Their entry into the media hall injects a sense of wonder, as the boys graciously walk around greeting everyone with a humble bow and a warm smile. It is almost impossible to believe these boys survived the most harrowing experience in June last year.
Three of them, along with their assistant coach, were part of the 12 young footballers of the Wild Boars team that was trapped in Thailand's Tham Luang caves.
The boys struggled for survival for over two weeks, with support and assistance pouring in from all corners to evacuate them to safety. All of them were rescued and have emerged fit and healthy since the ordeal.
On Asian Football Confederation's invitation, the boys are now in Abu Dhabi to back their national team as it takes on India in its opening tie at the AFC Asian Cup 2019. The invitation is part of a larger two-year support programme from the AFC to the Wild Boars, which will see the club receive technical support as well as training equipment.
Assistant coach Ekkapol “Ake” Chantawong had taught the boys, meditation techniques in the caves to keep them calm. Six months on, he is glad to be here with his wards. “We are very excited and it’s a great opportunity for us to see our Thai heroes. We thank the AFC and the Thailand Football Federation for giving us this opportunity to support our team,” he says.
Beside him is the bubbly 11-year-old Chanin “Titan” Wiboonrungrueng, the youngest of the lot. Titan had sent a letter from the cave to his relative, asking her to buy him food from KFC once he got out. When asked who his favourite Thai player, he says he fancies the Thai Messi – Chanathip Songkrasin.
Fourteen-year-old Ardoon Sam-aon is an ardent Cristiano Ronaldo fan and has aims of representing the War Elephants someday. “Coming here today and being here today, it has fuelled my passion and I want to be here one day, at the Asian Cup, playing for Thailand,” he says.
Ardoon played an instrumental role in the team's rescue, interacting with the divers in English, helping them to find out the exact location of his trapped team-mates.
The players have gone on to attend the 2018 Youth Olympic Games, visit Manchester United at Old Trafford and even watched Barcelona play at the Camp Nou.
Six months down the line, the boys have put their pain behind them. Today, their only focus is bringing footballing glory to Thailand.
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