Putting their best foot forward

Twenty boys living in Thailand aged 11 and under will don their team colours and proudly head out onto a field on Saturday to do what they love most: play soccer. Only this time they won’t have the advantage of playing on their home country turf. They’ll be hitting a pitch in Singapore, playing against children in teams from Singapore and Malaysia.

After nearly four weeks of serious training, eleven-year-old Marut Srichawala is tired but excited. "Training has been very hard. It’s been intense," he says, sounding almost pleased about a slight ankle injury that’s keeping him off the field for the day. But he’s pursuing his destiny. "My dream is to become a soccer star. I want to play for Manchester when I grow up."

Left mid-field player Rikhi Anandsngkit, 11, says that he’s enjoyed training and has improved. "It’s been good, but also tough. It’s good because I’ve improved my stamina and my skills. When I grow up I want to be a pro." Man U would be his team of choice, but Real Madrid or Barcelona would also fit the bill.

Pongpisut Limgul, 10, a goalkeeper, is looking forward to the three-day trip. "I’m very excited because I’ve never gone to play soccer in another country. And it’s the biggest tournament I think I’ve ever played in."

Thanks to former professional soccer player Darren Jackson, who has been training schoolchildren in Thailand since the end of 1998, all twenty boys might be one step closer to their dream of making it in the professional world of soccer.

"I don’t really know the level of the kids in Bangkok compared to teams outside of here," Jackson says, explaining how the 11 and Under Asia Tournament came about. "I have a friend in Singapore [Paul Masefield] who’s also coaching children and we came up with the idea together of running an international tournament."

A connection in Kuala Lumpur added Malaysia to the plan, which involves holding three tournaments this year, one each in Singapore, Bangkok, and Kuala Lumpur. "It will give a good indication of what level they’re at," says Jackson.

While there is a Bangkok soccer league that the children could also play in, Jackson says that although the standard of play overall is probably about the same, the coaching isn’t professional.

If all goes well in Singapore, Jackson hopes to run a trip to the UK – where the best soccer players can earn up to 50,000 pounds a week – and where some of the more talented boys might be spotted by scouts. "Boys are picked at age 14, and as transfer fees become more expensive, clubs look to select up and coming players to keep under their wing."

This means honing the skills of the best 11-year-olds for at least another year or two before going.

But in the meantime, Jackson and the boys themselves are pleased with the progress that they’ve made. Just confirming that the trip would go ahead caused a dramatic increase in commitment to training among the 90 children he currently coaches. "Their training had really slumped. They were joking around and weren’t serious about it. When I mentioned Singapore, things really changed."

Anne Sinthunont, mother of Nicholas, 11, noticed her son’s enthusiasm rise when going to Singapore became a possibility. "He loves to play soccer, and as soon as the opportunity came up to go to Singapore, well there was lots of excitement. He started saying I’ve got to do this, I’ve got to try harder."

After the announcement, Jackson trained all of the children for a month, and then selected the best 20 aged 11 and under. The youngest in the team is eight. "They’re starting to play good football, they’re passing the ball around. If you just dangle that carrot in front of them, they will do what they have to do to get there."

Jackson, who has an FA coaching badge from England, has played for England under 21s, Oxford United, Reading, Hong Kong and Finland. His roaming clinic for children aged six to 12 operates at various international schools and on Saturdays for any child interested. About half the children are Thais, and half are from other countries.

But participation in the trip doesn’t come cheaply. Local sponsors Dtac, Global Silverhawk (Santa Fe), Nike, Gatorade and Ecco assisted in providing equipment, but the training and all-inclusive trip has cost each child approximately Bt20,000. While this is a small addition to what a student at an international school pays in fees, for others the sum is huge.

Tongchai Orktachan, or Rambo as he prefers, impressed Jackson so much with his potential two years ago that he’s been attending the clinic since at no charge. When some of the parents and teachers at NIST [where the boys train] heard that his family was unable to fund the Singapore trip, they chipped in to foot the bill. The trip will be both the first time Rambo has travelled by plane, and the first time he’s left Thailand.

Rambo says he’s very tired from the training, but playing soccer is fun. "I’m not really thinking a lot about [the trip]. I’m very excited and I would like to win." He estimates he’s improved by 50 per cent over the past few weeks. And he wants to play for Thailand when he grows up.

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