Thais love futsal

DEDICATED: Manager of the Thai national team Adisak Benjasiriwan.  Cicra 2007. Pic. Unknown
DEDICATED: Manager of the Thai national team Adisak Benjasiriwan. Cicra 2007. Pic. Unknown

Peter Dench

Peter Dench

The Thais are football-crazy and can be found glued to their televisions every week watching English Premier League matches and wearing Manchester United and Liverpool shirts - and none is keener than former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, the former owner of Manchester City Football Club.

But, for all their enthusiasm for the sport, the Thais have never been very successful at the "big" game and lie 117th out of 200 in the Fifa Coca-Cola World rankings.

But futsal is a different story and a game in which they excel. Futsal is the official Fifa version of five-a-side football and has become Thailand's favourite sport. The name is a combination of the Spanish word for football - "futbol" and "hall", which is "sala".

There are over 10000 futsal teams in Thailand. Part of the success of the sport is due to the fact that it can be played in a small space - anything from a sports hall to a tennis court, a car park to a side street. A futsal pitch can be squeezed in almost anywhere.

The stars of Thailand's national futsal team are 21-year-old twins Ekaphan and Ekapong Suratsawang from Bangkok.

Twins have a special place in the heart of the nation since 1811, after the birth of Chang and Eng, two boys who were joined at the chest.

The two became international celebrities, toured the world and even got married to a pair of sisters. Several children followed and they lived until age 63. With "Siam" being the former name of Thailand, conjoined twins have also commonly been known as Siamese Twins since then.

But Thailand also has a history of sporting twins. There were the "Thaiphoon Twins" - Surapong and Supanus Ariyamongkol - Olympic sprinters in the 1970s.

In the 1980s the "World Champion Twins", Khaosai and Khaokor Galaxy, were the only twins ever to hold world championship boxing belts at the same time.

The "Tennis Twins", Sonchat and Sanchai Ratiwat, are doing well on the world tennis circuit and now the "Futsal Twins" have become Thailand's latest sporting heroes.

The Thais are Asia's leading futsal nation, ranked sixth ion the world, and they have reached two Fifa Futsal World Cup Finals, in 2000 and 2004. They will surely also be there for the 2008 championship in Brazil.

Football has been popular since the 1950s in Thailand but it was when the national futsal team acquired the Brazilian coach, Glaucio, that the game really took off.

The current head coach, Pattaya Piemkum, gives full credit to his predecessor.

"He laid down proper training systems in terms of fitness and weight training as well as teaching new techniques and tactics," says 39-year-old Piemkum, who has only recently stopped playing international futsal himself.

Serious competitions are played in indoor arenas and the Thais love it because the air-conditioning makes it a cool place to be and much more pleasant to watch than in the stifling 30-40ºC temperatures and high humidity of an outdoor stadium.

The poorer kids and young men often can't afford to buy a proper ball and make do with cheap plastic balls or even tennis balls. But they play for hours, honing the skills that make the Thais so good at the game.

They are not generally a tall people but height is less important in a game where good balance, explosive speed and the ability to twist and turn quickly are ideally suited to the wiry and agile Thai physique.

The Futsal Twins still live in a flat in the area of central Bangkok where they were brought up. Ekaphan, known as "Ball", and Ekapong Suratsawang, known as "Boy", have kicked a ball together since they were old enough to walk. They have been playing regular football since the age of seven, often for three or four hours a day. At age 15, as students at Patumkongka School, they started playing futsal for the school's team. This was when they began to catch the eye of scouts and coaches.

The twins play for Chonburi Blue Wave in the Futsal League. Ekapong, the younger by one minute, was picked for the national team two years ago and Ekaphan joined him a year later.

"Having a twin who plays the same sport is a very positive thing," says Ekapong. "It helps improve my skills because we are always together and we have been in the same team since we were in school. We train together, and we know each other's game by heart."

The brothers like a the fast pace of the game. Goals are frequent and can be scored in a variety of ways and techniques, which is motivating for the players and entertaining for fans.

Besides playing for the national team, the twins also use their knowledge to give something back to the community they grew up in. They have been teaching futsal techniques to the little kids from the flats where they live.

"We have played here ever since the pitch was still just dirt - we sometimes played barefoot. Only recently have they developed it into a cement pitch and painted it," Ekaphan says.

"I want the children to be able to improve themselves by playing Futsal because they do not have the opportunities of wealthier kids," he added. "I enjoy spending time teaching them."

Adisak Benjasiriwan, manager of the national team, is convinced that futsal has many benefits. He wants everyone to have the opportunity to play and, along with the Thai Football Association, has been working with the Bangkok City local authority to create more futsal pitches.