Suphanat Mueanta reaping rewards of Europe move after inspiring Thailand to crucial World Cup qualifier win

Suphanat Mueanta's two-goal display on Tuesday helped Thailand claim a crucial 3-1 win over Singapore in the second round of Asian qualifiers for the 2026 FIFA World Cup. Supakit Wisetanuphong/MB Media/Getty Images

SINGAPORE -- Still only 21, the future always looked exceedingly bright for Suphanat Mueanta from the time he made his debut at the tender age of 15.

The records soon fell for the prodigious Buriram United talent.

Already the youngest player to play and score in Thai League 1, Suphanat then became the youngest goalscorer in the AFC Champions League -- Asia's premier club competition -- just a year after his professional bow.

Within a same year, he featured for Thailand in both the AFC U-16 and AFC U-19 Championships, taking on opponents three years older than him in the latter.

Through it all, the forward never seemed fazed by it all.

Now a three-time Thai League 1 champion, Suphanat was long linked with a move to Europe but it is a feat easier said than done despite Thai football's constant ability to produce outstanding talents.

Teerasil Dangda did memorably net in the Copa del Rey during his one-year loan stint with Almeria in LaLiga, while goalkeeper Kawin Thamsatchanan made 20 league appearances for Belgian outfit OH Leuven.

But for the most part, featuring in one of Asia's leading domestic leagues like Japan's J1 League has seemed the ceiling not just for Thai footballers, but all of those hailing from Southeast Asia.

Even an outstanding prospect like Chanathip Songkrasin -- widely regarded as the region's best player of the past decade -- only made it as far as Japan, which is still an achievement in itself considering he lasted there for six seasons and even became the J1 League's record domestic transfer when he moved from Consadole Sapporo to Kawasaki Frontale for $3.8 million.

Back in September, Suphanat finally got his big move to Europe and while Leicester was the club he was constantly linked with initially, it was OH Leuven -- who share the same Thai owners as the former Premier League champions -- where he ended up.

It is still early days for the Sisaket native and he has been restricted to just two league appearances so far.

Yet, for those close to him who witnessed his most recent outing -- a two-goal match-winning display in Thailand's 3-1 win over Singapore in the second round of Asian qualifiers for the 2026 FIFA World Cup on Tuesday -- the move has already reaped dividends.

"We can see (the development) in the body of 'Bank' (Suphanat) alone -- he's a machine now," ex-Thailand coach Alexandre Polking, who was unceremoniously and surprisingly replaced in his role on Wednesday, told ESPN in the wake of the victory over Singapore.

"He has got muscles now (that he previously didn't).

"I've been the biggest supporter of players from our region to always try to go somewhere (abroad) -- out of their comfort zones and play in a stronger league.

"Don't forget - the Belgian national team have very good players. We can see he is improving physically, with the quality of his finishing, and we're very happy he made that move (to Belgium).

"I hope more players do the same, not only Thai players but all in this region."

While it was Suphanat who emerged as Thailand's match-winner against Singapore, it was a player at the other end of the age spectrum -- and one whose influential role in the team could eventually be replaced by the former -- that turned the tide of the contest.

With a stubborn Singapore side holding out a 1-1, Polking turned to veteran Teerasil in the 66th minute.

Within seconds of being introduced, Teerasil nonchalantly turned an opponent to create a yard of space and then played an incisive pass to release Suphanat for the visitors' second goal.

Suphanat would go on to score another three minutes from time with a clinical low drive from the edge of the area, and could even have had a hat-trick when he raced through in injury-time but opted to unselfishly square the ball in search of a teammate and then see the chance go begging.

Throughout his stunning rise, Suphanat has always come across as mature and grounded beyond his youthfulness, undoubtedly aided by those around him including older brother Supachok Sarachat -- who scored Thailand's first goal against Singapore and is now playing in the J1 League with Consadole after similarly being a highly-touted prospect coming through the Buriram ranks.

Despite his star turn on Tuesday, Suphanat's post-match comments was certainly one of someone who has him feet firmly planted on the ground in spite of the hype surrounding him.

"I just wanted to do my job -- offensively and defensively," he said. "We made some changes in the tactical and formation side of things in the second half, and we got a better performance that led to an important win.

"Of course, at the end, I wish I could have gotten another goal but I just wanted to make sure (that we scored) by passing but it was cut off in the end.

"Still, I would like to thank all my teammates, who helped me get the two goals."

It is an interesting time ahead for Thailand following the departure of the well-liked Polking, who has since been replaced by two-time Thai League 1-winning coach Masatada Ishii.

The decision by the Football Association of Thailand to part ways with Polking does seem to have been made solely on last Thursday's 2-1 loss to China PR -- a game in which the War Elephants had initially led and really needed to win in order to stand a strong chance of advancing to the third round of the Asian World Cup qualifiers.

It remains to be seen if the move proves to be the right call given the rapport and mutual respect Polking shared with his charges, as well as the fact that it was difficult to argue with his record -- which reaped two AFF Championship triumphs that saw the Thais reassert themselves as the dominant force in ASEAN football after being usurped by Vietnam previously.

Nonetheless, the positive thing for Thailand remains the fact they have a supremely talented team, one which could be spearheaded by Suphanat sooner rather than later.

And perhaps if there is one coach who could get the best out of Suphanat as well as Polking did, it is the same one who he won back-to-back Thai League 1 titles with at Buriram -- in the form of Ishii.