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Asean Football legends - Therdsak Chaiman

Since the inception of the Asean Football Championship in 1996, the competition has showcased a number of leading players from throughout the region. In the run-up to the 2012 AFF Suzuki Cup, we look at four legends of the Asean game who have helped their country lift the region’s most-valued football prize.

When questioned about his decision to include Therdsak Chaiman in his squad for the AFF Suzuki Cup in 2010, Thailand coach Bryan Robson insisted that the selection was not based on the reputation of the 37-year-old.

"He has an influence because of his vast experience and because he's a great professional. That rubs off on the young players," said the former England international skipper.

"But he's still also got a lot of great ability. Therdsak can change a game because he can create a goal and he can score a goal out of nothing. So that's why he's in the squad.

"Sometimes age doesn't come into it. If you love the game and you train hard and you're dedicated for the game, that's what counts."

So six years on from his last appearance in the Asean Football Championship, the diminutive playmaker dubbed the ‘Thai Zidane’ returned to the competition that he had graced on four previous occasions. But while the evergreen Therdsak ably demonstrated that he could still perform at international level with some fine individual performances that highlighted his excellent vision, tireless running and deft passing, he would enjoy no happy ending as the Thais went out at the group stage.

Those fine individual performances offered little consolation to the fiercely competitive Therdsak, who was one of only two players in that Thai squad who had previously tasted success in the competition.

"It was quite disappointing to miss out on the semi-finals although it was a difficult tournament for us," he laments. "We didn’t have the best of preparations with just one day off after the end of our league season before we had to travel to Jakarta for our opening match but it was still a shame that we could not get past the first round."

The 2-1 loss to Indonesia in Thailand’s last group match in 2010 could well have been his last outing in a Thailand shirt, bringing down the curtain on an international career that began in 1994 and included appearances in five Asean Football Championships.

He was not in the Thai squad that won the inaugural tournament in Singapore in 1996 but two years later, he was included by coach Witthaya Laohakul in the team that travelled to Vietnam to defend their title.

Therdsak made three starts and scored his first goal for his country at that tournament but it would prove a forgettable campaign as they finished fourth and were embroiled in a controversial match against Indonesia which neither team wanted to win in order to avoid a semi-final against the hosts. Therdsak scored his first international goal in that game which was remembered more for a bizarre late own goal by the Indonesians which gave the Thais a 3-2 win.

It was a bitter experience that Therdsak still find difficult to talk about to this day.

"That was a really disappointing tournament for us. We had a lot of problems there and we did not play well at all," he surmises.

He has happier memories of 2000 when the Thais regained the title on home soil. Although he was not an automatic first choice under Peter Withe, starting in only one game and appearing in three more as a substitute, Therdsak enjoyed the experience of being part of what he regards as one of the finest Thailand squads.

"We had played quite well at the Asian Cup a month earlier so there was a lot of pressure on us to win. But we had a good squad with Surachai (Jaturapattarapong), Woorawoot (Srimaka) and of course Zico (Kiatisuk Senamuang) and we played very well throughout that tournament," he says.

The Thais duly swept to the title, winning all five of their games including a 4-1 hammering of Indonesia in the final.

"I was not always in the starting line-up but that was our ‘dream team’ and it was not easy to get a chance to play with so many quality players in that side. We also reached the final round of the World Cup qualifiers then so that tells you how good a team we had," Therdsak adds.

By the time of the next Asean Football Championship, Therdsak had established himself in the Thailand starting line-up and further enhanced his reputation during a loan spell in the S-League, where he won the Player of the Year award and helped Singapore Armed Forces to win the title.

With many of the same players who had tasted glory on home soil two years earlier, Thailand entered the 2002 tournament as firm favourites to retain their title. But the aging squad struggled during the group stage in Singapore, losing 3-1 to Malaysia and squeezing through to the semi-finals on goal difference after a 1-1 draw with the home side in their final group game.

"We had dominated the tournament in 2000 but two years later, the other teams had improved and so it was a very close competition," says Therdsak.

"We didn’t have much time to gel before the tournament so the first round in Singapore was very difficult. We lost to Malaysia and then we had a very close game with Singapore which we drew.

"Fortunately we got through but we knew that we could not afford to make any more mistakes. But we were still very confident and we gained momentum as the tournament progressed."

Vietnam had won the other group and the form book suggested that they were favourites to progress to the final. But in the semi-final in Jakarta, Therdsak and his teammates tore apart the Indochinese side, winning 4-0 to set up a second consecutive final clash with Indonesia.

Therdsak had been in brilliant form throughout the tournament and he proved a key man for Thailand again in the final, setting up the opening goal by Chukiat Noosalung and then scoring himself to give the Thais a 2-0 lead at half-time.

However, the home side levelled the score in the second half to force the match to extra time and, eventually, a penalty shootout. The Thais kept their cool though and despite captain Kiatisuk missing their opening penalty, they prevailed 4-2 to lift the trophy for the third time in four attempts.

"It was an intimidating atmosphere in the final with a crowd of 100,000 cheering on Indonesia," says Therdsak, who was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player.

"We played well to take a 2-0 lead at half-time but we had a player sent off in the second half and we had to play for over an hour with 10 men.

"But we eventually won and that was a very memorable championship. It was almost as sweet as 2000 because we were playing away and we had to overcome a lot of challenges to retain our title."

Therdsak would star in BEC Tero Sasana’s run to the inaugural AFC Champions League final the following year but a stomach muscle injury sidelined him for several months in 2004. He returned in time for the Asean Football Championship but by then many of Thailand’s stars from the previous two campaigns had retired from international football or turned down the chance to play for their country.

As one of the squad’s senior players, Therdsak was handed the captain’s armband and he led by example, firing home a long-range screamer during their opening match against Myanmar. However, the inexperienced Thai squad struggled to make an impact in Malaysia and went out early after drawing 1-1 with Myanmar and losing 2-1 to the hosts.

"It was a time of transition because many of our stars had retired or quit international football so we had a lot of young players in that team," Therdsak explains.

"It was still a disappointment because we had won the previous two tournaments and we wanted to defend our title. But it is tough because in South-East Asia, the other countries are always challenging us for the Number One spot so they raise their game when they play against us."

While he sat out the 2007 tournament, he returned that summer to play in what many thought was his swansong for the national team at the Asian Cup. But he continued to sparkle at club level, returning to Singapore Armed Forces in 2005 and winning four consecutive league titles there, which earned him an international recall from Robson in November 2009 for an Asian Cup qualifier.

Therdsak has not appeared for his country since the 2010 AFF Suzuki Cup but he remains an influential figure at Thai club Chonburi, who have reached the quarter-finals of this year’s AFC Cup. However, despite his excellent club form, the player who turns 39 in September insists that he will not be donning a national shirt again.

"(Current Thailand coach) Winfried Schafer wanted to call me up for a World Cup qualifier last year but I was not keen to play and told them to give the younger players a chance," he says.