By Lerpong Amsa-ngiam
Interim Thailand coach Sirasak Yodyadthai says whatever happens next will be a bonus after the War Elephants earned the draw they needed against the United Arab Emirates to reach the knock-out stage of the Asian Cup Finals for the first time in 47 years.
Apparently down and out after the dismal 4-1 opening-game defeat by India, Thailand have now achieved their pre-tournament goal of reaching the knockouts for the first time since they hosted the tournament in 1972, when they finished third, their best ever result.
The draw lifted them to four points and a runners-up finish in Group A, level with Bahrain but ahead on their head-to-head record, having beaten the Arabian Gulf nation 1-0 last Thursday.
An equaliser from midfielder Thitiphan Puangchan in the 41st minute brought instant joy around the Kingdom, just a week after the sacking of coach Milovan Rajevac.
Sirasak proved very effective in immediately lifting team morale, having already orchestrated a 1-0 win over Bahrain on Friday in his first game in charge.
“I didn’t believe my team and I would succeed when I was assigned to take this job,” said the 49-year-old former assistant coach. “This is history for Thailand and the Football Association of Thailand.
“After the game was over, I was so happy. It seemed impossible after the rough start but we were all determined to make history. The more the players played, the more commitment we have seen from them.
“We really felt nervous before the game as we didn’t know how much we could do it. But we were already prepared for what was going to happen in the pitch,” added the caretaker coach, whose side will on Sunday meet the losers of tomorrow night’s game between South Korea and Japan.
“We cannot choose which team we will play in the knockout stage. We will put up a great fight, no matter how tough they are. We have to work even harder now and do some good homework to get ready.”
Sirisak believes that having come back from near-elimination, his team should be able to cause a stir in the last 16 stage, as in the old phrase “when the going gets tough, the tough get going”.
“It’s a bonus from now on,” Sirisak added. “Anything can happen in football. Even the side that has more possession can end up losing a game. What matters now is we have to keep working together.”
Bonus or not, they have already been guaranteed at least Bt15 million from Thai FA boss Somyot Poompanmoung for making the knockouts.
Meanwhile, the Thai FA president apologised to any fans frustrated by his conduct in the role.
“I would like to express my apologies if anything I have said or done earlier may have offended fans and the Thai people. From now on we should remain in harmony and support the national team. We will win and lose together and move towards the future together,” Somyot said.
Thitiphan, who now has scored six goals in 27 international appearances since 2013, said his vital equaliser against the UAE capped a gutsy fightback in the face of partisan support for the hosts.
“It was tough at the beginning as they played in front of their home fans and got an early goal,” the 25-year-old BG Pathum player said. “But luckily we got an equaliser before half-time and that made it easier going to the second half. We will keep working hard in the next game.”
Skipper Teerasil Dangda, the only player in the team to have appeared in the Asian Cup before, added: “I’m extremely happy that we finally reached the next round after we so many problems at the beginning. I had to wait for 12 years for this opportunity. It’s worth the wait.”