Thailand find unlikely support from 'cave boys' ahead of Asian Cup opener against India

Ahead of their Asian Cup opening game against India on Sunday, Thailand will have a unique set of champion footballers supporting them from the stands.

The Wild Boars football team, whose rescue from the Tham Luang Nang Non cave last year captured the imagination of the world, will be at the Al Nahyan Stadium supporting their country, as special guests of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC). On Saturday, three of them were taken on a guided tour of the stadium and spoke to the press while being shown around.

Coach Eakapol 'Ek' Jantawong spoke for his boys, describing the trip as a unique opportunity to cheer for their team. "It's their goal and dream to be professional footballers one day," he said. "Coming here, and being here, they feel that one day they too will be playing for Thailand and playing against the best in Asia."

Titan, the shortest of the boys, is a forward and a huge Lionel Messi fan. His coach likes Messi too, as does midfielder Tee. Adul, who likes to play on the right wing, is the only one to idolise Cristiano Ronaldo. Not surprisingly, he's also the only Juventus fan among Barcelona buffs.

In the pre-match press conference, India coach Stpehen Constantine had mentioned how Thailand's front four players interchange positions a lot, and the key player is likely to be Japan-based attacking midfielder Songkrasin Chanathip. Titan smiles when asked about his favourite Thai player. "I like all the players, but if I had to pick one, it would be "Jay" Chanathip," he says.

And do they think India has a chance of beating their favourite team?

There's polite laughter, though most of it is just the joy of having overcome what they did last summer and living their dream by seeing their heroes in action.