He is known as the “Thai Messi” and grew up idolising Diego Maradona — now Chanathip Songkrasin is making his own name after joining one of Asia’s top clubs.
The 159-centimeter 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 last five years.
Chanathip, also known as “Jay” in his home country, is keen to show soccer-mad Thai fans that he can live up to their expectations.
“Soccer is a sport that’s popular all over the world and it’s very popular in Thailand too,” he said.
“The fans gave me the nickname ‘Messi’ and that’s a big honor, 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 that.”
Chanathip was born in central Thailand and first learned soccer from his father, a huge fan of Argentine legend Maradona.
His father showed him videos of the midfield great and encouraged his son to copy his bamboozling tricks and dynamic dribbles.
Chanathip made his Thai league debut in 2012 and had a trial with German side Hamburg, before earning himself a move to Japan’s Consadole Sapporo in 2017.
He spent four and a half years with the northern outfit, scoring 15 goals in 123 games, before joining Frontale this year for a reported J. League record transfer fee thought to be just under $4 million.
Now he is pulling the midfield strings for Japan’s leading club and has helped Frontale top the J. League table 10 games into the new season.
“I’ve been able to get some games under my belt since I joined Frontale and to be honest I’ve had some good moments and some bad moments,” he said.
“I’m still getting used to my teammates and my link-up play with them could be better. I have to keep adapting and show what I can do.”
Chanathip says he struggled when he first moved to the J. League but his “imagination and vision have developed” after almost five years in Japan.
He thinks the J. League is a higher level than many European leagues and would like to see more Thai players follow in his footsteps by moving overseas.
“It sounds disrespectful to say that you can’t compare the Thai league and the J. League, but you really can’t,” he said.
“Lots of players in the J. League have a professional mentality and it’s been like that 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 plenty of ambitions to fulfill in Asian club soccer.
Frontale have dominated the J. League for the past five years but they have yet to win the AFC Champions League.
They will try to put that right when this season’s group stage gets under way on Friday, with the Japanese side drawn against South Korea’s Ulsan Hyundai, China’s Guangzhou FC and Malaysia’s Johor Darul Ta’zim.
Chanathip believes Frontale, who have never gone past the quarterfinals, are good enough to finally claim the Asian title.
“When you look at the kind of soccer we’re playing, winning the trophy is the target and I think we’re capable of doing it,” he said.
Chanathip will switch focus to his national team this summer when Thailand play their qualifying matches in June for next summer’s Asian Cup.
The “War Elephants” will face Uzbekistan, Maldives and Sri Lanka in a round-robin tournament and are desperate not to miss out after failing to reach the final round of qualifiers for the 2022 World Cup.
Chanathip is confident his team will make it to the Asian Cup finals in China next year.
“As a player if you don’t think you can get through then it’s all over,” he said.
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