Former Sampdoria kid Chitchanok wants a shot with Thailand
While the Southeast Asian football community continues to marvel at the impact made by Thailand's Swiss-born midfielder Charyl Chappuis, his good mate Chitchanok Xaysensourinthone is eager for his chance to walk in his footsteps.
Chappuis is part of the War Elephants' dazzling golden generation midfield trio, who spearheaded their AFF Suzuki Cup win last year with Chanathip Songkrasin and Sarach Yooyen being the other two members.
The golden generation was the consequence of the Football Association of Thailand deciding to focus on youth development. The Thai federation wanted the Thai Premier League (TPL) to be the source for a healthy chain of future talent for the national team.
20-year-old Chitchanok could well be the next Thai superstar emerging out of this process. However, to be able to live up to his potential, he needs to steer clear of further injuries, which have already wreaked havoc in his brief career during which he has played for three different TPL sides scoring two goals.
The pacey striker spent his formative years in the town of Lausanne, Switzerland, where his Thai mother and Laotian father own a restaurant business. At 13, he joined Swiss club Yverdon Sport before moving on to join Lausanne-Sport U16s.
Having been called up to the Swiss national U17 and U18 squads, Chitchanok began attracting eyeballs from the big European clubs and subsequently signed with Serie A giants Sampdoria, where he trained alongside current Inter Milan forward Mauro Icardi.
Just when his football star was shining bright, a knee injury thwarted his progress. Chitchanok's world came crashing down, until football agent Pascal Stani Reichen took Chappuis and him to Thailand in 2013 to play for TPL champions Buriram United.
"Things were going well in Sampdoria," reminisced Chitchanok. "I trained with the B team where I played with Icardi. But then I suffered a knee injury and had to stop playing for a year. At that point, it felt like everything had finished. My dream of playing for a big Italian team with great fans was over.
"But Buriram came in and helped by giving me the opportunity to play in Thailand. They are a great club who took care of me even when I was injured. To this day, I'm grateful to the Buriram president, players and fans who are very nice people and who have a lot of love for their beloved club."
Despite struggling with injury, Chitchanok still took to the field for the Thunder Castles. But he was released after six months as the club could not fit him into a roster of experienced players who were challenging for major honours.
Thanks to his talent, Muang Thong United took a chance with him for the remainder of the season. Chitchanok made a magical debut for the Twin Qilin when he scored the only goal against Chainat FC in front of the adoring home fans at the SCG Stadium.
But his stay with Muang Thong abruptly ended and the young forward is disappointed that he never got to show his true prowess with the TPL giants.
"I still regret that club (Muang Thong)," said Chitchanok. "I played one game and scored against Chainat in the final game of the season. But my stay was cut short and I wish there was more time with the club.
"It's a pity because I really liked Muang Thong United and the fans. But I wanted to play and luckily BEC Tero Sasana general manager Robert Procureur took the opportunity to buy me from Muang Thong."
After he joined the Fire Dragons last year, the stylish forward waited patiently to make his way into a strong lineup that included Chanathip, Narubadin Weerawatnodom, Tanaboon Kesarat and Adison Promrak.
Knowing that he needed playing time to prove his worth in Thailand, Chitchanok asked the club for permission to be loaned out to PTT Rayong in the second tier. He began to find joy as he rebooted a floundering career before returning to BEC under the guidance of Bozidar Bandovic.
While the Fire Dragons have had a poor season by their lofty ambitions, Chitchanok -- who scored his first goal for the club in a 2-0 victory over Port FC in February -- is ready to chip in and get the Tero engine running again.
Missing the last 10 matches through injury, the youngster cannot wait to get back on the pitch and will bid his time under new coach Kenny Shiels as he seeks to take the team higher up the TPL standings.
He said: "We had a good coach in Bandovic and I liked his mentality of football. But now we have new coach Shiels and it is up to us to find a way to get back on top.
"BEC Tero have a strong team with the best Thai players of the league. But their exertions with the national team made it difficult this year. But we will come back because we have big quality in this group. We have to cope with the loss of Jay (Chanathip) but we still have good players such as Gilbert Koomson and Tanaboon.
"Tanaboon is the best player in Thailand I've seen. I like how he thinks on the pitch and playing football with him is easy. Another top player is Chappuis. He is a very intelligent player who keeps it simple. But he has bad luck with injury in the past few months. Hope he comes back strong!"
While pushing for a starting berth at BEC Tero is his immediate priority, Chitchanok's long-term goal is to follow in the footsteps of Chappuis and stake a claim for a spot in the Thai national setup. He has already had a taste of what it's like when national coach Kiatisuk Senamuang called him up in January as part of the provisional squad for the Olympic qualifiers.
"Coach Zico has been brilliant for Thai football and he spoke to me when I was in the provisional Olympic squad earlier this year. I know that if I play many club games and put in good performances, the call from the national team will come. And that will be a dream for me because this is the birthplace of my mum," declared the confident youngster.
"So my target is to be with them in January for the Olympic qualifiers and play alongside Tanaboon and Chappuis, who are some of the best players I've seen in Thailand. They both have a good footballing brain and like to keep the game simple like me. Chappuis is injured at the moment but I'm sure he will come back stronger and better for Thailand!"
Kiatisuk has already signaled his intentions to give Chitchanok a shot at fulfilling his Thai dream along with Army United's August Lohaprasert when he included the youngster together with SEA Games right-back Tristan Do for the 2016 AFC Cup tournament in January.
If the fleet-footed Chitchanok can get a run of games with BEC for the remainder of the season, there could be no stopping him from being the star attacker during the War Elephants' SEA Games football title defence of 2017.
ESPN FC editor Kelvin Leong is a former media officer for Singapore and ex-regional editor of ESPNSTAR.com. Twitter: @KelvinLeong29.