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Football provides alternative to gangs and bullying

© UNICEF Thailand/2006/McBride
Thamanoon, aged 14, with his team mates.

By Rob McBride

KHAO LAK, Thailand, 6 March 2006 - In the driving rain, Thamanoon and his team-mates line up for the customary march out onto the pitch and formal handshake with their opponents before the match.

“They are not that good,” he says.  This was not going to be much of a contest.  Even so, the team talk from the coach had been stern enough and no one would be giving less than their best.

Like the rest of his team, Thamanoon Vejakul, aged 14, takes his football very seriously.  For this troubled teenager, it represents more than just a game – it’s a release from another way of life that was quickly leading him nowhere.

His troubles began at his previous school; a state-run boarding school where he was badly bullied by some other kids.

“I had thought the school was going to be good for him,” explained his mother, Jinda Vejakul.  “But he was picked on and they stole everything from him, even his uniform right down to his underwear.”

© UNICEF Thailand/2006/McBride
GOAL! One of three goals Thamanoon’s team scored in their victory.

She took him out of that institution, enrolling him instead at Baan Bang Muang school closer to their home in Khao Lak, Southern Thailand.

But soon after, his problems were compounded by the death of his father in an accident at work, meaning he now had to help out around the house with the chores while also doing odd jobs to supplement the family income.  Just to add to his list of worries, a local bike gang began to single him out and tried to force him to join their ranks.

It was then that he discovered the power of football.

“I have always loved football,” he says.  “But I found I could use it as an excuse when this gang wanted me to join them.  I would tell them I was playing football and they would leave me alone.”

Playing as a midfielder for his school team has transformed his life.  “When I’m playing football, I feel happy.  I can forget about things that make me uneasy or stressed.”

© UNICEF Thailand/2006/McBride
Baan Bang Muang school team.

His teacher, Nathanee Limsakul agrees. “Football is a great activity because it provides an alternative to joining a gang,” she says, adding she has seen a marked positive change in the teenager. 

Playing football has also given Thamanoon the strength to stand up to gang members when they have targetted other teenagers.  Recently he intervened to stop a younger boy from being bullied.

“I know I wouldn’t like it, and I’d want someone to step in as I did,” he explains.

Above all, the football team provides Thamanoon with better role models than a bike gang.  “The team has other boys and male coaches,” Ms. Limsakul explains.  “He can discuss things with them that he would find difficult to discuss with his mother.”

On this rainy afternoon there was little time for discussion as the boys from Baan Bang Muang school set about dismantling the opposition.  In a game that saw all the action take place in the other team’s half, they eventually win three goals to nil, with number 14 Thamanoon, in the thick of the action.

For this soccer crazy teenager, whose favourite team is Arsenal, laying on the goals for his forwards was all that mattered.  “It’s the best feeling when I set up a goal for the strikers.  That’s what makes me the happiest.”




February 2006:
UNICEF Correspondent Rob McBride reports from Thailand on the sport which transformed a fourteen-year-old’s life.

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