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Author Marc Aronson: Soccer helped avert tragedies in Thailand, Chile

Thailand and Chile, which are meeting in women’s soccer for the first time, will forever be linked by two miraculous rescues

Goalkeeper Claudia Endler (makiing a save here against the USWNT) and Chile will meet Thailand for the first time in soccer but the two nations have a strong connection from near tragedies in their home nations. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)

Thailand will meet Chile in their third and final match of Group F Thursday at 3 p.m. EST, with the possibility that the winner will advance to the knock-out stage of the World Cup.

It will be the first time that these two countries have met in women’s soccer, but they will forever be linked by two events that were global in stature – the rescue of a Thai youth soccer team from a flooded cavern and the liberation of 33 miners who were trapped 2,000 feet below the surface of a Chilean desert.

Soccer – and specifically the World Cup – played a survival role in both stories as documented in two books by Marc Aronson – “Rising Water – The Story of the Thai Cave Rescue” and “Trapped – How the World Rescued 33 Miners from 2,000 Feet Below the Chilean Desert.”

Aronson has a doctorate in American History from NYU and is an assistant professor of practice at Rutgers University’s School of Communication and Information. He spoke to Pro Soccer USA’s Glenn Crooks about the physical, environmental, and psychological factors surrounding the rescues – and the function of soccer to inspire the results.

Pro Soccer USA: What was your motivation for digging deeper into the story of the Thai cave rescue?

Marc Aronson: “I was hiking in the Swiss-Italian Alps with my family last July but had followed the story when we were traveling through Europe. I read a story in the New York Times about the hard lives some of the boys had lived before the rescue. That particularly moved me and when an editor reached me with an offer to write about the boys if I could do it very quickly, I agreed. I had previously written on a tight deadline about the Chile mine rescue so I knew I could do it.”

PSUSA: Teams will sometimes do something outside of the game for variety or to bond. Was that part of the motivation to explore the cave?

Aronson: “This is an interesting question. Many reports said the cave trip was a “team building” exercise. That may be so but I have not seen confirmation. They had just played a game and many had been to the cave before – on school trips and such. The others were eager to have a chance to see it themselves. The monsoon rains had not come until half a month later the previous year so they all thought it would be OK. In other words, I am not sure whether it was a fully planned team event or more like a supervised way to have some fun together before they all went to a birthday party of one of the team members that night.”

PSUSA: The 12 players and their coach, Ek (Ekapon Jantawong), had no food or communication. How did soccer help to keep their sanity? 

Aronson: “One way was talking about a subject all the boys cared about passionately: The World Cup which was taking place at the same time. Like any soccer-loving players their age, they each had favorite teams and players and could picture the matchups and the makeup of each of the Groups. That intense conversation helped to engage and distract them.”

PSUSA: Coaches are taught that their responsibility goes beyond the playing field. The coach as a caretaker. This seems to be a heroic act, done here at the highest level and in the most difficult circumstances you can imagine. What were some examples of how Ek helped the boys?

Aronson: “There were three ways Ek took control of the situation and, in effect, saved the boys’ lives. Not in the physical sense – though he risked entering the rising water even when it reached over his head in an effort to find a pathway out – but in keeping them calm and their spirits up. First, he taught them meditation. Second, he gave them chores – scraping at the limestone rocks to perhaps divert the water or find a way out. While there was essentially no chance this would work, it gave them both a common sense of purpose and a routine. That routine is linked to the third gift he gave them: brotherhood. He organized them in shifts so that as one set of kids tired a rested set took over. The older, stronger kids assisted the younger, weaker ones. Over time the group became ever more a family – and the boys stopped calling him “coach” and instead said “brother.” He became their elder brother, caring for them, guiding them, watching out for them. Now Thai culture is both familial and respectful – the boys were accustomed to granting authority to an elder. But Ek made great use of that potential.”

PSUSA: The coach had trauma in the early stages of his life – how did those experiences help him in this situation?

Aronson: “Ek had lost his parents and was in Thailand as a “stateless” person. That is, like “undocumented” immigrants here, he did not have Thai papers like somewhere between 400,000 and three million others in Thailand. He had no papers from his birth country. He was a boy without parents and without any official standing anywhere. For ten years he was reared in a Buddhist monastery. Yet everyone spoke of him as athletic, cheerful, life-positive and devoted to the boys.”

PSUSA: I was interested to learn that one of the leaders who helped in the rescue, reviewed film of the day that the first four boys were brought to safety to see what went right and went went wrong. Just like a coach might do, yes?

Aronson: “Major Hodges – the leader of the American group involved in the rescue acted exactly like a coach. Think of a championship where the entire season will be put to the test. First, he made sure every step of the rescue was planned – the plans reviewed and questioned over and over again. Second, every step of the rescue was rehearsed. They created a mini-version of the cave with all of the staging areas, with mockups of the gas tanks and water that would be in each area marked with the same colors that would be in the cave, and walked through every step – to identify any potential glitches. Third, he was clear and honest. He told the Thai authorities he saw a 60-70% chance of success – that is, he expected 3 to 5 of the boys to die. Fourth, the first day had its disasters but ended with perfect success. He saw that as a most dangerous moment. We went four for four, he said, we hit a home run, but that is no time to rest. They met and went over every step again – what had gone wrong, what could be done better, what did they need to do better the next day. To me that was just like a coach going over film after a successful game – not to gloat but to see what needed to be improved.”

PSUSA: A parent of one of the survivors said, “They are athletes, I have faith in their strength.” How much did being soccer athletes play a role in their survival?

Aronson: “The boys and the coach were all in good shape and doubtless that did help. Doctors were surprised at what good condition they were in when they were found. Some of that was good luck. If any of them had been seriously scraped or cut there was a real danger of infection in the damp cave. They were hardy and I suspect that being accustomed to training – which means pushing your body – prepared them for physical discomfort. The boys ranged in age from 11 to 17 and one of them was already being scouted by pro teams. They were serious players which means they must have been in good shape. And the boy who had attracted attention was also cited for his leadership skills.”

PSUSA: You mentioned that meditation was a survival skill shared with the boys – how did that manifest their survival?

Aronson: “Ek had been trained in meditation in the monastery and in some schools in northern Thailand this is done for students as well, so the boys might have had some experience with it. This form of meditation was crucial to the boys’ mental health in the cave. Ek taught them to breath in, and as the breath entered and then left, to watch their thoughts and feelings. That is, those flickering fragments – hunger, fear, thoughts of their parents – were there to be seen, to be felt, to be noticed. But the boy was noticing them, they were not him. He could observe himself being hungry or scared as it were from a distance. They could achieve a form of calm, of mental ease, through this practice.”

PSUSA: The Wild Boars U19’s played a match in the League Cup and defeated the Northern Kids, 5-1 in the midst of the drama. What was that like with Ek, four teammates and three Thai SEALS till stuck inside the cavern? In cases like this, matches would often be cancelled but they still played.

Aronson: “The game was played when the team had been found and the rescue was in process. I think they were trying to return to a kind of normalcy, moving on, for the rest of the kids in the program. Just worrying – when there would be no information at all until the end of each day, not even the names of who had been rescued until everyone was out – might not have felt as healthy as getting kids out, playing, feeling strong, being in a match, a tournament.”

PSUSA: You have called the detailing of these rescues an important story about refugees, immigrants and crossing borders. Why? 

Aronson: “The Wild Boars team is located in the far northern edge of Thailand where it borders Laos and Burma. It was created to give boys there who have tough lives a shot. Not that many will become pros, but something to do with their time. And the program also stresses school work. You have to keep up in school to get to play. All of this is especially needed in that region because there are so many stateless children. Indeed, 35% of the members of the team and a quarter of the boys in the cave plus Ek, were stateless. That is the equivalent of undocumented plus. So the whole club is there to give such boys a chance to gain skills, health, self esteem, knowledge when everything else in their lives is uncertain.”

PSUSA: The soccer connection with the Thai rescue seems obvious. How was the Chilean rescue allied with soccer?

Aronson: “There were several connections. One has to do with how you build a team. As in Thailand, there were two distinct phases to the rescue. The first was when the men had no contact with the surface. They had artificial light and, in fact, arranged the lights to simulate the day/night rhythm of the surface. They had very little food but used this limitation as a strength: they all ate together (so no one could think someone else as hoarding or getting more) and the ever-smaller rations became almost a sacrament. Second, when they had difficult decisions to make they did not defer to a single leader. They all spoke up and then they voted – they all felt heard, and that again made them more of a collective a team of equals. Third, as in Thailand, they each had chores. Fourth, and this is the one I like best, they told jokes. Humor helped them bond.”

PSUSA: Were there other specific soccer elements that helped pull them through?

Aronson: “Once they were found and fed, people began sending down flags for the various teams they rooted for and key soccer matches were projected to them down in the cave. One of the miners was Franklin Lobos, an ex-soccer star and as they watched the Chile-Ukraine match the announcers sent out a hello to Lobos – which the miners deep in the mine saw. So, as the rescue mechanisms were being built and they were regaining their strength, their passion for soccer helped them to pass the time. This did create some divisions as they rooted for rival teams – but gifts rained down on them: t-shirts from Real Madrid, tapes of encouragement from Diego Maradona and Pele. Soccer was a kind of universal language in which the world showed that it was aware of them and cared for them.”








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