswriter for the Daily News, Teerathep developed
a taste for football at a very young age as his father often took him to
``I saw big crowds and I felt like I wanted to play before them,'' said
Teerathep, who is nicknamed ``Leesaw'' because of his mother's love of
the Hilltribe people of the same name which started when she was a
volunteer teacher in northern Thailand during her college days.
The first turning point for young Leesaw came last year when he received
a scholarship to study and play in England from a foundation established
by sports media tycoon Ravi Lohthong, the founder of the Siam Sports
Syndicate, whom Leesaw calls uncle.
Teerathep was the first _ and so far only _ player deemed good enough to
receive the scholarship which is supported by the Football Association
of Thailand (FAT).
For many people, going to a new environment in a foreign country would
be a major obstacle. But for Teerathep, who will turn 17 in February, it
was more or less business as usual as he has been to a lot of countries
including Norway, Russia and South Korea, not to mention Malaysia and
``I adapted to life in England quite fast because I have travelled a lot,''
said the good-looking Teerathep who is often mobbed by Thai female
students when he is in Thailand.
``I do not have any problems with the food or the weather. The only
problem was the language but now that is not a big issue.''
In England, Teerathep is a boarding student at Brentwood School in Essex
outside London. He travels to London to play for Crystal Palace's under-19
team on Saturdays and stays overnight with the Siam Sports reporters at
their house. ``This makes me feel at home,'' he said.
he is still not in the first 11 of Palace's under-19 team, Teerathep has
often come on as a substitute and scored goals, including one against
Wolves in a recent FA Youth Cup third-round tie which was rated by the
player himself as his most memorable goal so far in England.
``I came on in the second half and changed the course of the game. I
scored the opening goal and the match ended in a 1-1 draw. We went on to
win on penalties,'' Teerathep said.
Contrary to the general belief that football training in England is very
harsh, Teerathep feels it is not that hard. He says the training
concentrates on team work and using the ball.
``In Thailand, we often run around in hot conditions. But in England,
they concentrate on training with the ball and how to solve problems you
are likely to face in a match,'' he said.
As he regularly been finding the net for Palace, it is not surprising
that Teerathep is being monitored by bigger clubs, including Premiership
champions Manchester United who have reportedly shown interest in
signing the young Thai star.
``The Crystal Palace coaches told me about Manchester United's interest
but they advised that I should remain with them. They said that if I
stay with Palace I will at least get the chance to play regularly, even
though I am still a reserve for the under-19 team,'' Teerathep said.
``At clubs like Manchester United or Arsenal, it is unlikely that you
would have a chance to play and show how good you are because they have
a lot of good players.''
Fittingly, Manchester United are Teerathep's favourite English team and
he has supported them since he was a young boy. Like father, like son _
as his dad is also a Man U fan.
Teerathep is treading the same path as former national coach Vittaya
Laohakul, who played for a number of German sides decades ago, and
Kiatisak ``Zico'' Senamuang, who had a brief but unsuccessful spell with
English side Huddersfield Town.
pundits believe Teerathep has the potential to put Thailand on the
European football map just like Japan's Hidetoshi Nakata and Iranian Ali
Daei have done for their countries.
But for an Asian player to be successful in Europe, and in particular in
England, footballing skill is just one of several factors.
Teerathep's skill should not be an issue and English coach John Ryan has
no doubts about his ability.
``I have seen Leesaw at Crystal Palace. He is a talented player and a
quick learner. His technical skill is at a good level and one of the
most important things is that he is still very young,'' said Ryan, who
has signed a contract with the FAT to oversee a development project for
Thai Under-12 players.
But Ryan warned that Teerathep must bear in mind that he has to adapt
himself to the unpleasant weather in England and that the English game
relies heavily on physical strength and fitness.
While Teerathep insists the weather is not a problem for him, he admits
that his physical strength needs improvement. Aged 16 and standing
1.72m, he is tall by Thai standards. But at just 63 kilogrammes, he is a
bit skinny compared to Europeans.
``I need more physical strength as I am at a disadvantage when it comes
to physical contact. Also, I need to improve my ball control,''
Vittaya, who has monitored Teerathep's progress since he was very young,
believes Teerathep can make the grade in the English league as long as
he adapts quickly to his new environment and stays away from ``social
vices'' _ in particular alcohol and girls.
``To become a successful player, I know that I have to be patient,
determined and work hard. More importantly, you have to control
yourself. I have to behave because everybody is watching me,'' Teerathep
``No matter what you want to do, you have to try hard and learn. I have
learned a lot from watching Zico and (former national team striker)
Piyapong Piew-on. I also try to learn from good players on TV.''
the most talented footballer ever born in Thailand, Teerathep is now one
of the country's most popular athletes. This year he was named the
Outstanding Youth by the National Youth Bureau and was runner-up for the
Sports Authority of Thailand's Best Youth Athlete of the Year.
As a Manchester United fan, it is fitting that his idol _ apart from
local heroes Kiatisak and Piyapong _ is Red Devils star and England
captain David Beckham.
``Yes, I want to play with him,'' said Teerathep, who wears an earring
like Beckham. The young Thai's ultimate dream is to become an expensive
player and famous worldwide. But before reaching that point his more
realistic target is to be good enough to play professionally in England.
Teerathep still has many mountains to climb before reaching the goal.
But like the Leesaw Hilltribe people, he should be able to climb the