Thailand team manager: One goal, not 13, defines our World Cup experience
NICE, France -- When Sam Kerr was asked just after her four-goal haul against Jamaica for her moment of the Women's World Cup to date, she ignored her own remarkable feat and thought of the Thailand team.
The Australian star recalled a few days earlier, when Thailand scored its first goal of the tournament after trailing Sweden 4-0. The lone goal triggered an outpouring of emotion on the Thailand touchline, and shots of the "crying lady" -- as she was called on social media -- embracing manager Nuengrutai Srathongvian.
The "crying lady" -- and the focus of Kerr's favorite moment -- was Nualphan Lamsam, CEO of Muang Thai Insurance, one of Thailand's biggest insurance companies. She is also the team's primary benefactor and team manager, as well as president of Thai football side Port Football Club.
"I do not have an explanation for the tears, but that goal answered the heart of the Thai people," Nualphan told ESPN on Thursday. "My cousin asked me, 'Do you have a condition where FIFA would focus the camera back on your face?' And I was like, 'Come on, this is FIFA. I do not have any connections with FIFA! Of course not!'"
Just a few days earlier, Nualphan was in the team hotel in Nice and booked one-to-one meetings with the squad. The team was still coming to terms with its 13-0 opening defeat against the United States. Nualphan had apologised to the team's supporters via her Facebook page. The players sat in the lobby of the hotel, flicking through social media and seeing the negative comments sent their way after the record defeat.
Nualphan knew she had to pull the team back together with two games remaining in the group stage.
She wanted a second miracle.
The first miracle, as she puts it, came back in 2014, five years or so after she became involved with the team. She had previously worked with disabled athletes and always had a casual love for football, having taken in some of the big European domestic matches.
But then, when she was approached to become team manager of the Thailand women's team, she committed to helping as a benefactor and quickly read up on the offside rule, devouring all the books she could find on football. Her latest challenge has been VAR -- "Hmm ... it's OK," she says.
When she first met the team, she learned some players were from the poor northeastern part of Thailand. So as CEO of one of Thailand's largest companies, she helped them get their bachelor's degrees and gave them jobs, through which they earn about $600 a month.
Then, in May 2014, came the first miracle. "We played a playoff against Vietnam in Ho Chi Minh City and we won 2-1. That brought us to the World Cup in Canada," Nualphan said. "It was a historical moment for Thailand, for our football. Everyone expected it to be the men to get there first, but it was the ladies."
They lost against Germany and Norway in their group-stage matches but got a historic 3-2 victory over Ivory Coast. "We cried in Ottawa when we saw the Thai national flag on the ground. We were in the World Cup. Then many things passed and I stayed with the team and no one thought we would have a second chance at the World Cup."
Entering into their 2019 opener against the United States, Thailand did not expect the world's best side to put out its best lineup. Nualphan sat in the dugout watching all the goals go in, seeing her team's growing despondence. But then came what she calls the "beautiful scene" of Carli Lloyd and her American teammates talking to the team they had just beaten in record fashion. Nualphan led her players around the pitch at full time, looking to the crowd and remembering that feeling.
"The players cried, cried, cried and so we got them together and told them to think of the Thai people," Nualphan said. "Everybody wants to win, but the spirit was there and it was beautiful. In the changing rooms, [our team] cried and lost confidence and they felt fear as it was a new situation and very hard. With the digital world, everyone has their own media, and all the comments coming in were very negative. It broke their hearts then, but we had to accept it. We talked one-on-one and we got a plan together."
Their goal for their match against Sweden was simple: score. That's what she told the players -- they needed something to show for their incredible efforts to get to France. Thailand were down 4-0 as the clock ticked past 90 minutes; then, captain Kanjana Sungngoen picked the ball up, ran at the Sweden defence and slotted the ball past the keeper at the near post.
"It was like a miracle. That goal means everything for the team," Nualphan said. "The goal is the answer for all the players and for myself and the coach and it means everything to me. It also meant something to the Thai football fan -- we played with heart. It meant everything to me.
"All the comments [went from] negative to positive and it brought our spirit back to the team, and spirit and heart are the most important things in a team."
Thailand finished their World Cup campaign after a 2-0 loss against Chile on Thursday; and even though they needed to win 14-0 to progress to the knockout stage, Nualphan was still hopeful of another miracle before the match. It didn't materialize, but the team will hold on to that goal as a sign of what it hopes to achieve in the future.
"You know, that moment with the goal went around the world, and that surprised us. But I am so proud of them," Nualphan said. "I am 53 now, maybe I am getting too old for this ... but it brings me happiness. You can have all the money in the world as a footballer, but it is not as important as having heart and passion."