A catchy Thai TV commercial for a skin care product shows a trendy young guy interrupting backyard frolics with his mates to answer the door bell and welcome three lovely ladies to a weekend barbeque – with a winning smile.
It might have been one of the stars of popular soap operas like Raeng Pratana or Hormones, which captivate viewers from Hat Yai to Chang Rai. But instead the ‘actor’ was Thailand’s Swiss-born midfielder Charyl Chappuis, who became a national celebrity when the War Elephants were crowned champions of Southeast Asia last December.
At 23 years of age, Chappuis has everything that makes him a marketing dream and, potentially, Thailand’s answer to Cristiano Ronaldo or David Beckham. With a Swiss father and a mother from Chiang Mai, his Eurasian good looks are complimented by a steady personality and prodigious footballing talent.
The downside is that he doesn’t speak fluent Thai – and has just had surgery to repair his broken right knee cartilage. The injury, which could rule him out for another three months, has halted his rapid progress in the Thai Premier League (TPL) after completing a movefrom Buriram United to high flying Suphanburi FC, where he’d been on-loan.
“Fifteen years ago, this injury would be a very big problem but today there is much more success and the doctor is very happy,” Chappuis told ESPN FC. “Maybe I did this injury with my goal in the AFC Champions League [when he celebrated against Jiangsu Sainty in 2013]or in the last six months when I played so many games for Thailand and Suphanburi… I’m not sure.”
As he recovers post-operation in Switzerland, Chappuis can reflect on a hectic 18 months that saw him establish himself in the TPL while winning the 2014 AFF Suzuki Cup and 2013 Southeast Asian (SEA) Games with Thailand and being part of the side that finished fourth at the 2014 Asian Games.
The Suzuki Cup, co-hosted by Singapore and Malaysia, saw Chappuis score four goals, including a crucial one in the second leg of the final in Kuala Lumpur. His partnership with fellow attacker and pocket rocket Chanathip Songkrasin tormented regional defences – with breakneck speed, one-touch football and incredible fitness – and delighted legendary head coach Kiatisuk Senamuang who’d gambled on a youthful squad.
“We did our best to repay the faith the coach put in us. When we arrived home after the final, people stood there and shouted out our names,” he said.
“I had a really good time in Buriram and everyone recognised me but now it has started in Bangkok, which is crazy and unbelievable. It can be difficult because I don’t have any privacy any more but it is better this way than having people hating you!”
Chappuis has more than 800,000 followers on Instagram while his long-term relationship with Swiss beautician Melanie Manuel – they’ve been together more than five years – has become fodder for celebrity websites.
From the age of 11, growing up in the Swiss-German town of Kloten, Chappuis was earmarked as player to watch, recruited by the Swiss Super League side Grasshoppers FC in 2003.
He featured in all seven matches for the triumphant Switzerland side in the 2009 FIFA U17 World Cup, including the 1-0 victory in the final over Nigeria, with future English Premier League midfielder Pajtim Kasami and Bundesliga striker Haris Seferovic among among his teammates. But despite also making the Swiss U20 side, Chappuis opted to devote his senior footballing life to the nation of his mother in 2013.
“Buriram approached me and it was an easy decision to make because I saw how professional everything was in Thailand,” he said. “When I first arrived, my first two games were really big: in Brisbane for the AFC Champions League and then King’s Cup against Muang Thong. This showed it was the right decision.”
His critics might accuse Chappuis of being more European than Asian given his oft-spoken desire to play one day for Barcelona or in the Bundesliga. But he insists that Thailand was always a big part of his childhood, with regular family trips.
“I talk to my teammates in Thai and the coach trains us in Thai and it is easy to understand the football language but in [media]interviews, it is a little too difficult to me,” he said. “Other mixed nationality players have helped me and so has [Suphanburi and Thailand teammate] Jakkapan Pornsai because he has perfect English.”
Chappuis will be watching with interest when the second round draw for AFC 2018 World Cup qualifiers will be made in Kuala Lumpur on Apr. 14. No Southeast Asian nation has ever come close to booking a place in the FIFA showcase.
“We have a really great team and at home we can beat anybody if everyone can come together like in the Suzuki Cup,” he said. “You have to also understand that U23 players also have the preparation for the Olympics. But you have to believe. We all want it and will try our best.”
That was the point of the interview where the football side of Chappuis, as the bright new face of the Thai national squad, came into alignment with his TV persona. The slogan of his Nivea ad campaign? It starts with you.
Jason Dasey is Senior Editor of ESPN FC (formerly ESPN Soccernet), Borneo’s most popular football website which has a Southeast Asia edition. Twitter: @JasonDasey