Southeast Asia Thailand

OPINION: Is Thailand’s Obsession With the ‘Tragic Hero’ Holding our Football Back?

Obb Deewajin

Football Tribe Thailand


According to Aristotle, the Greek philosopher, a tragic hero is “a person who must evoke a sense of pity and fear in the audience. He is considered a man of misfortune that comes to him through error of judgment.” In essence, they are flawed characters who face downfall due to their own mistakes, garnering sympathy from the audience and evoking grief and pity through their struggle and suffering.

Romeo, from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, is one of literature’s the most iconic tragic heroes. In the story, Romeo’s true love for Juliet is his flaw. Upon discovering Juliet’s seemingly lifeless body, Romeo was heartbroken, left with no choice but to take his own life. His love for Juliet is pure. It is what we, the audience, wish to own and the reason why we are on Romeo’s side.

In Thai culture, a tragic hero is someone who is greatly celebrated. Take the tale of the “Bang Rajan Villagers” as an example. A tiny feudal village north of the capital who sacrificed their life fending off the invading Burmese army after the villager’s request for artilleries were denied. Did they succeed in protecting the capital? No. The entire population, said to be around hundreds, were wipe out within a few weeks. Yet, we are taught to sympathize with these farmers-turned-warriors. They may fail, and horribly too, but they gave everything they had for a noble cause. If the capital had granted Bang Rajan’s request for extra artilleries, things might’ve turned out differently. And that deserves our respect.

The tales of Bang Rajan Village is the most important segment in a Thai history lesson. Over and over again, big budget films based on these ancient tragic heroes are made, ingraining the idea of a tragic hero into people’s consciousness and planting the seed of this archetype into our culture. Thais, in general, love a tragic hero.

A modern example of Thailand’s obsession with this mould of character is the story of Athiwara Kongmalai, known commonly as “Toon Bodyslam,” and his fundraising marathon. The Thai rockstar collected over 1.3 billion baht by running across the country. The fund was then donated to 11 hospitals in need.

This is an amazing accomplishment which won the hearts of the country. Everybody was behind “Toon”. His effort brought attention to an urgent issue nobody previously dared to solve. Many lives were changed that day due to his noble actions. 

However, how much did the marathon really help in the grand scheme of things? The government is cutting funding on healthcare services, labeling it “unsustainable”. In the meantime, military spending continues to rise.

Without getting into politics, what Mr.Athiwara did was wonderful, but simply not enough. The 1.3 billion baht donated to those cash-strapped public hospitals is nothing compared to the junta’s brand-new 13.5 billion baht submarine from China.

As a country, we support Mr.Athiwara’s campaign. It feels good to see someone doing something right. Even though nothing has changed on a wider scale, we are happy with ourselves. Even though our efforts were futile, deep down inside we find that we are good people because we sympathise with someone fighting towards a charitable cause. A modern tragic hero.


Now on to the football.


Things were miserable for Thailand after their opening fixture capitulation by India. This, as well as the AFF Suzuki Cup failure a few weeks ago, spelled the end for Milovan Rajevac. Under the modest and humble caretaker coach Sirisak Yodyadthai, Thailand was able to bounce back with a victory over Bahrain and an impressive 1-1 draw with host UAE. The War-Elephants now qualified for the AFC Asian Cup knockout stage for the first time in 47 years.

Sirisak Yodyardthai too fills the role of a tragic hero
Credit – Changsuek

Suddenly, a disastrous tournament flips into an underdog story. A team low on confidence must now unite for a common goal. After once driving the team bus for his club Thai Honda Ladkrabang, Sirisak now has to chance to face the world’s highest-paid head coach in Marcello Lippi. We head into the game against China with nothing to lose, and 20 years old Supachai Jaided scores the opener as Thailand finished the first half slightly better than the Dragons.


The stage is set for the tragic hero. 


And just like how the Bang Rajan Villagers failed the fend off the much stronger invader, China too was able to penetrate through the War Elephant’s defenses. Substitute Chananan Pombuppha lost possession cheaply, allowing Xiao Zhi to finish from point-blank range. Moments later. Lippi’s men were awarded a penalty when Thai defender Chalermpong Kerdkaew caught Gao Lin with a rash challenge. The forward stood up and netted the penalty, China’s winner.

Getting thrashed was fine. At least we gave best, right?

This is not the first time we’ve mentally collapsed after conceding a goal. 11 years ago, Thailand needed to a win against Australia in the final group fixture in order to qualify. We went all out attack, playing without pressure just like against China. The Socceroos took the lead in the 21st minute, but Thailand was the better side, especially in the second half where we were creating chance after chances with our quick passing player.

It was only when Mark Viduka netted his side’s second in the 80th minute that Thailand threw in the towel. The game finished 4-0.

After that match, the consensus amongst fans was that we were better, we tried our best. Only if we were more clinical, things might’ve turned out differently. The classic Thai phrases;  “Mai pen rai, aow mai” (“It’s alright, let’s try again”) echoed across the nation’s media.

Fast forward to 2018. Not much has changed. Thailand showing glimpses of good football only to lose it all after conceding to a stronger opponent. The question is, why does this keep happening? Do we see the players as our tragic heroes? Has our ingrained love for character archetype become the parachute our players cling to when things go wrong? 

Maybe it’s time we stop giving a pass to “trying our best”. Maybe it’s time to stop celebrating losing in style. Maybe it’s time to toughen up. Work hard AND smart at the same time. In order to do so, the players must be critical with themselves. And this can’t happen in a culture that celebrates the defeat against China as a tragic hero’s badge of honor.