TOKYO, Japan, April 15 – He is known as ‘Thai Messi’ and grew up idolizing Diego Maradona. Today, Chanathip Songkrasin is making a name for himself after joining one of the top clubs in Asia.
The 159-centimeter (five-foot-two) attacking midfielder is a hero in Thailand, where he captains the national team and advertises everything from credit cards to energy drinks.
Now the 28-year-old is breaking new ground after a January move to Japanese champions Kawasaki Frontale, who have won the J-League four times in the past five years.
Chanathip, also known as ‘Jay’ in his home country, is keen to show football-mad Thai fans that he can live up to their expectations.
“Soccer is a popular sport around the world and it’s very popular in Thailand as well,” he told AFP.
“The fans gave me the nickname ‘Messi’ and it’s a great honour, but Messi is a world famous player, the best in the world.
“I can’t be like Messi, but I’m happy to be called like that.”
Chanathip was born in central Thailand and first learned football from his father, a huge fan of Argentine legend Maradona.
His father showed him videos of the great midfielder and encouraged his son to copy his stunning tricks and dynamic dribbling.
Chanathip made his Thai league debut in 2012 and had a trial with German side Hamburg, before qualifying for Japanese side Consadole Sapporo in 2017.
He spent four and a half years with the Northern team, scoring 15 goals in 123 games, before joining Frontale this year for a J-League record transfer fee estimated at just under $4 million.
Now he’s pulling the strings from midfield for Japan’s top club and helped Frontale top the J-League table 10 games into the new season.
“I’ve been able to have a few games under my belt since I joined Frontale and to be honest I’ve had good times and bad times,” he said.
“I’m still getting used to my teammates and my bonding game with them could be better. I have to keep adapting and showing what I can do.
– ‘Professional mentality’ –
Chanathip says he struggled when he first joined the J-League, but “his imagination and vision grew” after almost five years in Japan.
He believes the J-League is a higher level than many European leagues and would like to see more Thai players follow in its footsteps by moving abroad.
“It seems disrespectful to say you can’t compare the Thai league and the J-League, but you really can’t,” he said.
“A lot of J-League players have a professional mentality and it’s been that way for a long time. It’s very difficult to compare the two.”
Chanathip says he is not “technically or physically ready” to play in Europe, but he has a lot of ambitions to fulfill in Asian club football.
Frontale has dominated the J-League for the past five years but is yet to win the AFC Champions League.
They will try to remedy the situation when this season’s group stage kicks off on Friday, with South Korea’s Ulsan Hyundai drawing, China’s Guangzhou and Malaysia’s Johor Darul Ta’zim.
Chanathip thinks Frontale, who never made it past the quarter-finals, is good enough to finally win the Asian title.
“When you look at the kind of football we play, winning the trophy is the goal and I think we are capable of doing that,” he said.
Chanathip will focus on his national team this summer when Thailand play their qualifiers in June for next summer’s Asian Cup.
The ‘War Elephants’ will face Uzbekistan, Maldives and Sri Lanka in a round robin and are desperate not to miss out after failing to reach the final round of the 2022 World Cup qualifiers.
Chanathip is confident his team will qualify for the Asian Cup final in China next year.
“As a player, if you think you can’t pass then it’s all over,” he said.
“I think we can do it.”