Can ‘Madame Football’ revive sinking fortunes of Thailand’s national team?
After the Thai men’s team capped years of poor form by again failing to qualify for the FIFA World Cup, the Football Association of Thailand (FAT) has decided to bring in someone who can turn things around.
In this time of crisis, who better to take charge than Nualphan Lamsan – the woman who led the female national team to two women’s World Cup Finals?
The CEO of Muang Thai Insurance, who is better known as “Madame Paeng”, was appointed last month as manager of both the senior national team and the under-23 squad. In an unprecedented scenario for Thailand, she is the first woman to take charge of the men’s national team setup.
However, in contrast to other countries, the team manager’s job in Thailand is not directly related to footballing strategy and match tactics.
On the contrary, the Thai team manager is responsible for overall policy including finance, since he or she must be ready to inject millions of baht to improve the team.
“Fans may remember how dedicated I was when I first became manager of the Thailand women’s team at the age of 43,” said Nualphan, who spent a fortune during her time in the job.
“Now, at 55, I promise to work hard to meet the even greater challenges and high expectations of the men’s team,” the businesswoman said in a recent press conference.
No doubt she will be tapping her broad experience in sports management, which extends beyond football to her role as vice president of the Thai Ladies Professional Golf Association.
Nualphan first emerged on the football scene back in 2008, when she took up the post of manager of the Thailand women’s team. Under her guidance, the team reached unprecedented levels of success. In a historic first, they reached the World Cup Finals hosted by Canada in 2015, and then repeated the feat four years later in France.
Despite failing to advance beyond the group stage on both occasions, the two World Cup Finals berths proved to be highlights in Thai footballing history. In contrast, the men’s national have yet to qualify for a FIFA World Cup Finals.
Nualphan was unquestionably a key ingredient in the Thai women’s recipe for success.
She also spearheaded the women’s team to four AFF (ASEAN) Women’s Championship titles (2011, 2015-2018), plus a SEA Games gold medal in 2013.
Complaint of inequality
However, after her team were eliminated in the 2019 World Cup group stage, she quit her post of 11 years, complaining of inequality between the men’s and women’s teams under the FAT administration led by Somyot Poompanmuang.
As well as her national-team duties, Nualphan is currently president of Port FC in Bangkok, which she bought in 2015 when the team were in League 2. Two years later, Port won promotion to Thai League 1 and have posted three third-place finishes in Thailand’s top league since 2018. Under her reign, the team celebrated their biggest success in a decade with a 1-0 win over Ratchaburi Mitr Phol in the 2019 FA Cup final.
But despite her stunning success in women’s international football and the domestic league, Nualphan faces an uphill task in turning around the fortunes of the Thailand men’s teams. Both the senior and under-23 squads have been far from impressive over the past few years, which have seen four different coaches hired and fired since 2017.
Thailand a waning soccer power
Once the football powerhouse of Southeast Asia, racking up 16 SEA Games gold medals and five ASEAN Football Federation Championship titles, Thailand has now lost the throne to arch-rival Vietnam, who won the AFF trophy in 2018 and the SEA Games crown a year later.
To add insult, Vietnam cruised into the third round of qualifying for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, while Thailand was eliminated after finishing fourth in Group G with two wins, three defeats and three draws.
The result spurred the FAT to fire the team’s Japanese national coach Akira Nishino while also raising doubt about the future of Thai football.
“Thai fans want to see Thai football move onto the global stage,” said Nualphan. “I cannot achieve that on my own. Success will come only if we all join hands together. I firmly believe that with support from those who love Thai soccer plus the fighting spirit of our players, we will get through this difficult time and restore the dignity of Thai football.”
First big challenge
Nualphan will face her first big test at the Asian Cup Qualifying in October. She has picked former national coach Worrawoot Srimaka to handle the under-23 team and has vowed to charter a special flight to ferry her team to the opening game in Mongolia.
However, the nation is now watching keenly to see who she chooses for the role of new senior-team coach, with a long list of possible candidates.
The first real challenge will arrive in December, when Nualphan, her new coach and the national players will bear the weight of the nation’s expectations at the AFF Championship. Thai fans will expect nothing less than the title. But with Vietnam and Malaysia improving fast, it won’t be easy.
Can Thailand’s “Madam Football” rise to the occasion? Thai fans will be watching closely in December to find out.
By Thai PBS World’s Sport Desk