The 2019: Women’s World Cup: Thailand, The Morning After

Thailand’s 13-0 drubbing at the hands of the USA in the Women’s World Cup last night might have been a record for the competition, but it wasn’t the first time that a huge margin of victory has been recorded in it. In 2007 in Shanghai, Germany defeated Argentina by eleven goals to nil, the record that was broken yesterday evening. It’s possible to argue in a broad sense that these results are inevitable in what remains a developing game. Some countries have deeper pockets than others, some develop at different rates to others. Inequalities are accentuated when resources are scarce and there remains a tendency to believe that, when this is the case, the women’s game is more likely to pay the price of that scarcity than the men’s game.

All of the above may be true at a macro level, but the example of how Thailand came to be at the 2019 Women’s World Cup finals is complex and unique, and it’s a story that touches upon issues which reach beyond the (not inconsiderable) matter of equity between men’s football and women’s football. The team that lost so heavily last night didn’t magically materialise in Reims from out of nowhere. Indeed, this wasn’t even the first time that Thailand have reached the finals of the Women’s World Cup. They did so four years ago, even winning one of their three group matches (3-2, against fellow finals debutees Cote D’Ivoire) once they’d got there.

So, how did Thailand qualify for these finals, and what does this tell us about the development of the women’s games in regions outside the first world, where money can be found to fund anything, should the will to do so be there? This story begins at the 2011 Women’s World Cup in Germany when, following their match against Sweden, two players from the North Korean team tested positive for a banned anabolic steroid. This in turn triggered a test of the entire North Korean squad, which found that a total of five players tested positive in this respect. The reason given for this by the North Koreans was almost poetically detailed and absurd. It was claimed that several of their players had been struck by lightning and that, to recover from this, they’d taken a traditional remedy made from the glands of a musk deer. Perhaps unsurprisingly, FIFA weren’t sold on this explanation and banned the North Korean team from entering the 2015 tournament in Canada.

This had a knock-on effect upon the whole AFC confederation. North Korea were, whether legitimately or not, one of the region’s strongest teams, and had qualified for every Women’s World Cup since 1999, beating Nigeria twice and Denmark once over the course of these three tournaments. Their elimination from the 2015 reckoning, coupled with the decision to expand the tournament from 16 to 24 teams from 2015 on, opened up a space that was taken by Thailand, but the matter didn’t end there, either. The previous ban meant that North Korea were unseeded in qualification for the 2018 AFC Women’s Asian Cup, which was to double up as the qualifying tournament for this summer’s World Cup. In that qualifying competition, North Korea were drawn against South Korea in a group of five, and with both teams winning all of their other matches and drawing with each other in Pyongyang, South Korea qualified for the finals on goal difference.

The finals of the 2018 AFC Women’s Asian Cup were held in Jordan in April of last year, with the top five teams from the eight qualifiers also winning a place in France this summer. Thailand were beaten 4-0 by China in their opening match, but beat the host nation and the Philippines in their other two matches. Losing on penalty kicks to Australia in the semi-finals was an irrelevance in terms of World Cup qualification. All four semi-finalists were already through, with South Korea claiming the fifth place after winning a play-off match against the Philippines. Had North Korea been seeded throughout the entirety of this, it’s likely that Thailand might have slipped down the places and would not have made it to France at all, though it should be emphasised that it was South Korea who qualified in last place, and were therefore the most direct beneficiaries of the knock-on effects from North Korea’s ban.

So there are the nuts and bolts of what happened, but what about the broader question of the funding of football – and in particular women’s football – in Thailand? After all, it’s easy to shout “throw more money at it”, but this doesn’t guarantee that any money redistributed will be spent wisely. The short answer is that football in Thailand is supported by a benefactor, Nualphan Lamsam, the general manager of Muang Thai Insurance, one of the country’s biggest insurance companies. Her company employs national team players as sales representatives during periods without training or matches, while she also acts as chair of a club in the men’s league and her family’s company sponsors the newly-formed women’s league.

There is nothing to suggest that Lamsam’s munificence is influenced by anything malign, but it does shine a light upon how difficult the redistribution of funding might be, even if there were any inclination on the part of FIFA to do so. There are different leagues and different clubs. There is a national federation. There is also a benefactor. And, within the AFC, there are forty-seven members, of which Thailand is far from the worst off. If money is to be spent, how should it be spent? Is it more important to build up the infrastructure of Thai domestic football in a general sense, or should money be spent on achieving equity between male players and female players? It has suggested that the Thai women’s players aren’t pushed hard enough by their coaches, so what is to be done about this perception of women (which has been voiced by senior players themselves) as being somehow “delicate” or that they may have an inferiority complex when faced with strong opposition? Better coaching may be the answer, but even this doesn’t guarantee success.

Perhaps a part of the problem is that unpicking this maelstrom of issues requires shifts in attitude both inside and outside of football. Some might argue that no amount of money is going to shift ingrained cultural attitudes. Some might argue that, with so many cogs in the wheel, targeting anything beyond qualification for the Women’s World Cup finals is a fool’s errand. Between the specific circumstances within Asian women’s football which benefited Thailand over the last ten years and the broad questions of how to continue to grow the women’s game in the world outside of Europe and North America, what becomes clear is that it isn’t a state of affairs that can be eradicated and replaced with a wave of the cheque book. It’s a long-term project, and it’s entirely possible to argue that, having qualified for two tournaments in succession, Thailand are already making progress on their journey, regardless of how it might have looked in Reims last night. It is to be hoped that such a heavy defeat doesn’t distract from the longer-term aims of bringing a sustainable domestic football culture to this or any other country.