Kuala Lumpur – After a decade of frustration in the AFF Suzuki Cup, Panupong Wongsa believes that the time is right for Thailand to regain the title and their position as Asean football’s top side.
The Thais won three of the first four editions of the competition from 1996 to 2002, but since they beat Indonesia in a penalty shootout in Jakarta 10 years ago, they have failed to land the title again.
While they reached the finals in 2007 and 2008, they lost on each occasion to Singapore and Vietnam respectively. And two years ago, they failed to even reach the last four after a dismal campaign which saw them go winless in the group stage for the first time.
Centre-back Panupong was part of the squad that flopped in 2010 although their failure could be pinned to the team’s lack of preparation time with the Thai domestic football season ending just three days before their opening match of the tournament in Indonesia.
“It had an effect on the team,” said Panupong to affsuzukicup.com. “The players had just finished a long, hard season and we had only two or three days after the season before the start of the tournament.
“It was not good for the team – we had no time to prepare or gel together.”
Fortunately for Thai football, that issue was addressed this year when the league wrapped up in early November which gave coach Winfried Schaefer plenty of time to prepare his players for South-East Asia’s biggest football tournament.
They were able to fit in warm-up matches against Malaysia, Bhutan and Bangladesh, which all ended in victories that helped to boost the squad in their build-up to the AFF Suzuki Cup. And they maintained their momentum with victories against the Philippines, Myanmar and Vietnam during the group stage that stretched their winning run in international matches to seven games.
“Our preparations for this year’s tournament have been the best for many years,” said Panupong, whose side face Malaysia in the semi-finals, with the first leg in Kuala Lumpur on Sunday.
“We have been together for several weeks and we were winning our friendlies as well so the morale and the confidence of the team is building. The staff and the players are also familiar with each other and we are working and improving as a team all the time.
“It has been too long and now is the right time for us to bring the AFF Suzuki Cup trophy back to Thailand as champions.
“Now the league in Thailand is doing well, the fans are coming out and football in Thailand is going in the right direction. Winning this tournament would be another positive step for Thai football.”
Panunpong was sent off during Thailand’s 2-1 loss to Indonesia two years ago after he handled the ball that resulted in the penalty from which the home side scored the winning goal. While he insists that he has put the incident behind him, he is nevertheless determined to make amends for it.
“It wasn’t a good experience to be sent off in that crucial match but I have moved on from that,” he said. “Now the most important thing is to bring success to the Thai people.”