Tiffany Sornpao’s unique road to playing for Thailand in 2019 Women’s World Cup

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Some young players would be frustrated and discouraged to be sidelined at the world’s biggest soccer stage, but 21-year-old goalkeeper Tiffany Sornpao is not one of them. That’s because her road to becoming a member of Thailand’s women’s national team is a tad unusual.

“My dad took a gamble and sent my stats and highlights of my previous college season [to the Thailand team], he told them ‘hey, she’s half Thai, she is interested’,” Sornpao told NBC Sports. “Luckily they replied and ask me to come in and try out.”

So, Sornpao decided to seek her fortune in a foreign land.

“I was pretty nervous. I didn’t really know what to expect at the national level, but I really had nothing to lose,” she said. “I either made the team or had to come back and keep training.”

For Sornpao, who has experienced the rigors of playing NCAA Division I soccer at Kennesaw State University, the intensity of the national tryouts did not come as a surprise. It was the camaraderie and unity of the team during this competitive time that truly stood out to her.

“I was really shocked, coming in [to a team] there’s always competition even though it’s a team, but the first week I was there they just welcomed me and guided me [in the right direction].”

Shortly after tryouts, Sornpao was called up for international duty.

After the FIFA Women’s World Cup draw, the Thailand women’s national team was put in Group F along with Sweden, Chile and the United States. Thailand’s opening match was against the USWNT, which everyone knew would be daunting. Some even questioned if Thailand would have made it to the world stage if it wasn’t for North Korea’s troubles back in 2015, when the team was banned from the World Cup after five players tested positive for steroids.

Nevertheless, the Thai weren’t looking for a free pass, and this year, more than ever, they were prepared to face adversity.

“We knew from the start that the U.S. was going to be a challenging game because of their history. [We know] they’re a very good team. So, it was more about going in confident and taking everything we practice and try to perfect it within the game,” Sornpao said.

Even though Thailand was not competitive against the U.S., losing 13-0 in the biggest defeat in World Cup history, the loss gave the team a useful lesson.

“A big thing with us is that the Thai team doesn’t get much of a chance to explore and play many outside countries other than within Asia,” Sornpao said. “So, I think a big issue is the lack of experience against European teams and the U.S. I think a big issue was preparation.”

The lopsided score of the Group F opener in the 2019 Women’s World Cup became a controversial topic of discussion. Many people questioned the sportsmanship of the U.S. team after celebrating each one of their goals, but that wasn’t the case for the Thai.

“It was more comforting to have them appreciate every goal that they scored rather than just making it seem like it was an easy pass into the net,” she explained.

For Sornpao, this level of soccer was a reality check. “Being on Thailand’s team and coming from the States has opened my eyes to all the different advantages and disadvantages these countries go through,” she said.

More than anything, Sornpao now has a deeper appreciation for the resources and support that the United States has. “The Thai team has a disadvantage by not having these things [technology]. But even then, they’re still in the World Cup, so it is very comforting to see development,” Sornpao explained.

But the lack of proper investment was not the only challenge for the Thailand team. For the players, personal finances were another obstacle to overcome. Nualphan Lamsam, the team’s now former general manager, tried to take this issue into her own hands.

Lamsam, also the chief executive of one of Thailand’s largest insurance companies, resorted to employing players as sales representatives for the company, and continued to compensate them during the season, so they could concentrate on the game.

Lamsam and coach Nuengruethai Sathongwien resigned following Thailand’s disastrous showing at the world stage, but Sornpao still aims to make an impact with Thailand’s team down the line.

“I’m seeing how they build from this World Cup. They’ve gotten so much help and so much recognition that I think helping them develop and expand would be great,” she said.

As for what’s next for Sornpao, she is excited to bring what she learned from her World Cup experience back to her team at Kennesaw State, where she plans to play for the next two seasons, before trying to pursue her dreams of turning pro.