Suzuki Cup: Rolex watches, iPhones, designer bags - how Thailand's billionaire team manager motivates her players
As the saying goes, behind every successful man, there is a woman. And in the case of Thailand's national football team, that lady is their team manager Nualphan Lamsam.
Tasked to "restore the dignity" of the regional giants when she was appointed by the Football Association of Thailand in August, the billionaire heiress appears to have had an instant impact.
The War Elephants are poised to capture a record-extending sixth AFF Suzuki Cup on New Year's Day after a 4-0 win over Indonesia in the final first leg on Wednesday (Dec 29).
Affectionately known as Madame Pang, she is a fifth-generation scion of the Lamsam family that founded Kasikornbank, which has assets of more than S$100 billion.
The 55-year-old is also the president and chief executive of Muang Thai Insurance and runs another business distributing luxury goods from Hermes.
Such financial muscle has allowed Nualphan to announce a 20 million baht (S$810,000) reward for winning the Suzuki Cup, and organise a team-bonding activity after the group stage where players and staff could win prizes such as Rolex watches, iPhone 13s and designer bags from a lucky draw.
She told The Straits Times that while she appreciates hosts Singapore's hospitality and the presence of 10,000 fans to create some atmosphere at the National Stadium, she is intent on ensuring the team's morale stays high as the squad copes with the Covid-19 bubble conditions put in place.
Emphasising a family culture, she said: "I'm new with this role, that's why I have to break the ice. I have to pay attention to not just their physical condition, but also take care of their hearts and minds.
"They need to have fun, to laugh together and not just stay in the room, two by two. Sometimes, we need to relax and bond with each other because football is a team game."
Her efforts are recognised by the grateful players. Forward Supachok Sarachat said: "The activities... and all the logistic work Madame Pang has done to make things more convenient for the team really motivate the players to perform to our potential."
Before her current role, Nualphan was Thailand's team manager at the 2006 Far East and South Pacific Games for the Disabled. She then managed the national women's team from 2008 to 2019, and oversaw their historic World Cup qualification in 2015 and 2019.
She also took over Thai League 1 club Port FC in 2015, overseeing their FA Cup win in 2019.
She is credited with the appointments of Alexandre Polking and Nuengrutai Srathongvian as the current head and assistant men's coaches respectively.
German Polking said: "Madame Pang is a powerful woman who is really good at building relationships with local and foreign clubs, which the national team need.
"She managed to get players released from Leicester City, Consadole Sapporo and so on, for us to have all these good players and fantastic squad now."
Aside from Nualphan's diplomatic skills, she is known for her philanthropy and generosity.
Not only did she pump in millions of baht as incentives, she helped many of the national women's footballers, who come from low-income families in rural areas, get their degrees and gave them jobs so that they could build houses and buy vehicles to help their families.
"Everything that I do, I do with passion and strong will," said Nualphan.
"I understand the commercial value of men's football is bigger than women's football, but we have to empower women's football more to get there. Football is a men's world now but I hope the gap will start to narrow bit by bit.
"(It takes) step-by-step improvement, like planting a seed, watering it and watching it grow. We understand from our hearts we have the same goal and we can share the good and the bad times together."
Seeing the Thai men's team romp through the Suzuki Cup has been a thrill despite the sleepless nights before matchdays. She laughed and said: "Every match is a thin line between heaven and hell, but it's fun. It takes a lot of energy out of your body, but you need to have a passion also, so this is beautiful for me.
"The team were under a lot of pressure recently (since 2019, they won just five in 20 matches before the Suzuki Cup), so victory here will bring the Thai people together during difficult times of Covid-19 and political differences.
"We want to go to the World Cup but it will be very difficult because every team want to get there. Every Asean nation will have to study more of the systems of those who have done it before, like Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia and Iran, and we have to work hard.
"It is not just about the money, it is also about the discipline, heart and soul, and spirit and intentions."