Veteran Thai fan follows Vietnam's every footstep at AFF U23 Championship

By Lam Thoa   August 26, 2023 | 12:59 am PT
Veteran Thai fan follows Vietnam's every footstep at AFF U23 Championship
Sakchai Sawangsilp (L, front) supports Vietnam team in their match against Laos at the AFF U23 Championship in Rayong Stadium, Thailand, on April 22, 2023. Photo by VnExpress/Lam Thoa
Sakchai Sawangsilp has been busy taking care of Vietnamese players' families and fans as they came to Thailand for the AFF U23 Championship.

Sporting a red shirt with yellow star and holding the Vietnamese national flag in hand, Sakchai sat among the Vietnamese fans at the Rayong Stadium on Thursday, when Vietnam played Malaysia in the semifinal. His screams, in broken Vietnamese he learned online, were just as loud as anyone else's.

When the siren signaled the end of the match, Sakchai, affectionately called "brother Chai", shook hands with those around him to congratulate Vietnam beating Malaysia to enter the final. He then changed his shirt to support the Thailand team and switched seats to support the home team for their semifinal against Indonesia in the same stadium.

"It's a shame that there's no Thailand v. Vietnam final. But I would still support Vietnam in the final with all my heart," he said following Thailand's loss.

Earlier Sakchai had welcomed a Vietnamese fan at the Bangkok Airport, took them to Rayong, showed them around town and let them have dinner. Around midnight Saturday, he drove in the rain for 73 km to reach home in Chonburi. At 10 a.m., he went to Rayong to have coffee with his Vietnamese friends, ready for the final match in the evening.

Sakchai was the only Thai at the stadium part for Vietnamese fans in all four matches at the AFF U23 Championship. He managed to convince a friend to come with him and support Vietnam at the semifinal.

"I had worn shirts to support Vietnam many times. Some Thai fans asked me if I had changed nationalities, and I just laughed. I knew they were just joking, football fans are civilized now. Football helps with connecting people and making friends," he said.

When asked to predict the final's results, he said Vietnam would beat Indonesia 3-0. "Trust me," he added.

The first time Sakchai came to a stadium to support Vietnam was at the Asiad 2018 in Indonesia, when coach Park Hang-seo's team faced off against South Korea at the semifinal.

"I only knew one Vietnamese at the time, Hoang Yen, who was the head of the VFS fan club. But everyone was friendly, so I blended in fast," he said.

Sakchai then get acquainted with some other Vietnamese friends through social media. In 2019, when Vietnam went to Thailand for the King's Cup, Sakchai was asked to assist Vietnamese fans. He was the one who took care of their hotel arrangement, their bus trips, even their ticket purchase for the matches.

"Don’t say I’m enthusiastic. I just simply want to take care of my friends, my friends’ parents, and their own friends as well," he said.

For the AFF U23 Championship this year, Sakchai constantly ran back and forth between Bangkok-Chonburi-Rayong to welcome Vietnamese fans and players’ parents.

Vietnamese fans also responded to his hospitality in kind. Sakchai said he was taken care of "from A to Z" every time he came to Vietnam. In 2019, when he came to Hanoi to support Thailand in the qualifiers for the World Cup 2022, he was taken to Sa Pa for a trip by Vietnamese fans. He was similarly warmly welcomed when he returned to Vietnam in 2021 for SEA Games 31.

"I was there for 19 days, but I spent the first 10 days alone as the Thai fans had yet to arrive. Despite that, I was taken by my Vietnamese friends to coffee shops every day, and everywhere from Ha Nam, Nam Dinh to Phu Tho (near Hanoi). I was most impressed by the Nam Dinh fans, they loved football so much and their stadiums were always full, even when the Vietnam team weren't there. They even supported our team," Sakchai said.

Sakchai, now 55, said he had been following the Thailand football team for their matches since 30 years ago. He said he had traveled to many countries from Southeast Asia to the UAE to support them.

Sakchai owns a small company that provides cleaning supplies. Before Covid-19 came, he had 19 employees, but now the number dropped to seven. He said he still has to hire more people because he is too busy going to football stadiums.

"Each time I return home, my employees would shoo me away, telling me I would only be a burden if I stay," he said jokingly.

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