Thai football should not be underestimated
A blessing and a curse of Australia being a huge country somewhat out on its own (with the exception of New Zealand) is that it does not experience the regional rivalries.
A blessing and a curse of Australia being a huge country somewhat out on its own (with the exception of New Zealand) is that it does not experience the regional rivalries, petty jealousies, and sensitivities that are part of everyday life elsewhere in Asia.
East Asia has Japan, China and the two Koreas. South Asia is dominated by the fierce Indo-Pak rivalry, and then there are all kinds of factors at play to make the western reaches of the giant continent a hotbed of intrigue and football passions.
And then there is South-East Asia. It-s a hotbed of many things - politics, cuisine, peoples and football. And at the moment - though Malaysian fans may disagree - the Thai Premier League is the best in the region.
Thailand is the only ASEAN country to make any kind of impact on the revamped Asian Champions League, not forgetting the fact that BEC Tero Sasana made the inaugural final in 2003.
In the 2013 version, Buriram United got as far as the quarter-finals. Brisbane Roar fans were not surprised at the exploits of the team owned by Newin Chidchob, Buriram-s ambitious politician owner.
In the play-off to make the group stages, the Queenslanders made the long trip to north-east Thailand only to be eliminated after a penalty shootout followed a goalless draw.
Following that success, Buriram (who had looked decent in the 2012 competition in what was a really tough group) proceeded to finish above Vegalta Sendai (Japan) and Jiangsu Sainty (China), and behind only eventual finalist FC Seoul.
Better was to come, as in the second round ASEAN-s sole representative saw off Uzbek powerhouse Bunyodkor before they were once again dumped out in the knockout stage.
The club which was relocated to Buriram only in 2009 - and whose rise to the top of the Thai and ASEAN game remains a fascinating tale - has been battling it out for domestic supremacy with Muangthong United, based just north of Bangkok.
It is just a 30 minute taxi ride from the centre of the capital to a pleasant suburban setting and a pleasantly compact stadium that reminds of England - even if the balmy temperatures and K-Pop that blasts out pre-game on a regular basis do not.
Unfortunately Melbourne Victory fans, should the Thais progress past Indian and Vietnamese opposition, we will not get a chance to experience the atmosphere (with the added bonus of a post-match night out in Bangkok) as the play-off on February 15 will take place in Geelong.
Victory would still be wise to be wary. Muangthong have the winning habit, wealthy backers and a history of adding top international talent to a star-studded domestic squad.
Thailand-s top striker Teerasil Dangda and goalkeeping hope Kawin Thamsatchanan are two of the region-s biggest stars though Kawin, once linked to Manchester United, is struggling with injury.
The team recently signed former English international striker Jay Boothroyd, and have African and Eastern European talent to call upon too.
Clubs like Buriram and Muangthong form the vanguard of Thai football, constantly improving standards on the pitch and off (I spent a day at Muangthong a few years ago and the overall set-up is excellent and rivals anywhere in Asia) while others such as Chonburi are trying to keep up.
There is something of a gap between the haves and have-not, as is there anywhere. If the smaller outfits can follow suit, then the future really is bright.
And that may be the time when Thailand makes the breakthrough from regional power into an Asia-wide force.
The 'War Elephants' were by far the best ASEAN team in qualification for the 2014 World Cup - although that is not a huge compliment - and were within a chance of progressing to the final stage with one game remaining in the third round.
Their two performances against Australia were impressive. “We lost (at home) but this was our best match,” Winfried Schaefer, then Thailand coach told me.
“Many people say it is the best game played by the Thailand national team for 20 years. We played well, played some fantastic football. We played with three forwards and we passed the ball very well. Mark Schwarzer made some good saves and we couldn-t find a way past him. In the second half, we made one mistake and we lost one goal and it was 1-0. But we showed the talent in Thai football, home and away.”
The German puts the 2-1 defeat in Australia down to tiredness late in the game.
As has often been the case with the national team, it takes one step forward and one back as was the case in qualification for the 2015 Asian Cup.
Not making it out of a tough group with Iran, Lebanon and Kuwait was no disgrace, but losing five out of five is not good enough.
Technically, there is little wrong with the pool of talent but national team coaches continually complain of friendlies not arranged or cancelled, not enough time with the players and inconsistent standards in the training regimes of the local clubs.
Thailand needs a little more uniformity: more of an agreed way of doing things in the league, a more systematic approach to youth development, and more players playing in bigger leagues elsewhere in Asia.
There-s too much focus on trying to get young players European moves to clubs like Atletico Madrid, deals which sound great but contain no chance of player ever playing. Japan and South Korea are slowly waking up to the talent on offer in Thailand, and are better destinations.
Melbourne should already know all this thanks to Surat Sukha. There-s plenty more talent where he came from, and assuming Muangthong and Melbourne meet, fans down under are set to get another reminder that Thailand is a fast-growing power in Asia.