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PHUKET: Thailand’s triumph at the 2014 Asean Football Championship on Saturday night is the latest and most compelling evidence underlining the fact that former national striker Kiatisak Senamuang is the man the country has long searched for to bring back the glory days to Thai football.

Few could have predicted when Thailand last won the region’s showpiece tournament in 2002 – its third title in the first four times the biennial event was held – that the country would have to wait more than a decade to taste success again.

Whether that was the result of poor management at the Thai FA or the failure to replenish the squad with a new generation of players, it was a long barren run for a country once widely regarded as the undisputed top team in Southeast Asia. And it coincided with Thailand plummeting down the Fifa rankings.

Since the country’s early dominance in the Championship, which was achieved under the guidance of former England striker Peter Withe, who twice led Thailand to the title (in 2000 and 2002), the Thai FA has drafted in both local and foreign managers in an attempt to revive the Thai team’s fortunes.

However, most of those men, including former Sunderland manager Peter Reid and former England and Manchester United captain Bryan Robson, had little success when in charge of the national side. Hype surrounding their appointments proved to be just misplaced optimism.

It was the same case with Kiatisak’s predecessor, veteran German Winfried Schaefer, whose reign began promisingly before it came to a disappointing end, with a poor qualifying campaign for next month’s Asian Cup in Australia.

In the wake of Schaefer’s exit, the Football Association of Thailand brought in Kiatisak to hold the fort while looking for a suitable candidate to replace the experienced German. However, the 41-year-old made a big splash in his first game in charge of the team by guiding them to a shock 5-1 friendly win in China in June.

The ex-striker was then assigned to lead the under-23 side at the Myanmar-hosted SEA Games at the end of last year and did not disappoint at his first international tournament as a coach, steering Thailand to its first gold medal in the regional sporting event in six years.

Kiatisak then pressed a strong case for a permanent job by helping the Thai side equal its best Asian Games result with fourth spot in the under-23 competition in Incheon, South Korea earlier this year. With such remarkable results, the FAT decided to give him the full-time job, with his immediate task to help the country reclaim the elusive Championship trophy.

Despite his outstanding coaching record at under-23 level, doubts remained over Kiatisak’s ability to step up to coach the senior team in a competition that has become much more competitive in the years after Thailand’s early dominance.

He raised eyebrows when he preferred to keep faith with most of the young players who have worked with him since the 2013 SEA Games in Myanmar while leaving some established names, such as Muangthong United midfielder Datsakorn Thonglao out of the Championship squad.

Kiatisak’s youthful side is unrecognizable from the under-achieving teams of recent years as they produced an attractive brand of quick-passing football that captured the imagination of the fans during their sparkling unbeaten run to the final against Malaysia.

Aside from the youthful exuberance, Kiatisak’s men showed commendable resilience as well, most notably in the second-leg of the final in Kuala Lumpur, where they flirted with letting the title slip through their fingers.

Despite holding a 2-0 first-leg advantage, the Thais found themselves 3-0 behind with half an hour remaining at the intimidating Bukit Jalil stadium. But they pulled off an astonishing comeback to score two late goals to seal a heart-pounding 4-3 aggregate win which ensured their long wait for the title had come to an end.

Thailand’s fourth title puts it level with Singapore as the most successful nations in the event and Kiatisak, who became the first person to win as both a coach and player, was full of praise for his team.

“We worked for two years for this moment,” he said. “I’m relieved and delighted. “Coach and players, we have different duties to perform. We face different kinds of pressure.

“This group of players is even better than the team I played for. They have everything [needed] to achieve more success.”

Our moment of glory

Thailand’s football team made a triumphant return from Malaysia after ending a 12-year wait for the coveted Asean Championship title in the most dramatic fashion, with ten thousands of fans lining streets in Bangkok to cheer the team’s open-top bus parade yesterday.

The turnout at Don Mueang Airport was much bigger than when famous European clubs like English Premier League heavyweights Manchester United or Liverpool, who both have a big fan base here, visited the country on pre-season tours.

It spoke volumes about how much the victory meant to Thai fans, who last saw the country lift the trophy for the biennial tournament in 2002. Many arrived at the airport with joy at winning the event for the fourth time, after the Thai side secured a nerve-jangling 4-3 aggregate triumph over 2010 victors Malaysia the night before.

It could have been a completely different scenario if coach Kiatisak Senamuang’s side had been unable to stage a dramatic fightback in the closing stages of the second leg of the final at the intimidating Bukit Jalil stadium in Kuala Lumpur.

The Thais had looked dead and buried after the Malaysians, backed by a full-house at the 100,000-seat venue, stunningly overturning a 2-0 first-leg deficit to surge ahead 3-2 in the tie with half an hour remaining.

However, they managed to dig themselves out of the hole when Thai-Swiss midfielder Charyl Chappuis knocked home a rebound after the Malaysian keeper parried a Thai free kick with 10 minutes left on the clock. Small midfielder Chanathip Songkrasin then ensured the Thais came home with the title with an unstoppable shot from just outside the edge of the box.

Fans from all walks of life, some travelling from upcountry, braced the afternoon heat to greet the returning heroes at Don Mueang’s private jet building. The trio who were most instrumental to the Thais’ success – coach Kiatisak, Chanathip and Chappuis – were among the first group to emerge, sparking a deafening roar from their adoring fans.

Amid loud cheers reverberating around the compound, the players sauntered to a waiting bus decked in national colors with the words “Champions of Asean”.

A Thai player was seen holding up an image of His Majesty the King, who the team said had assigned his principal secretary to make a call at halftime to give them support.

The Thai team will present HM Bhumibol Adulyaedj the trophy today at Siriraj Hospital, where he has been admitted to receive treatment.

The bus carrying the Thai team then embarked on the parade, through downtown Bangkok and ending at Supachalasai Stadium. Along the way, a large group of fans on motorbikes followed the parade honking their horns, while fans cheered on the roadside.

The fourth Asean trophy, which matches the most success also achieved by Singapore, earned the Thai players a big pay-day – some 33 million baht in prize money and incentives from the Thai FA and sponsors.

— The Nation