text by Yoichi Igawa
I asked a question to Chanathip in Japanese, which his interpreter then translated into Thai. The Thailand superstar smiled and thought about the question for a while, before staring into my eyes and replying.
Just like his gaze, I’m sure he must have trained and played football uprightly since childhood, always with a smile and a positive attitude.
“As you might know, Thai people are cheerful and always smile,” he said. “We like to share excitement with others and get to know new people.”
In the summer of 2017, the diminutive attacker came from so-called “the land of smiles” to Japan to play for Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo. At the time, Chanathip’s value was doubted by some, standing as he does at just 158 centimetres and weighing a mere 58 kilograms. Could a player who only had professional experience in Thailand shine in the J.LEAGUE? Is he too small after all?
Chanathip has completely silenced those critics. The maiden Thai J-Leaguer adapted to his new environment in the first six months, before becoming a key player in the team’s attack and scoring eight goals in 30 J1 matches in 2018. During that season, it was agreed that his contract would be converted from a loan to a permanent deal from the following year, and he was chosen by his teammates as Sapporo’s player of the season as well as being selected in the J1 team of the year.
Chanathip first visited Japan in November 2013. His then-club, BEC Tero Sasana (now Police Tero), had a partnership programme with Shimizu S-Pulse, which enables him to join the J.LEAGUE side in training.
“My first impression of Japan was that it is very clean. Everything is neat and tidy, and the air is clear. The food is so delicious and you can get anything you want in this country. Japan is one of the best destinations for Thai people and they like to visit Japan – I now understand the reasons why.”
Although Shimizu did not ultimately offer him a contract, three years later Sapporo did make a move.
“Sapporo offered to sign me because they highly rated my performances. I was delighted about that. When I trained with Shimizu, I felt I really wanted to play in the J.LEAGUE one day. I thought I would improve in the league, and the dream came true. I just said yes to them without any hesitation.”
As he imagined, Japan and the J.LEAGUE made him a better player. The numbers tell: in his first season (admittedly having joined in mid-season) his record was no goals and one assist; in his second season (2018) he recorded eight goals and two assists; and his third season (2019) Chanathip produced four goals and six assists.
“I’ve improved in all aspects,” Chanathip says. “Especially under the guidance of ‘Mischa’ (Mihailo Petrovic, the manager of Sapporo), my positioning has become much more efficient and I have learned about defending and discipline. Also, my shot has gained more power and precision. In short, Mischa’s style ensures all the players attack and combine smoothly. I like this ultra attacking football. The players enjoy this and it entertains the fans.”
How does he feel about the league as a whole then?
“Each club has quality and it’s a close competition,” he says with smile. “Lower ranked teams often win against clubs higher up the standings. I think the best quality in the J.LEAGUE is players’s discipline in general. All the players work very hard for their teams. And the league operations are truly professional, with every stadium and pitch immaculately prepared. Other Asian leagues such as the Thai Premier League should look to emulate this.”
During the interview, Chanathip was relaxed with an innocent smile on his face, but the 26 year-old national team player showed confidence as well. Asked who were the toughest defenders he’d faced in the J.LEAGUE, he answered with a grin, “Nobody”.
That could be percieved as an arrogant attitude, but in this case everyone in the interview room burst out laughing due to the light tone of Chanathip’s voice and his charming smile. Once the laughter subsided, he continued.
“Kashima Antlers and Kawasaki Frontale are strong in terms of their team quality,” he said. “Kashima is very aggressive when attacking and defending, pressing so hard, and their counter-attacking is acute. Kawasaki play very good passing game, making and using space, which means they can easily make a lot of scoring chances.”
Although Chanathip is able to analyse opponents like this, he seldom watches football from outside of the pitch. His idol was Diego Maradona who retired before Chanathip was aware of the Argentine legend – his father showed him Maradona’s clips many times - but he has never been keen to watch other players’ perform live. Though the Premier League is very popular back in Thailand, he has rarely sat down and watched a whole game.
“I like to play football,” he says, “but I don’t like to watch. I am a professional player and think professional footballers should want to be watched rather than to be watching themselves. I used to like Maradona and now like (Lionel) Messi, but I don’t watch any of his full games.”
Chanathip used to be called “the Thai Messi” in the media when he arrived in Japan. When I told him this, he smiled again and replied.
“No, I am not Messi from Thailand. I am Chanathip from Thailand.”
Putting his right thumb and forefinger around his chin, the superstar from Thailand grinned again.
“Sapporo is a wonderful place to live. It’s a big city but the air is very clean. I sometimes go out on my days off, taking pictures of the streets and relaxing at nice cafes. I like the local foods as well, my favourite is jingisukan.”
Chanathip is fond of living in Sapporo, where his club Hokkaido Consadole Sapporo is based. Since his move in July 2017, he has been used to “the good life” out there as well as the standard of the J.LEAGUE. The Thailand superstar likes to live a “normal life”, not that of a celebrity.
“In Japan, the life is very comfortable,” he said with obvious satisfaction. “But in my daily life, everything follows the same cycle – training, meal, training, meal, sleeping, and matches. I repeat this so there are not many differences from day to day during the regular season.
“Sometimes on days off I’ll go shopping, take a walk around the city, or drink a café latte. I only go traveling during long vacations. ‘Chana’ is a late riser and seldom goes out with friends.”
The diminutive attacker, who refers to himself as “Chana” from time to time, doesn’t experience any stress with life in Japan. However, he does feel restricted at times.
“I think it’s a little too strict when it comes to rules,” he says. “For example, the maximum speed on the highway is 80 or 100 kilometres-per-hour in Japan, which is kind of slow for us because we can drive at 150 in Thailand.
“Also, in general I feel Japanese people are not very keen to communicate with others, perhaps it’s due to the high level of privacy. There are many people living alone, which is different to Thailand. In my country, people tend to live with their families and like sharing fun times.”
Even so, Chanathip doesn’t feel homesick. When in Thailand for international matches and so on, he “can relax but that’s it”. Conversely, he feels itchy because of the difference in humidity when coming back to Japan from his home country. However, the light tone of his voice proves this is not an especialy serious matter, just a natural feeling.
On the pitch as well, he tries to “play naturally” and has gained “confidence” by recording good statistics in the J.LEAGUE. So, what is the 26 year-old aiming for next?
“I want to win titles in Japan,” Chanathip says. “Personally, I want to score more goals and play in the AFC Champions League. It would be fantastic if we were able to play there as representatives of the J.LEAGUE.”
In recent years, Thai clubs are gradually becoming more of a threat in Asian football. When asked about this, Chanathip grinned with confidence again.
“I don’t think Thai teams could cope with us,” he says mischievously. “For me, Japanese sides are the strongest in Asia.”
But including him, there are currently several Thai players in the J.LEAGUE, and more hoping to play in Japan. What advice does he have for them?
“Try hard - that’s it,” he jokes at first. “Sorry, I’m just kidding. If someone receives an offer from a J.LEAGUE club, it proves he is already a good player. But it is also very important to gain trust from your teammates and manager. Especially in Japan, discipline and attitude are basic demands. Therefore, you have to train so hard everyday and obtain better results.”
It sounds convincing from a player who adjusted in his first half-season in Japan and was then chosen in the team of the syear in his second. It’s interesting now to see what steps he will take in the future.
“If I get a chance, I would like to play in Europe one day,” he says. “As I said, I don’t watch a lot of football matches on TV, so I don’t have any favourite clubs or leagues. But I am not sure I’d be able to play in the biggest leagues such as England, Germany, or Spain because I have only played in Thailand and Japan. That’s why I think it is better to take things step by step. Anyway, there haven’t been any offers from Europe so far. I want to succeed here in the J.LEAGUE and gain attention from there.”
Until the interpreter finished translating, Chanathip stared into my eyes before putting his palms to his face and nodding. The little giant from Thailand then went back to his normal circulating life in order to keep improving.