Kiatisak Senamuang

Thailand’s answer to Zico did not have a happy time in West Yorkshire but, as Steve Wilson reports, there are corners of Asia that are forever Huddersfield

When Kiatisak Senamaung touched down at Pleiku airport, Vietnam, in February 2002, he was overwhelmed by the number of fans there to greet him. The 30-year-old captain and leading goalscorer of neighbours Thailand had signed for second division Hoang Ahn – who gave him a brand new Mercedes, a five-bedroom house and a contract worth £5,600 a month, more than 300 times the average local wage. An open-top car took him to the training ground where 4,000 fans turned out to watch his first training session. One of the number told the Bangkok Post just what Senamuang’s arrival meant to the team: “It’s great that such a famous player is coming to play for us. We’ll probably become champions!” 

Within two seasons this prophecy had come true and the Thai had bagged the first domestic silverware of a career that had brought him many international honours. This was a far cry from November 1999 when Senamung – known as Zico, a nickname earned as a youngster due to the likeness of his play to that of the great Brazilian – became Steve Bruce’s latest signing for Huddersfield Town. Then with realistic ambitions of joining the Premiership, the club splashed out £2,000 a week on a player with more than 100 caps and 79 international goals to his name. And gave him   a two-bedroom flat and a Ford.

Recommended to Bruce by Middlesbrough, where he had had an unsuccessful trial, Zico first played for the Thai national side aged just 16. A flair player with a knack for goalscoring, his trademark back flips after each strike and leadership on the field made him the pin-up boy of a football-crazy public. Still used to advertise everything from Nike boots and energy drinks to Playstation, he remains a one-man marketing machine eclipsed in the region only by David Beckham.

A two-year stint with Malaysian side Perlis preceded his move to West Yorkshire where, perhaps unsurprisingly, he struggled to fit in. The change in weather, food and culture turned his “dream move” into something of a nightmare. “When I joined,” Zico said of his time in England, “I did nothing but physical training during the first three months. I had to train like the English so I started to eat boiled chicken, potatoes and baked beans every day. I still cannot believe I could eat that…”

Though maintaining that his spell at Huddersfield was a good experience, he found a dressing room that was unconvinced that such a slight player – he weighted only 69kg and wore a size six-and-a-half boot – could cut it. He built friendships with Ken Monkou and Marcus Stewart, but never felt at home. In little under a year at the club Zico failed to make a single first-team appearance. He did turn out for the reserves, but before long it was clear he was unlikely to make the breakthrough. A trial with Crystal Palace failed to resurrect his English adventure and, in October 2000, less than a year after his arrival, Zico joined the Singapore armed forces team. Fourteen goals in 15 starts somehow failed to impress the management there and that’s when Hoang Ahn stepped in.

The sense of what might have been, as the Terriers proceeded to slip down the leagues and into administration, is not reserved for the football field. Visiting Thailand in 2002, my cab from the airport was followed for several miles by a Thai on a motorbike with a Huddersfield shirt on. This was not to be a one-off.

Amid a sea of locals sporting shirts of all the major European clubs, the blue and white, or red and black, of Huddersfield made regular, unlikely appearances. In January 2001 the Sunday Times ran a story about two 13-year-old Burmese brothers who had become the mystical leaders of a gang of rebels and were only now being reunited with their mother. Ill-fitting and probably a fake it may have been, but one of them still wore Huddersfield’s 2000-01 home jersey.

Zico has since written a children’s book, Zico for Kids, the profits of which will fund a charity of the same name to provide impoverished Thai youngsters with football equipment. He also appears on Thai television to impart his vast knowledge of sport and fitness to a wider public. Every weekday, millions are treated to 90 seconds of Zico’s tips.

Zico did return to play, and score, in Huddersfield in May 2001, as the Thai national team played a series of warm-up matches for their World Cup qualifying campaign. As his team went down 3-1 on a muddy training pitch, where one of the Thai coaching staff and a reserve home player ran the lines, the match ended with Choketawee Promrat – the pretender to Zico’s throne – sent off for punching an opponent. Zico could be forgiven for not returning to West Yorkshire in a hurry.

From WSC 220 June 2005. What was happening this month