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Win or lose: Why the women's volleyball team has a special place in the hearts of Thai supporters | Main Stand

Very few Thai sports teams have gathered the whole family together in anticipation of a live broadcast match. However, that’s precisely what the National Women’s Volleyball Team has done, rising from almost nothing to become an international sensation. 

 

The excellence of the Thai Women’s National Volleyball Team speaks for itself, as they have gone from perennial underdog to one of the best teams in the world. Ranked 14th globally by the FIVB (Fédération Internationale de Volleyball), they have won 2 Asian Championships, 1 AVC Cup, and managed to finish 4th and 5th at the World Grand Prix and World Grand Champions cup, respectively. 

Despite being smaller in stature than most of their rivals, they have captured the hearts of fans across the country. Their journey lit a spark of faith in what’s possible for Thai sports teams. From having just 13 spectators in the arena at the start of the last decade, their matches are consistently sold out and see soaring TV ratings. What is the story behind their rapid rise?

“It started from the craziness of one person who told the (volleyball) association: ‘I wanted to take our national volleyball team to the world-class level’. That man is Coach Aod (Kiattipong Radchatagriengkai),” explained Aek-Prawit Anantpakdee, a volleyball journalist from SMMTV. 

“Everybody thought that Coach Aod was lying. How can we compete internationally when all our athletes are tiny, and the association has so little funding? Volleyball was a sport that had been tucked away and looked down upon by the general public. The association only had 700 baht in their bank account and their athletes had to apply for a health card in case of injury because the association didn’t have enough money for any medical treatments.”

 

National Team 2001

“National Team 2001” was the name of the program enacted by Coach Aod to improve the level of Thai volleyball. The plan was to develop athletes, starting from 17 years old or younger, to make up the national team's future in the coming years. 

Coach Aod’s plan was put to its first test in 2002 when the team competed in the World Grand Prix for the first time. Despite losing all of their matches, the experience greatly encouraged the team. 

Getting exposure internationally was huge for the Thai team, as the domestic volleyball scene was not very strong. The association encouraged the players to compete in more international tournaments and pursue careers abroad. Meanwhile, the coaching staff eagerly sought out new tactics and information from overseas. 

It wasn’t until seven years later that this hard work was rewarded. It was the very second Wilavan Apinyapong spiked the winning hit and earned the Thai team their historic victory against China, earning the side their first ever Asian Championship title in 2009. 

This moment was a turning point and spread the news of the team and their accomplishments to the whole country. Supporters from across the nation started following this all-star team after that victory. Moreover, Thailand started to apply to host various major competitions, bringing fans closer to their national team. 

It wasn’t long before fanatic fans camped outside the arena for tickets at midnight the day before the match. Licenses for broadcasting spiked up in value because of the TV ratings the team was generating. Even the country’s youth were broadcasted for supporters to see. 

On top of that, the fact that the team could maintain their performances and improve consecutively every year was a huge reason for excitement. They were able to get the better of leading teams such as China, Japan, Serbia, Russia, Brazil, the U.S.A, and South Korea among others, pushing the boundaries of what was thought possible for a Thai sports team. Lastly, in an age where social media hugely influences our livelihoods, the way the girls have handled themselves online also added to their great publicity.

 

Little fighters, big hearts

“The charms of female volleyball are that firstly, the uniform makes the athletes more appealing, more elegant, and in good shape. Secondly, the nature of volleyball is comprised of rallying; in the male category, they cut harder which results in a faster game, but there is no long rallying like the women. One point can last from 7 to 14 seconds. We have researched that this duration can build up the excitement just right.” This was Coach Aod’s analysis when asked to explain the growing popularity of his team to Bangkokbiznews.

“When the match point is approaching from 23, 24 to 25, it is very tense, so we must have something called ‘Psychology Skill Training,’” he continued. “We added the condition where we start the set at 23- even to make the players get used to intense late game, but I added a little more difficulty. Team A cannot lose, if they lose, they have to start again at 23 points.”

“Team B will serve, and my Team B is not female. They are all male athletes - the reason we can fight against Russia and Cuba is because of our diligence. If we spar them with other female teams, we would crush our opposition easily. The guys I brought are ex-national athletes. They hit hard and they are very fast.”

In addition to his innovative training methods, Coach Aod has been credited with inventing a new style of playing, which is different from other leading nations. It sees the Thai athletes use their ‘inferior’ size to their advantage with mobility, agility, and dynamic, unpredictable tactics.

“Our playing style makes the fans very satisfied,” explained Aek-Prawit. “With our physical disadvantage against the other teams, we need to use our agility, movements, feinting, and to pull the opponent’s block, because in volleyball the blocker will follow the other team's movement. Our textbook accuracy and speed make us play differently from other nations.” 

“From my time following and reporting on volleyball, I have had the chance to interview our rivals and their coaches after the matches. They all say the same thing: that playing against this Thai team is very exhausting and very challenging because the players are moving all the time. They play their defense and offense game very quickly. Even if the opponent beats us, it is a demanding victory.”

“One of the reasons is that we have one of the world’s best setters in Nootsara Tomkom, who is also the brain of our team. But another reason is that every player in the team has incredible perseverance from the practice to the real match. Our Volleyball team is a good example of a tiny person with a great heart that won’t give up no matter the situation, they always fight. That’s why people keep cheering and rooting for them.”

With the fast-paced nature of the sport and the unique charm of volleyball, which on average has a point scored every 20 seconds, fans are always glued to the game. In addition, volleyball is easy to watch, simple and friendly to all ages. 

Whenever an international tournament is hosted in Thailand, fans turn up in droves and have been praised as one of the liveliest and most cheerful crowds in the world.

“There are two types of people who follow the Thailand Woman’s Volleyball National Team,” explained coach Champ, or Somchai Donpraiyod, a hardcore fan turned team manager. “The first one is the fans who follow the players individually, such as the fan clubs of Pleumjit, Nootsara, Onuma, etc. They look at the players as celebrities and they like their work. The second type is someone who just likes to cheer Thailand in any sport, so they also watch other sports than just volleyball."

“Because of our physicality, which is smaller than the opponent, it is always interesting to see how Thais fight against taller volleyball players. Our athletes have a fighting spirit, they fight in every blow and never give up."

“If someone has a chance to come and cheer our national team at the arena, they’ll know that our fans scream every time the athletes catch or spike the ball. They roar until they can’t hear the person next to them. But when the player needs to concentrate, such as while serving, the Thai crowd will stay so dead silent that we can hear the coach and the whistle so clearly. I’ve been to nearly 20 countries and there are no other crowds that cheer volleyball like us."

 

The team with a Thai smile

At the 2018 Woman’s Volleyball World Championship, Thai athletes have an average height of 176.21 centimeters. This was 12.08 centimeters less than the average height of the Russian team (188.29 cm). However, our world ranking of 16th has proved that height is not an obstacle for this team.

It’s because of their fighting spirit and refusal to give in, which has made both the Thai people and everyone in the world of volleyball fall in love with this team over the past ten years. 

“To be honest as a coach, I congratulate the Thai National Team. They have excellent techniques and stay active at all times. It’s tough for us to beat them,” said Yuri Marichev, former head coach of the Russian team, after beating Thailand at the World Grand Prix in 2016. 

Similarly, Karch Kiraly, head coach of the U.S national volleyball team, said: “They have such a great spirit about them, and they are just so scrappy ... and relentless. They play great defense, and they keep the ball alive. They never give up, always putting in the maximum effort. They honor the game with what they do. It’s always fun and good for us to compete.”

The achievement of the Thai team is not just about going up the world rankings or getting results in tournaments but also about their unique style of play which has attracted praise internationally. 

“I praised the Thai team, they are truly an intriguing volleyball team and for me, this is a good example and what I wanted to learn from. They compete without any issues from their height, so they have achieved something truly extraordinary.” This was Giovanni Guidetti, the head coach of Turkey, who invited Coach ‘Duan’ Danai Sriwacharamaytakul to exchange knowledge after he was impressed by the style of the Thai team.

The ‘something extraordinary’ might mean something that cannot be found anywhere except in the Thai female volleyball team.

Coach Champ thinks that this ‘something extraordinary’ is the key charisma that has made the Thai team become a popular sensation, not just among local fans but also on the international scale; their relentless smile never fails no matter how many times they face adversity. 

“If someone has seen the live broadcast of Thailand Woman’s Volleyball National Team, they will see some distinct characteristics of our team," he said. "The first is our fighting spirit that never gives up or lets down no matter how much we have to put up or how many points we need to break even. Even when we lose, no one on the team has ever doubted that they’ve done their best."

“The second thing is the smile the players have during the game. Everyone on the team always smiles at each other, whether someone makes a mistake, scores a point, or loses a point. Meanwhile, with other national teams, when someone makes a mistake, they will get upset or insult each other to stimulate the team. But with the Thai team, everybody is ready to cheer their teammates and fight by each other’s side. It makes the audience happy and impressed every time with their sincere smile."

 

Passing the mantle

The first generation of star players, known colloquially as the “7 Legends of Volleyball,” was made up of Pleumjit Thinkaow, Nootsara Tomkom, Onuma Sittirak, Amporn Hyapha, Malika Kanthong, Wilavan Apinyapong, and Wanna Buakaew. They announced their retirement by competing against an All-Star Thailand League team on the 7th November 2021, during which fans came to say farewell to the girls at the Indoor Stadium Huamak.

Their departure from the Thai Volleyball scene begs the question; will today’s young players be as good as their forerunners and live up to the fans’ expectations? Will they be able to get the fans on their side as much as their predecessors? Because their seven seniors set such a high standard, it may be a source of pressure for the girls who have to inherit their legacy. 

Fast forward to 2022, and the new set of female volleyball players under the stewardship of Coach ‘Duan’ Danai Sriwacharamaytakul answered the fans by bringing out a whole new group of youngsters without any support from their seniors. They managed to take the Gold Medal at the SEA Games in Vietnam with a four-game consecutive win streak. They then instantly went on to compete in FIVB Volleyball Woman’s National League 2022 in Turkey as one of the 16 participating nations, being one of four Asian sides to compete with China, Japan, and South Korea.

We can’t say that this new set of athletes are entirely rookies, as many of them will be familiar to fans of the team. The new roster, made up of Piyanut Pannoy, Ajcharaporn Kongyot, Chatchu-on Moksri, Pimpichaya Kokram, Pornpun Guedpard, Thatdao Nuekjang, and Hattaya Bamrungsuk, have already practiced with and competed against the ‘seven legends’ in prior years. However, they have now fully taken the spotlight and proven their ability as the current squad of the national team. The Thai fans currently watching their performance at the Women’s National League all agree that: “this set of players are equally as exciting to watch as their predecessors.”

The new female volleyball team is more than ready to face rivals from across the globe. They have inherited the same fighting spirit from their seven legendary seniors and persevere for every point. Whether they win or lose, they have won over Thai fans in a way few sports teams ever have. 

 

Author

อลงกต เดือนคล้อย

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Apisit Chotphiboonsap

Art Director of Main Stand