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So who exactly is Ekapol Chanthawong, the football coach who led the Thai children into the cave?

Chanthawong’s actions have been criticised, but mostly in western media. In Thailand, he was seen as the trapped boys’ protector.

kanth The Moo Pa soccer team, with coach Ekapol Chanthawong pictured on the left Source: Facebook

THIS AFTERNOON, THE 12 Thai schoolboys who had been trapped underground in a flooded cave complex in the north of the country were finally rescued.

Also freed at the same time was Ekapol Chanthawong, the boys’ soccer coach, who had first led them into the Tham Luang complex following a game on 23 June with the apparent goal of their signing their names on a cave wall as part of an initiation ritual.

It was Chanthawong’s first time looking after the boys by himself, according to the Washington Post who spoke to his head coach.

25-year-old Chanthawong coaches the younger of the Moo Pa (Wild Boars) soccer teams in Mae Sai, northern Thailand. Head coach Noppart Khanthavong told him to bring some of the boys from the older team to help him in his custodial role, hence the range of ages among the trapped students, according to a Facebook post.

The coach’s actions have led him to become the focus of the world’s media. In bringing the boys over two miles deep into the cave complex, whereupon the group was trapped by sudden heavy rainfall, he kickstarted a humanitarian story that gripped the world for over two weeks.

The story is also one with a happy ending, making it all the rarer in a news cycle not overly given to sentiment.

2 A popular Thai cartoon showing the Wild Boars' route to freedom Source: Facebook

But, in western media, scepticism as to what the coach was doing leading the boys into the complex in the first place is rife (the entrance to the caves is clearly marked with warnings regarding exploring so close to monsoon season).

Not so in Thailand, where the man is seen as the boys’ protector. A popular Thai cartoon depicts him as sitting cross-legged, like a monk, with 12 little boars  in his arms.

Chanthawong himself is in actuality a former apprentice monk, having left his vocation three years ago and begun working with the Wild Boars soon after.

Local media suggests that he was among the weakest in the group towards the end, having sacrificed what supplies he had in order to keep his charges strong, together with teaching the boys how to meditate in order to conserve their energy throughout the ordeal.

Thailand Dealing With Darkness The boys smile while still trapped underground, in this screengrab taken from video provided by the Thai Navy SEALS Source: AP

When letters from the boys were returned to the surface by divers who had made contact, the coach wrote a letter of his own, apologising to parents for their boys’ ordeal.

“I promise to take the very best care of the kids,” he wrote. “I want to say thanks for all the support, and I want to apologise.”

The mother of one boy, Pornchai Khamluang, told Thai television that she would “never blame” Chanthawong for what had happened.

1 One of the letters written by the trapped boys to their loved ones Source: Facebook

“If he didn’t go with them, what would have happened to my child?” she said.

When he comes out, we have to heal his heart.

Chanthawong is himself reportedly an orphan whose parents died when he was 10.

Having trained to be a monk, he left his monastery in order to care for his ill grandmother in Mae Sai, before taking up his position with the junior soccer team, many of whose members are themselves from impoverished backgrounds or are ethnic minorities without a nationality of their own.

Thai legal sources told Business Insider, meanwhile, that there is little chance of Chanthawong being sanctioned legally for his actions.

“He loved them more than himself,” Joy Khampai, a friend of Chanthawong’s and worker at the Mae Sai monastery, told the Washington Post.

He doesn’t drink, he doesn’t smoke. He was the kind of person who looked after himself and who taught the kids to do the same.

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