Mika Chunuonsee is the most famous Cardiff City kid you've probably never heard of
From Bridgend to Bangkok via Brynteg and the Bluebirds, Mika Chunuonsee has a unique story to tell.
His journey is like no other and has seen him rub shoulders with the world's best. He is one of the most well-known athletes in Thailand, but here, in his native Wales, very few would take a second look at him if they passed him in the street.
But to understand how Chunuonsee, the Bangkok United centre-back, got to where he is today, we must first look at where he came from.
Born in Wales, the 32-year-old moved over to Koh Samui, a small island off the coast of Thailand, from where his father, Charin, hailed.
It was there, on the sun-soaked beaches and vast grasslands, where he initially honed his footballing skills. It wasn't until he was of secondary school age that his mum, Julie, made the decision to bring him back to her native Bridgend.
He went to Brynteg school and while football was clearly his first love, it was another sport which began to grab his attention.
"I played a lot of rugby in Brynteg," he tells WalesOnline. "I played for Pencoed as well.
"I played with Webby (Wales and Lions scrum-half Rhys Webb) and (former Wales prop) Scott Baldwin was a year older than me.
"Webby was my scrum-half and I was actually the outside half! I grew up with Webby and still speak with him.
"Josh Navidi as well, he is my brother's age, another Brynteg boy, I follow it quite a lot. Here in Thailand, when the rugby is on, I'm always watching the Wales games. I can't miss the Six Nations!
"All the boys are like, 'What are you watching?'"
His talent with the oval ball was quickly challenging his footballing proficiency and there was a decision to be made as to which path he would eventually go down.
But when Cardiff City came along and offered him a two-year contract at under-15s, it put paid to his fledgling rugby dream.
"I thought I was good at rugby!" he adds. "Everyone always said I could have made it in rugby if I didn't choose football.
"I think when you're at a young age, it was the same with Aaron Ramsey, who was a very good rugby league player, when you're good at football you can be good at rugby. You have to be quite athletic and I was good with my hands and feet, so playing outside-half or full-back, I was quite comfortable with the ball in my hands and at my feet.
"You never know if I would have made it in rugby. But football led me down the right path and I'm sure I've made the right decision."
When I joke that anyone can look half-decent at fly-half if Rhys Webb is their half-back partner, Chunuonsee, quick as a flash, replies: "He never passed it to me!"
One particularly endearing and noticeable thing about Chunuonsee, who has spent more of his life in Thailand than he has in Wales, is just how Welsh his accent becomes when he starts speaking about Brynteg and rugby again.
"It's only when I speak to a Welsh person!" he laughs. "When I'm speaking to Thai people I speak broken English!
"My wife says to me when I go back to Wales I start saying, 'Wassapenin' butt?!'"
That accent was formed during those teenage years, during which his grandfather would take him to Ninian Park as he sat in the Bob Bank watching Robert Earnshaw, Graham Kavanagh, Leo Fortune-West and the like.
His whole family on that side are Cardiff supporters, his uncle even worked as a steward at Ninian Park during those days. That's why it was a dream come true to sign on the dotted line for his beloved Bluebirds at 15 years of age.
"I had a chance actually to go to Swansea or Cardiff – but it didn't take me two minutes to decide!" he quips.
That cohort boasted the likes of Chris Gunter and Darcy Blake, while Ramsey, who was two years their junior, was also catapulted into that age group.
At international level, Chunuonsee's contemporaries were Gareth Bale and Neil Taylor, but there is no doubt in his mind who the most talented player he ever played alongside was.
"Normally, everyone would say Gareth Bale, because obviously he cost almost £100m, played for Real Madrid and all that," he said.
"Gareth has gone on to be one of the best players in the world and everyone develops differently, but if you talked me to at that time, who was the best player at under-17s, it was Aaron by a country mile. A country mile.
"Things he was doing at that age... We had a qualifier for the Euro under-17s. Aaron was only 14, 15 at the time, two years younger than us, we played against Spain and lost 2-0, Aaron had the No.10 on and ran the show.
"I was lucky to play with Aaron at Cardiff, week in, week out, the things he was doing were unbelievable. He has always been the best player I've ever played with. I used to call him Steven Gerrard, he was so complete.
"Gareth developed later at Spurs, that game against Inter Milan sticks out, but Aaron left Cardiff and went straight into the Arsenal midfield. That's not an easy thing to do. You could tell how special he was from a young age."
We all know what happened to Ramsey, while Gunter and Blake were kept on and given senior contracts. Chunuonsee was one of the many who fell by the wayside.
Cardiff cut their youth budget to make room for high-profile signings such as Robbie Fowler, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, Trevor Sinclair and others. Chunuonsee, whose dream it was to play for his beloved Bluebirds, was cut.
He remembers being devastated and spent the whole summer not wanting to think about football and wondering where his next steps would take him.
He eventually signed up for a course at the University at Glamorgan, studying football coaching performance alongside future assistant Tottenham coach Joao Sacramento, Jose Mourinho's No.2.
The defender was keeping his hand in on the pitch, too, so to speak, turning out for Bryntirion Athletic, Neath Athletic and Afan Lido while studying, still clinging on to the hope of one day reigniting his playing career.
At that time, though, the prospect of making it as a professional footballer looked remote.
That was until a representative of Thailand under-19s made contact with him over representing the country at age-grade level.
Chunuonsee was determined to finish his course and gain his qualification before making any decision, but eventually, when the biggest club in Thailand at the time, Muangthong United, caught wind that he was interested in jetting out to Asia, things began moving pretty quickly.
"After I finished [my course], in the summer, I came over to train for a week, loved it and thought, 'Yeah, I'll give it a go for a year'. If it didn't work out, I'd go back to the UK," he added.
"More than 10 years later, I'm still here."
That last sentence brings a great big grin to his face.
He has been at top-flight outfit Bangkok United since 2014 and has made more than 150 appearances for the club. He adores Thailand, its people and, most of all, the football.
It's been a roundabout journey, but one which has brought him everything he could have wished for.
"The life of a footballer in Thailand is so enjoyable. Everyone is so friendly," he says.
"The fans, even if you're losing 3-0, will still sing and praise you. It's not like the UK where they are always shouting at you.
"It's a different mentality. It's more relaxed and the culture here, it's just more enjoyable being a professional footballer.
"A lot of European players come over to Thailand, high-profile players who have been at big clubs, and they don't want to go back. They can't believe how good it is over here.
"The weather, the fans, the atmosphere, there's no animosity, fans are singing for 90 minutes. They enjoy the winning more than hating the losing. It's a healthy mentality."
His greatest honour, though, was when he was called up to receive his first international cap in 2015, in doing so becoming the first man from Koh Samui to represent the Thai national team.
"It was the biggest honour," says the defender, who has seven Thai caps to his name.
"I grew up in Wales, but my first childhood memories were of being in Koh Samui and my dad watching the Thai national team.
"When I came back to Thailand I just thought my dad would love seeing me play here. But to represent Thailand, being the first person from Koh Samui to represent the national team, was a big moment and one I'll never forget."
He says his dad is not overly emotional, he doesn't say a lot, but when Chunuonsee made his international debut, Charin made a big congratulatory sign and staked it in the middle of Koh Samui in a grand show of pride and emotion.
If, at this point, you're wondering why he is such a superstar, well his career off the pitch has skyrocketed ever since he entered a relationship with one of Thailand's top models and actresses, Taya Rogers.
Chunuonsee has 337,000 Instagram followers which, for context, is more than the entire Cardiff City squad combined.
They have been described as Thailand's answer to David and Victoria Beckham, but Chunuonsee, a Bridgend boy at heart, takes it all in his stride.
"I'm just lucky because I married a superstar wife!" he says.
"I got married to Taya and she is a big star in Thailand. She is one of the big movie stars over the last 15, 20 years.
"[The fame] comes with the prize of having a superstar wife, I have to go and do some modelling shoots every now and then!"
Now and then is being modest, if his Instagram page is anything to go by. He is quite the natural in front of a camera.
He and his wife met through a friend, but Chunonsee admits he didn't know who she was at the time as he doesn't watch much Thai TV and Rogers, who was born and raised in Los Angeles but is half Thai, certainly didn't know he was a footballer.
It's ironic, really, because everyone else there seems to know who they are.
"We are pretty lucky. If we go anywhere we tend to get noticed," he adds.
"It's nice. But we are just two normal people, really. She grew up in LA, I grew up in Bridgend!
"It's nice to live in a country where everyone is really nice to you. I'm just happy really with the whole career I've had on and off the field."
They are happy there, in Bangkok, it's where he sees his future. He has struggled to get back to Wales because of the pandemic, however his mum, Julie, did manage to make it out to Thailand for their wedding. He hopes to jet back to Wales before the year is out.
He admits that since Neil Warnock left Cardiff City he has struggled to keep tabs on his beloved Bluebirds. He reckons the last two years are the least he has followed Cardiff his whole life.
He still speaks to his good friends Ramsey and Gunter on a weekly basis, they are in a WhatsApp group together and he even flew out to Turin last year to see the former play for Juventus, while he remains in contact with Ospreys scrum-half Webb, too.
But his ties to Wales are becoming increasingly difficult to maintain, especially as his hectic, high-profile life in the Thai capital continues to flourish.
And he has the small matter of a baby girl to contend with now, too, eight-month-old Mila. It's fair to say, though, he won't let her forget that she's part-Welsh any time soon.
"I try to speak a bit of Welsh to her, 'Bore da!'" he exclaims in the most Welsh of accents.
"I'll get her a Welsh football top first then a Welsh rugby jersey!
"But this is home now. My wife has a home in LA, we have a house in Bangkok and we're building another house in Koh Samui. I can't see myself moving back and living in Bridgend, I'll be honest!"
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