Goals and glory
PHUKET: For the lucky boys at the Youth Football Home, the world is at their feet, writes Dane Halpin.
Friday 29 June 2012, 09:00AM
To the rich stars of the English Premier League, football represents a life of extravagance, of fast cars, fast women and multi-million dollar salaries.
For a group of 32 young boys in Thalang though, football is about something much more practicable – keeping them off the streets, away from drugs, and providing them with opportunity in life.
So far, it’s succeeding.
The boys are residents of the Youth Football Home (YFH), a purpose-built facility on eight rai of land, set up to provide education and training for orphaned and destitute boys throughout the country.
To be accepted, the boys must demonstrate enormous potential – or at least enormous passion – for the game of football, and in return they receive education, board and full-time professional coaching.
EYES ON EUROPE
In charge of the football operation is sport manager Hannu ‘Chang’ Tuukkanen.
For the 50-year-old from Finland, the move to Phuket was almost a complete accident. A Pro-licenced coach in Holland, Belgium and Finland, Hannu was heading for big opportunities in Europe.
He had already been involved in 12 UEFA Cup and UEFA Intertoto Cup matches as coach, and found success in the Finnish and Estonia Cups.
But a simple airline sale changed his course.
Hannu’s son – half Finnish, half Thai – was in Thailand in 2006, and was due to play basketball against a Vietnam side. When Hannu spotted some cheap flights from Finland, he decided to join him.
“One day, he [my son] was very slow to get ready in the morning, and there was a traffic jam in Bangkok,” Hannu recalls.
“I was getting very frustrated so I said ‘I’ll wait for you downstairs’. And I opened the newspaper in the lobby and there was an advertisement about this project [the Youth Football Home].”
Hannu originally thought nothing of it. He put the newspaper back on the rack, took his son to the basketball game, and returned to Finland.
But the seed had been planted.
After a few weeks, Hannu was still thinking about the advertisement. He checked online and discovered the position was still available. To cut a long story short, he applied, and got the job.
“I changed everything, turned my life upside down. My colleagues in Europe were asking ‘why?’. But I told my children I will go for one year, and see what happens.”
Six years later, he’s still here.
“After two years, I started to think now I have to make my decision whether to stay or go, because if I don’t go now, it’s too late [to go back to Europe].
“I decided to stay... and I’m very happy. I still have goals, and I still dream that I can help some boys, because I know what they need if they go to Europe.”
The YFH was founded by Hong Kong-based German businessman and philanthropist Henrik Lorenz in May 2006. Henrik was a first division goalkeeper in Hong Kong during his younger days and, as the founding trustee of the charity, provided all the funds to build the Home.
Sadly, Mr Lorenz passed away in late 2006, aged 63 – weeks before Hannu arrived – as his dream was just coming to fruition. But his legacy lives on through his various charities and, in Phuket, through the work of Hannu and the other staff at the YFH.
The Home started off as a small operation of only eight boys. Now up to its maximum of 32, all aged between eight and 16 years, the YFH is starting to produce some of the most talented young footballers in the country.
The main reason for the success, says Hannu, is because the boys are being taught exactly what it takes to make the cut in the fiercely competitive world of European football.
“I am not here to teach Thai people how to be foreign people, but I’ve tried to give the boys what they need to succeed in Europe,” Hannu says.
“I think these boys are of a much higher level than any other players in Thailand, and they are much more ready for Europe than any other Thai players.”
However, finding the boys who are suitable, and then turning them into professional-quality players, is not an easy task, with many other obstacles standing in Hannu’s way.
In his early days with the YFH, the Finn travelled the country, holding tryouts for prospective football talents that might be suitable candidates for the home.
But that proved a difficult tactic. Hannu recalls one time in Petchaboon Province, about 250km west of Khon Kaen, he was asked for money from a local police chief in exchange for taking three boys from the temple who needed homes.
“It was then I said, ‘no more try-outs outside of Phuket’. Now, if students want to come down from the north to try out, we pay for their transport, food, and accommodation.”
Obviously, football skills are a prerequisite for admission to the YFH, but more than that, Hannu says passion and personal circumstances are the most crucial factor.
“I concentrate on the boys who really need homes. I don’t look how many times they can juggle the ball or whatever.”
And for all the focus on training them for possible futures in the European leagues, the main objective of the Youth Football Home remains the boys’ future, whether that involves football or not.
That means there is no strict cutoff age for when the foundation will stop supporting the boys. As long as they are receiving formal education, the foundation will continue to support them financially.
If they are accepted though, the boys are made to work for their opportunities.
“We wake up at 5.45am. They want to wake up at 4am, but I let them sleep in a little bit,” Hannu jokes (though sometimes it’s hard to tell).
“We go to the field, and we might play badminton, or go running, or anything just to wake up. Nothing too serious.
“Then they go to school, and come back to train from 4.30-6pm.”
The boys are usually given the day off from training on Wednesdays, and taken out for recreational activities on Sundays, such as a trip to the cinema or the pool. They also assist with basic household chores like cooking and cleaning – the YFH is preparing these boys for life, as well as football.
But the rigid discipline is necessary if they wish to succeed, according to Hannu, who says the lack of serious football competition in Phuket makes it difficult for local kids to reach an elite standard.
“It’s very difficult for kids here on this island. Especially for the boys that go to Europe, it’s difficult for them to compete on that level.
“It’s the same problem that I faced when I came here. They love what I call ‘sanook’ [fun] football.
“If you look in Thailand, so many people play football. But if I look at the players who sit on the bench of [Bangkok-based Thai Premier League side] Muang Thong United, I do not feel they are so hungry.
“[Here at the YHF] their football skills, the way they fight, is different from other Thai players.
“I always say: If they have a Thai boxer’s heart, and if they concentrate like Thai snooker players, then they will be brilliant.”
Hannu is evidently producing a number of brilliant players, reflected in the wealth of international experience that many have earned from a young age.
The most talented among the boys at the YFH trained with German side VfB Stuttgart in 2009 and in 2010. Another three boys were sent to train with a Finnish club in 2010.
As this issue of The Phuket News goes to print, a team of U-14s are on their way to Singapore for a tournament, then in September, the U-17s will travel to Hong Kong.
In October, two of the boys will have the chance to train at the prestigious Arsenal Academy, and play a few semi-professional games while there.
“I’m not stupid though,” says Hannu. “When I send boys to Europe, I won’t send any boys who I’m afraid are not ready... Arsenal, for example, it is such a big club, and there are so many footballer who dream to go there and see what they have, so I am not going to make the mistake of sending some boys there and after one or two day’s training…” he trails off, but the point is made.
What is clear is that Hannu is truly pragmatic in his approach to the boys’ future. He is under no illusions about the likelihood of them actually making the big time – he has spent many years playing and coaching in Europe, and knows the clock is ticking.
“The train goes very fast, and if they haven’t done anything by 18, then it’s very difficult.”
POOL OF TALENT
Suttipong Yaifai, 17, has lived at the YFH for the past five years. Originally from Phang Nga, Suttipong was told about the foundation by a teacher, and he says it was the best thing that ever happened to him.
He has since been to England to train with Manchester City, and travelled to China to play in The Great Wall Cup.
“I like to live here. I think it’s fun,” he says.
“My dream is to play for Chelsea, even though I like the Spanish style of football more.”
But given his age, a career in European football for Suttipong is now looking unlikely. Instead, he will move to Bangkok next year to attend university.
The foundation will pay for his studies and assist with his living expenses while he is studying.
Another of the YFH’s residents, 14-year-old Phonlawat Nanta, is “the best central defender in Thailand for his age,” according to Hannu.
With age on his side, he may be one of the greatest hopes for the YFH.
Phonlawat has already spent two weeks training with VfB Stuttgart, and he is one of the duo travelling to the UK in October to hone their skills at the Arsenal Academy.
Looking at his stature, Phonlawat will be at an obvious physical disadvantage against his European opponents, but that doesn’t seem to phase him too much.
“I’m not scared about going,” he says. “I’m very excited... I like to play in Europe very much.”
Similarly, Wuttichai Sooksen, 16, has a bright future ahead. He has already played in Sweden, Denmark, Finland and China, as well as playing 67 international games with 26 goals next to his name.
He, too, will train with Arsenal later this year, and while his ambition remains to play with Chelsea, he says he’s not too fussy.
But the dilemma remains for Hannu of how much to balance the goal of playing football in Europe with the boys’ academic pursuits.
“My dream now for these boys is that they can go all the way,” he says. “They don’t need to play for Arsenal. If they can earn money and play as a professional it could be in any country in the world.
“But these things don’t come easy.
“I want to keep as many boys as we can off the streets and away from drugs, which is a very big problem here in Thailand. I have a few boys topping their class at school, so I’m not too worried if they don’t pursue a career in football.
“We have one boy who is 17 and wants to be a doctor. If he has to choose whether to play for Phuket FC or be a doctor, I would say please, become a doctor.”
As Hannu says: “This is a very unique foundation.”
YFH does not accept monetary donations. However, anyone wishing to help can donate equipment such as boots or books. For more info, contact sport@thephuke tnews.com, or visit youthfootballhome.com.