Thursday 16 March 2017, 09:00

Chappuis and Thailand daring to dream

It has been a long road to football stardom for Thailand's Charyl Chappuis. The 25-year-old lifted the FIFA U-17 World Cup Nigeria 2009 with Switzerland, before turning down an offer from Juventus and seeing a potential move to Hamburg in the German Bundesliga collapse.

It was an inauspicious start, but nowadays Chappuis is an icon in Thailand, a country relishing its 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ qualifying journey: the War Elephants are currently competing in the decisive third round of the AFC qualifying section for the first time ever.

"I'm really happy with how my life and my career have developed," Chappuis told recently. "However, given what I know now, when I look back, I sometimes think that maybe I should've accepted the offer from Juventus after winning the U-17 World Cup. Then again, at the time I was nervous about going abroad and leaving my family."

Chappuis may now be far away from the bright lights of Serie A, the Bundesliga or the Premier League, where former team-mates Haris Seferovic, Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka from the Swiss U-17 class of 2009 ply their trade, but the attacking midfielder is successfully forging his own path in professional football.

An Instagram star In 2013 that path took him to Thailand, his mother's homeland, where success with the national team quickly turned Chappuis into a social media phenomenon – he boasts 1.4 million followers on Instagram, more than Seferovic, Shaqiri or Xhaka.

"Winning the South-East Asian Championship in 2014 stirred a real passion for football in Thailand," said Chappuis, who played a key role in the triumph. "Nowadays you see more and more children and teenagers on the street in football shirts. The fans are amazing and really push us. As Thailand players we are worshipped almost as gods."

There is, though, another side to the adulation, admits Chappuis: "Any lack of success also increases the criticism. Fortunately I don't read Thai yet and so can't really pay much attention to it!"

Chappuis will be relying on the positive side of the support ahead of the tough upcoming qualifiers. Thailand have reached the third and final AFC qualifying group on the road to Russia, but only one point from the first five games means the chances of Chappuis and his side appearing on the grandest stage next summer appear slim.

"The fans' optimism is the same as ever ," says Chappuis. "They support us fantastically and expect a win against Saudi Arabia , although that will be very, very tough; tougher than the fans maybe realise. We're not going to put ourselves under too much pressure and we're going to keep enjoying our football.

"This is the first time we've got this far in qualifying for a World Cup, and so we have to accept that other teams are physically stronger than we are. The first few games unfortunately didn't go as hoped. In some cases we have ourselves to blame, but at other times we've been unlucky."

#nevergiveup Thailand's No7 knows what it is like to face hard times: a knee ligament injury recently kept him out for over a year, with Chappuis only returning to club action in May 2016 and international action four months later.

"I was out for a really, really long time. I missed 16 months of football," said Chappuis, who helped Thailand to retain the Suzuki Cup at the end of last year with performances that have assured him of his place for the upcoming qualifiers. "I feel good and I'm getting back to my best."

It is little surprise that Chappuis' favourite hashtag, which he regularly shares with his legions of Instagram followers, is #nevergiveup, a phrase that has become something of a motto for the Switzerland-born star. "I suppose I copied it a little bit from John Cena ," he says. "I'm a big wrestling fan and it isn't just the Bundesliga I watch at weekends – I also watch wrestling."

In that vein, Thai football fans are now hoping that Chappuis puts in a Cena-like show of strength on the field and can help to turn the impossible dream of qualification into reality.

"It would be a dream to reach the World Cup with Thailand. The country would go crazy. Of course, it's going to be tough, but I'll never stop dreaming," says Chappuis, who – with a twinkle in his eye – goes on to make the Thai fans a promise. "If I score against Saudi Arabia, then maybe I'll celebrate like John Cena."