WITH their chirpy banter, Thailand’s SEA Games footballers look relaxed ahead of their mission in Singapore, even though they carry the heavy burden of expectation on their young shoulders.
After all, they are the undisputed force in the competition.
In 27 previous editions of the region’s biennial sports meet, they won a record 14 gold medals, including eight triumphs on the trot from 1993 to 2007. Malaysia broke that stranglehold in 2009 and 2011 but the War Elephants stormed back to another win in 2013.
Any reference to the cool and calm vibe in the camp and remarks of “no pressure” brought a grin from Thailand national assistant coach Choketawee Promrut, who is leading the team since head coach Kiatisuk Senamuang is back in the kingdom preparing the senior side for the World Cup cum Asian Cup qualifiers.
Not only do they consider a 15th gold medal a must, the Thai fans demand the Under-23s deliver it through football with a swagger, starting with their Group B opener against Laos tonight at the Bishan Stadium.
Sounding quietly confident, Choketawee said: “We will play like how we did at the AFF (Asean Football Federation) Suzuki Cup last year… with an attacking brand of football.
“There is no complacency on our part. Every team is strong and there are no easy games. We need everyone to give 100 per cent.”
In December, Kiatisuk’s men won the AFF Championship for the fourth time with a style of one-touch, quick-passing football which he branded “tik tok”, inspired by Spain’s “tiki-taka”.
While Thailand will be favourites to beat Laos, Choketawee, 40, is not taking the three points for granted, saying: “They (Laos) are a compact team and they do have some pretty fast players.”
Added captain Sarach Yooyen: “They’ve played together for a long time and their team coordination is good.
“But we want the three points against them and we have to play to our highest level. We’ve come here to take the gold medal back home again with us.”
For the Laotians, their game plan is to stay compact and hold the fort against their opponents.
“Thailand are one of the strongest teams in this tournament and it will be difficult for us,” said Laos head coach David Booth.
“It’s important for us to start the game well. We need to be organised and careful we don’t give anything away in terms of territory and chances.”
The other teams in Group B are Brunei, Malaysia, Timor Leste and Vietnam.