They became one of most famous football teams in the world earlier this year - for all the wrong reasons. For 18 days in June and July, junior football team Wild Boars were trapped in the Tham Luang Nang Non cave in Thailand. With the world’s attention captured, the 12 boys and their coach were eventually rescued thanks to a concerted international effort.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) invited the players to attend the Youth Olympic Games Buenos Aires 2018 as a chance to remind people around the world of their strength and bravery.
The special opportunities did not stop there. The Wild Boars also were invited to play against the junior team of one of Argentina’s most famous clubs, River Plate, at the iconic Estadio Monumental.
“The boys are very pleased to be here, and very excited,” said Werachon Sukondhapatipak (THA), head of the Thai Olympic delegation, who accompanied the boys on a VIP tour of the famous stadium’s museum and changing rooms before the match.
“They are happy to be able to show their appreciation to the world, for the attention and help they were given. During the rescue operation, so many people from around the world came to Thailand and collaborated to rescue them. They feel that they owe a debt to everybody.”
The admiration was mutual. Buenos Aires’ mayor, Horacio Rodriguez Larreta, said: “We are very proud to see these boys and very happy to have them here. When the IOC told us this idea, to have them come and play a game, we thought it was great.
“We saw yesterday at the Opening Ceremony that the people of Buenos Aires were so happy to see them be mentioned. It’s a nice thing for the Youth Olympic Games to do. And it’s a fantastic opportunity to play in this arena.
“The best players in the world have played here, the best pop singers have sung here. I was here when I was their age, watching the World Cup final in 1978. This event shows how sports can promote peace and friendship all over the world. It is very powerful, and a good example of what sports can do. You can feel the Olympic spirit across this city and this kind of thing helps so much.”
River Plate’s chairman Rodolfo D’Onofrio, was impressed. “To receive these boys is very important for our hearts,” he said. “I’m proud they came to River Plate. They went through a terrible thing, but the world is now with them.”
“It was a pleasure for us to be asked and for us to receive them. To see them play against River Plate was wonderful. Today they will also receive the River kit as a present, so they can show their friends back home about River, how they played in this stadium.”
The Wild Boars later watched some BMX racing and met IOC President Thomas Bach (GER), who had personally invited the boys.
“It's very emotional because the whole world was feeling with them at the time,” Bach said. “I was almost in daily contact with our IOC members in Thailand (during the rescue). To see them now enjoying life and enjoying sport, it is a great experience.”
“It is what sport is all about. This determination to never give up, to have faith that you can make it. So this was the reason why we invited them here, because this was Olympic spirit at its best.”
“I told them that as a kid I was a football player, so we have a common experience. They asked me if I could be their coach. I said that they already have a good one.”