Can Thailand pull off another desert heist?

More than 25 years after the so-called ‘Blue Diamond Affair’ which continues to sour relations between Thailand and Saudi Arabia to this day, the nation’s football team heads to the Kingdom aiming to pull off a heist if not quite of the same level then certainly not far off it.

In 1989 a Thai migrant worker by the name of Kriangkrai Techamong found himself working as a cleaner at the palace of Prince Faisal bin Fahd when he hatched a sudden plan to enjoy riches beyond his – or most people’s – wildest dreams.

One night he crawled into a bedroom of the palace through a second story window, prized open a safe and made off with almost 100 kilograms of jewelry including a rare and incredibly valuable blue diamond.

After having the loot couriered back to Thailand he fled the country shortly after and what followed was two and a half decades of acrimony as four Saudi officials sent to investigate the theft were assassinated, the wife and child of a jeweler who allegedly purchased the haul were also killed and when a large tranche of the bounty was eventually returned they were found to be fakes around the same time that several high-ranking Thai officials and their wives were pictured draped in sparkly new jewels.

The number of Thai workers employed in the country plummeted from a high of 200,000 to barely 10,000 and diplomatic relations were damaged to a level that still simmers.

Fast forward to 2016 and as fate would have it Thailand – competing in the final qualification round for the World Cup in 16 years – not only drew the Saudis but were also handed their very first assignment away to the Green Falcons in Riyadh.

Diplomatic concerns of a different nature were raised in the buildup when whispers started to spread that coach Kiatisuk Senamuang had referred to the Saudi match as ‘merely’ a warm-up for their clash with Japan back in Bangkok five days later.

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The coach denied he’d made those remarks upon arrival in the country at the same time as declaring that Thailand ‘feared no-one’ in the group and that he’s looking to take at least a point back home with him following Thursday’s match.

Preparations have been rocky with a 3-0 loss to Qatar denting what had been a fantastic record prior to that with the team suffering only one loss in their twelve previous outings whilst an injury to Muangthong’s Adisak Kraisorn has robbed the team of a cutting edge in front of goal.

There’s little doubt though that the squad Kiatisuk has nurtured, many of them from youth level, represents the best chance a Southeast Asian nation has had of qualifying for the World Cup since the region’s sole appearance (Dutch East Indies) way back in 1938.

The team has an outstanding goalkeeper in Kawin Thamsatchanan, a solid defence in front of him, dynamism on the left in the shape of Teerathon Bunmathan, a genuine playmaker in Chanathip Songkrasin and one of the region’s deadliest finishers in Teerasil Dangda.

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Throw the returning Charyl Chappuis into the mix after he played more than half the match against Qatar and there are few holes in the team that despite the difficult group should be expected to perform well.

Both Australia and Japan are in the process of blooding the next generation, as a host of established stars come to the end of their careers, and neither seem to have the ‘aura’ of teams from past qualification campaigns where they always appeared to be clear favourites for qualification.

Saudi Arabia have the technical skills and physical ability to knock off anyone on their day if they can keeps things together mentally, the UAE possess Asia’s premier creative talent in the sublime Omar Abdulrahman and a coach who, like Kiatisuk, has guided many of the players from their youth careers to the senior team whilst Iraq arguably harvest more ‘pure footballers’ than any of the other five nations.

This is genuinely a wide-open group and a wonderful chance for Thailand to make a serious charge at either one of the two direct qualification spots or at the very least, a third-placed finish that would ensure a final series of playoff matches to reach Russia.

It all begins though in the searing heat of Riyadh where temperatures are expected to reach upwards of 45 degrees Celsius but that may well play into the hands of the Thais.

Where the Saudis have the clear advantage in terms of a robust, physical, style of play as well as the backing of what’s expected to be a capacity 70,000 strong crowd at King Fahd Stadium the Thais arguably possess more players with a better technique and range of passing.

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It’s there when the heat takes the pace out of the game and the tempo dips that the visiting side will be able to make the ball do the work for them and if they can maintain possession for decent spells they’ll tire the home side out and that’s when they can strike as the match wears on.

Fourth in the 2014 Asian Games, SEA Games champions in 2015 and the defending Suzuki Cup title-holders there’s little question that the War Elephants are the heavyweights of their region and now comes the next step in the evolution of Thai football.

This is a wonderful moment for all Southeast Asian nations and shows just what can be achieved with a strong domestic league, continuity of staff and a vision of purpose and the time is right for the region’s standout nation to find out just where they stand in the continental order.

They might not be making off with a stash of jewels but a point or more would be just as precious a return for Kiatisuk and his men to leave Riyadh with.

Scott McIntyre

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