BANGKOK, July 27 (Reuters) - After 15 years in international soccer, South East Asia’s most famous player Kiatisak “Zico” Senamuang has decided to call it a day — at least for now.
Thailand’s soccer president, national coach, fans, and even a government minister have urged the charismatic Thai striker not to hang up his boots, but the 34-year-old insists his mind is made up.
Although he says his retirement is for good, unfinished business might make him return to soccer one day very soon.
“I always dreamt of playing at the World Cup, but that never happened,” Kiatisak told Reuters.
“But as a coach, I know I can take Thailand to the World Cup for the first time. Everyone knows I want the job, and I’m ready now. They just have to ask.”
Kiatisak has notched up 129 national team appearances and scored 65 goals — he claims 100 — making “Zico” a household name in Thailand and inspiring millions of youngsters to take up the game.
Although not quite a dream move, he caused a sensation back home in 1999 when he became the first South East Asian to join a European club, lowly northern English team Huddersfield Town.
But having reached the not-so-giddy heights of the English second division, Kiatisak realised life in the hilly wilds of Yorkshire wasn’t really for him.
“It was so difficult to adjust with the climate, speaking English, and not eating Thai food,” said Kiatisak, whose framed photographs of himself in a Huddersfield strip have pride of place on his office walls.
“I wasn’t happy, I wasn’t good enough, it was too cold and I was homesick. I learned how tough football in England can be, but it made me stronger.”
The former Thai skipper caused a stir in 2004 when he stood up to then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who had demanded an overhaul of the national team and accused the players of lacking heart when they were eliminated from World Cup qualifiers.
In a stinging rebuke, Kiatisak said the coup-ousted billionaire tycoon — who took full control of English Premier League club Manchester City on Monday — did not have a clue about soccer and should keep his mouth shut.
“He was a very powerful man, but I spoke from my heart, to protect my boys,” he said. “When someone falls down, you help them back up.
“I still believe he doesn’t know much about football — he just plays golf.”
While he waits for a shot at the national team job, Kiatisak is enjoying being an entrepreneur, running a real estate company, a furniture factory and a sports events management company.
But he says he will put all that on hold if he gets the chance to turn the struggling Thais into a major players in Asian soccer.
“I want to find a way for Thailand to beat teams like Japan, South Korea, Iran and Saudi Arabia,” said Kiatisak, who has played professional soccer in five countries.
“And when we beat these teams, then we can seriously think about going to the World Cup.”