The Thai national team have made it to the 12-team final phase for the second time and they begin their quest for a place in Russia 2018 on Thursday (Sept 1) when they square off against Saudi Arabia.
The country’s football fans, meanwhile, remain on tenterhooks, expecting a positive result despite the team’s 3-0 loss to Qatar in a warm-up game last Thursday night (Aug 25).
Thailand finished on top of Group F, two points ahead of group favourites Iraq in the second qualifying round to march into the last 12-team stage of the Asian qualifiers for the 2018 World Cup.
It is the second time Thailand have reached this stage with the first being way back in 2001 during the Peter Withe era, when 10 teams competed for places in the 2002 World Cup.
At that time, Thailand finished last in Group A with only four points from eight matches and Kiatisak was the national team striker.
Kiatisak is back, this time as the head coach of the Thai squad.
Thailand have been labelled as the kings of Asean soccer after their victories in the 2014 AFF Suzuki Cup and SEA Games in Myanmar (2013) and Singapore (2015).
They are the only Asean team to squeeze into the last-12 team stage of qualifiers for the 2018 World Cup.
Thailand have been drawn in Group B along with Asian champions Australia, Japan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
In Group A are South Korea, Iran, China, Qatar, Uzbekistan and Syria.
The top two teams of each group automatically earn tickets to Russia 2018. The two third-placed sides meet each other with the winners facing a Concacaf team in a play-off.
Players from Thai League giants like SCG Muang Thong United, Buriram United and Chonburi form the bulk of the 23-strong Thailand squad selected by Kiatisak, with young striker Siroch Chatthong being an exception.
Siroch has been drafted in from second-tier Division One club Ubon UMT and he made an impressive international debut in last Thursday night’s warm-up in Doha.
Kiatisak said, “We have followed Siroch’s progress for quite some time. I think he plays well for his club and we wanted to give him a chance in the national team.
“He will be a good example for the young players that they don’t need to play for the national U16 or U19 team to get selected for the senior squad. This will send a clear signal that players willing to work hard can succeed as well.”
After the loss to Qatar, Kiatisak said, “Siroch passed the test in this match. Today, we let him play the full 90 minutes and he has shown that he can be a striking option for the team in the future.
“He has good fitness and controls the ball very well. Overall, he was very impressive today.”
Charyl Chappuis, the Thai-Swiss player who has returned after nearly two years – he last played for the national team in the 2014 Suzuki Cup, which Thailand won.
He slipped off the centre stage after undergoing surgery and only returned to action this year, making an instant impression for Thai League club Suphanburi FC.
“Although Pokklaw A-Nan and Chanathip Songkrasin are doing a great job, Chappuis will give us a wider choice when selecting our attacking midfielders. He is good with free-kicks as well,” said Kiatisak.
He added, “In the past three years, we won the AFF Suzuki Cup and SEA Games, and also finished fourth at the 2014 Asian Games.
“We also participated in the pre-Olympic event, but this [the World Cup qualifiers] is a much bigger tournament for everyone in the team.
“This qualifying event leads to the 2018 World Cup and both myself and all the players in the team have been working very hard.
“We had the will and qualified for the 12-team final Asian qualifying event.
“The target we have for our match against Saudi Arabia is to claim a point or even spring a surprise and return to Thailand with three points to our credit.
“These are the best 23 players we have in the country. We must unite like we did three years ago to win the SEA Games title in Myanmar. Every player must forget about their club allegiance and focus on the Thai national team's interest.
“We should help each other realise our dream and try our best to achieve what our friends and Thai football fans expect from us.”
Meanwhile, Gen Somyot Poompunmuang, president of the Football Association of Thailand (FAT), is confident that the Thai national team will produce a good result against Saudi Arabia.
“We have only one route that will take us to where we want to be,” said Somyot, referring to the 2018 World Cup qualification.
“I am confident that our players can do it because we have speed and good football skills. I think we can beat Saudi Arabia, although it is an away match.”
After Saudi Arabia, Thailand will next host Japan on Sept 6.