'Small guy, big player': Chanathip Songkrasin wants to be inspiration that proves size does not matter

Still only 28, Chanathip Songkrasin has already achieved plenty in his career.

Having become the first Thai to play in Japan's top-tier J1 League with Consadole Sapporo back in 2017, Chanathip's transfer to champions Kawasaki Frontale at the start of the year saw him make more history as the most expensive domestic transfer in Japanese football at a reported US$3.8 million.

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Standing at just 1.58 metres, the silky-skilled playmaker -- a three-time AFF Suzuki Cup champion and Most Valuable Player with Thailand -- has never let his diminutive size be a hindrance, nor the pressure that came with being anointed "the Thai Messi" earlier in his career.

Chanathip's hunger for more success was a key motivation behind him leaving the comfort of Consadole, where he was adored, and immersing himself in the high-pressure environment of a Frontale outfit that has won four of the past five J1 League titles.

Surprisingly for someone who is widely regarded as Southeast Asia's best player and displays supreme confidence in his abilities each time he takes to the field, Chanathip reveals that self-belief is something that does not exactly come easy to him.

"I came to Kawasaki to be a champion. I want to show that I can be a big player -- small guy, yes -- but big player," Chanathip told ESPN in an exclusive interview -- also his first to be conducted in English, after he spent six months during the coronavirus lockdown period intensely learning the language.

"I think one of my weaknesses is that I don't always have a lot of confidence but sometimes I just need to stand on the pitch and, when I do that and think that football is fun, I will be comfortable and have confidence.

"Of course, I want to be a champion as much as I can (in the remainder of my career). I want to improve and know what level I can reach, so that when I retire I can tell everyone: 'yes, so what if I was small'?

"I hope that in that way, I can inspire young kids that watch me play -- in Japan or in Southeast Asia -- and they know of Chanathip. That will make me proud."

Despite his jovial nature and appreciation for the simple things that bring him happiness, Chanathip is the first to admit that life has its up and downs and even his dream move to Frontale has not been without its challenges.

A new coach, teammates, system of play and city are just some of the things he has had to cope with in his early months at Frontale, which has seen them suffer a shock group-stage elimination from the AFC Champions League although they firmly remain an excellent chance to retain their league crown -- as they currently sit two points behind leaders Kashima Antlers with a game in hand, 11 matches into the new season.

On the flipside, Chanathip is now as comfortable as he can possibly be into his fifth year in Japan. He has attained his driving license, knows where he can leave the car without getting a fine given the country's notoriously-strict parking regulations, and can understand enough Japanese to get by.

But at the end of the day, Japan will only ever be a temporary residence. In Chanathip's own words, it is where his 'job' has taken him.

Home for him will always be Thailand.

He is excited at the prospect of qualifying for a second consecutive AFC Asian Cup appearance with the War Elephants when the qualifiers come around in June. And the Thai League 1 is where he can see himself eventually finishing his career, passing his experience on to the next generation akin to former teammate Shinji Ono -- who continues to play top-flight football at 42 in a mentor capacity at Consadole.

Another example Chanathip looks up to is legendary Japanese striker Kazuyoshi Miura, who is still playing at the age of 55, although he candidly identified his own injury history as the reason he doubts he will enjoy similar longevity.

"I do sometimes look back at what I've done. Mostly, it's during the bad times -- when I'm not playing well or I am injured," explained the Thai.

"Times like this, I look back and what I've done before and appreciate that I'm a very good player -- and this makes me confident again. When you struggle with your own mind and have to fight against yourself, that is the most difficult.

"What I know is that I want to do the best every day because time is short. (A career in) football is short.

"For me, the most important thing in my career is finding happiness."