Instead of sadness and disappointment, Thailand’s elimination at the hands of China left me with a feeling that I was completely unprepared for – emptiness. Instead of frothing at the mouth in response to some of the lackluster and dreary football I had seen, I was left more confused than outraged.
From day one, Thailand’s tournament promised to be a wild ride. Their 4-1 capitulation at the hands of India and coach Milovan Rajevac’s subsequent sacking left the side in tatters, with many journalists waiting to feed off the scraps of what was set to become a disaster for the Thais.
However, the side was quickly galvanized by a 1-0 victory over Bahrain. Shots of Chanathip’s top-class volley and the humble, modest coach Sirisak spun the headlines in a complete 180. From being the underperforming ex-giants of South-East Asia, the War Elephants had transformed overnight into plucky underdogs that we could all root for.
Their defensive performance against the UAE solidified that image, as did the comparisons between Sirisak and his opposite number, former World Cup winner Marcelo Lippi, heading into their knockout round game against China.
Another core tenet to the War Elephant’s narrative at this tournament was the idea of “freedom.” The side had the shackles placed on them by the pragmatic Rajevac removed, and they were able to play the expansive, freely-flowing game that was supposedly second-nature to them after their time under the stewardship of former coach Kiatisuk Senamuang.
Yet, as the side went out against China with a whimper, in hindsight, Thailand had failed miserably to conform to any of these narrative archetypes in the first place. The arrogance shown by certain members of the squad left the side unable to fulfill the role of an emotionally charged and mentally strong underdogs. Their lapses in concentration looked nothing like a side returning to a system or style of play that had been bred into their subconscious.
As much as sport’s unpredictability serves as its key selling point, there remains a certain part of all supporters that longs for their own team’s experience to follow a conventional ‘story arc.’ Even if the resolution may be ultimately unsatisfying, (if, for example, a team’s hard work went to waste with a group stage elimination) there is a certain amount of finality about any conclusion when it is at least bred from and reflective of the rest of the ‘story’ that it tails.
I may be completely off the mark here, but I can’t help but blame the disjointedness of the whole affair for being this campaign’s biggest letdown. International tournaments such as these revel in their ability to generate stories, and the early signs promised that Thailand could be one of the major narrative threads running through this competition. Instead, their insipid elimination at the hands of China makes their contribution to this tournament painfully forgettable and frustratingly incomplete.