Why doesn’t Thailand's national team use naturalized players? | Main Stand

The road to the 2022 World Cup for Thailand’s national football team ended in disappointment.


To no surprise, fans everywhere got on their keyboards and started analyzing the issues behind the War Elephants’ downfall. They were quick to point to improvements that could be made, including coaches, players, and overall approaches for the team.  

Interestingly, even the idea of naturalization was brought up, which has been gaining a lot of traction as many neighboring countries have used this approach as a shortcut to success.

However, before starting another debate about the integrity of this approach, there is still one glaring issue. Changing nationality in Thailand is no simple feat…


Shortcut to success?

Using naturalized players is nothing new to the world of football, as many countries have adopted this approach. At the 2018 World Cup, 22 of the participating nations had players who were originally from different countries.

In some cases, the footballers had heritage in said country but were from families that had immigrated elsewhere in previous generations. Meanwhile, others had moved to the country for footballing reasons and were eventually given citizenship after spending many years there.

In the 1990s, Japan was the first country in Asia to have naturalized stars in the national team, with the likes of Wagner Lopes, Ruy Ramos, and Alex. These players were all originally Brazilians who relocated to the land of the rising sun to compete before the age of 20. They played club football in Japan for ten years before getting their citizenship.

Presently, nationality changes are no longer isolated events and have become a “strategy” that countries opt to pursue. Sometimes, this can even include players with little to no affiliation with the country. Many advocates are serious about this tactic, which they believe is a shortcut to success, as naturalized players typically have skills that exceed the country’s local talents.

China has shown heavy faith in this strategy, believing it would be the key to reaching the global stage at the 2022 World Cup. After failing to qualify for two decades (their last appearance at the World Cup was in 2002), the government officially began supporting this new approach in 2015, even revising current laws to support the naturalization of foreign athletes. The Chinese Football Association (CFA) has encouraged big clubs in the league such as Beijing Guoan F.C., Guangzhou F.C., and Shandong Taishan F.C. to support foreign footballers who wish to change their nationality.  

Their efforts led Brazilian stars such as Elkeson, Alan Carvalho, and Fernandinho to receive Chinese citizenship from their residency, despite having no ties to China at all. The process only took around 4-6 years since they relocated to compete in the Chinese Super League. Similar strategies have been employed by Qatar, Hong Kong, United Arab Emirates (UAE), and even ASEAN teams such as Malaysia and Indonesia, who do this alongside nurturing local talents.

However, the current laws in Thailand are considerably more strict and make such a strategy extremely difficult.

In order to change nationality, players must comply with the same laws and regulations which apply to the general population.

Present-day naturalization laws in Thailand still follow the Nationality Act พ.ศ. 2508 (1965). Act 10 of the bill states the conditions an individual must fulfill to request Thai citizenship. These include factors of bloodline, birthplace, or marriage. If the individual has no bloodline ties or is born elsewhere, the chances of getting approved for citizenship are significantly reduced.

For individuals with no ties in Thailand, Act 10 states that they must comply with the following guidelines:

- Must be of legal age
- Must hold an alien identification card
- Continuous residency in Thailand for at least 5 years 
- Occupational documentation from the Office of Foreign Workers Administration
- In case of no association with Thailand; a salary greater than THB 80,000 per month
- Proof of tax for at least 3 years
- Proficient in Thai (speaking and listening)
- Good social score and passing background checks regarding criminal records, political activities, drug records, and activities related to national stability

However, these are just the preconditions for citizenship. Afterward, the individual in question must be screened by a host of governmental agencies, including the National Police, Naturalization Application Review Committee, Minister of the Interior, Police Headquarters, and Cabinet Secretary.

Ultimately, the law states that the ‘permission or denial of naturalization as a Thai is at the discretion of the Minister.’ 
Given the whole host of agencies and parties that need to give their approval, it is clear why becoming a Thai citizen is no easy task.


How have other athletes fared?

In Thailand, stories of athletes’ naturalization have been ongoing for a while, with both happy and sad endings.

Azuki Iwatani is a women’s karate athlete born and raised in Thailand. Due to both her parents being Japanese, she was denied citizenship and wasn’t given a chance to represent Thailand internationally. She has requested approval for more than three years now but to no avail. With her being a minor, her parents must apply for citizenship first, with her as an additional clause.

On the other hand, we have Xie Zhihua, a Chinese badminton coach from Banthongyord Badminton School. Coach Xie successfully trained May Ratchanok Inthanon, who reached 1st place in the women’s badminton world rankings. He met all the criteria while living in Thailand as a coach for over 20 years (since 1991). After successfully requesting residency in 2013, he applied for citizenship in 2016 and was approved in 2017.

Other than meeting all the requirements, another factor that worked in Coach Xie’s favor was his accomplishments in bringing Thailand into the international spotlight.

It’s a similar story for  “Coach Che,” Choi Young-seok, a taekwondo coach who helped Thailand to sweeping success with multiple gold medals on the global stage since 2002. Despite being a long-term resident, Coach Che refrained from applying for citizenship as he was unwilling to give up his South Korean passport, which he needed due to familial responsibilities in his homeland. Now able to commit his time fully in Thailand, he has recently submitted his citizenship application, which was approved earlier this year. 

Their experiences could tell us what lies in store for footballers who attempt naturalization.

In addition, FIFA's own stipulations state that a player must continuously compete in the country for at least five years before being eligible to represent them. During this time, they are not allowed to relocate and compete elsewhere, as that would conflict with what’s known as the “continuity clause.” One example is Brazilian star Ricardo Goulart, who was naturalized to play for China but was later suspended by FIFA due to his loan move to Palmeiras in 2018. 


Is Thai nationality worth it?

From a fan’s perspective, it would be amazing to have famous footballers change their nationalities and play for Thailand. But in reality, we have to consider a crucial factor, which is whether those footballers would be interested enough to go through with it.

Following the procedures for changing nationalities in Thailand, the requester must file the appropriate documents at their respective embassy or consulate. Crucially, they would have to lose their original nationality once approved, which has been a stumbling block for many in the past.

It also means the individual would have to be ready to lose the benefits that come with their current nationality. Citizens of Thailand broadly agree that the current welfare system is not up to par compared to other countries. This includes education, tuition, public healthcare, elderly care, child care, public services, pensions, and others. Furthermore, Thais still have to apply for VISAs to travel to most countries.

Lastly, and perhaps most significantly, playing for Thailand’s national team does not come with a fat paycheck. There is only pride to gain - compared to other countries such as China, which have funded their naturalization program and provided proper compensation for athletes who agree to switch nationalities.

“The rewards for the players are fairly clear: more money, more exposure, and a shot at playing in the biggest tournaments in the world with China, which they wouldn’t have got if they’d stayed with their original countries,” explained Mark Dreyer, the founder of China Sports Insider. “For athletes of Chinese descent, there will also be varying degrees of patriotism built into this as well.”

If not money, what does Thailand have to attract these footballers? How many footballers are willing to lose their original nationality to play for Thailand?

Currently, too many obstacles are standing in the way of Thailand adopting a naturalization strategy. Footballers must be subject to the same laws as the general population. The process is long, arduous, and ultimately at the discretion of government officials. It’s doubtful that many footballers will want to go through this process, especially if it means giving up citizenship in their homeland. Lastly, if lots of funding is required, surely it would be wiser to spend that money on developing local talents?

Ultimately, naturalization is a short-term solution to what is a long-term problem - elevating the standard of Thai football onto the continental and global stage. It would be far better to invest in sustainable ways to reach that goal than to be distracted by a policy that is unlikely to bear fruit. 







Watchapong Duangpang

Main Stand's Backroom staff


Apisit Chotphiboonsap

Art Director of Main Stand