The ‘Wild Boars’; One Year On and Keeping Their Feet On The Ground

On June 23, 2018, A football team made up mostly of poor or stateless teenagers entered a tourist cave complex in northern Thailand on a day trip, accompanied by their coach.

They emerged 18 days later to global acclaim, courted by film producers, authors and talk show hosts eager to tell the remarkable story of a daring operation that rescued them from the flooded depths.

Most of the 12 “Wild Boars”, as the team was known, still live in the northern town of Mae Sai, once a sleepy backwater but now inundated with selfie-snapping tourists. They still play football – their coach who led them down the Tham Luang cave complex continues to run training – and they share the same basic homes with their families.

The young footballers are dealing with Hollywood fame and reported fortune by keeping their feet on the ground in Chiang Rai.

But life for the team has taken an extraordinary trajectory since they were rescued, led out of the cave heavily sedated by teams of expert divers.

They have signed a film deal with Netflix, traveled the world, and had their story chronicled in books, documentaries and a pipeline of films.

But their new-found fame has also forced silence on them, as the boys and their families can no longer talk freely about their ordeal – the result of exclusivity contracts that ban them from speaking to the press.

The boys were on a day trip to the cave complex when up-country rains flooded the complex via underground waterways. They were feared dead until two British cave divers negotiated a series of narrow waterways and corridors and found them on July 2, trapped in a damp chamber, four kilometers (2.5 miles) from the entrance.

It was then that Adul Sam-on, aged 14 at the time, became one of the stars of the drama. He went into the cave complex as a stateless person – like several others in the group, including the coach Ekkapol Chantawong, denied citizenship in Thailand.

But he was thrust into the limelight by his gracious “thank you” spoken in English to the British divers who found the group, emaciated, cold, but alive, nine days after they went missing.

Born in Myanmar’s self-governing Wa State and raised in Thailand, Adul lived in legal limbo with no birth certificate. After their dramatic rescue, Adul, his coach and two other teammates were granted citizenship and passports for the first time, allowing them to travel to destinations from Los Angeles to Manchester.

With the anniversary of the start of the saga this Sunday, those close to the Wild Boars say fame has not changed them.

“He’s an ordinary person just like before,” Adul’s friend Aman Sommol said from his school.

A dedicated student, Adul still teaches his friends English and helps them with homework.

“He’s a role model for the younger kids at school,” Aman added.

Adul and several other Wild Boars now play for the Ekkapol Academy, a new club founded by Coach Ek, as he is known. As he runs drills Ek smiles at the visiting media, but bound by Netflix’s gag order he cannot talk about the cave drama.

His peers say he is delighted to have finally realised his dream of running his own football school.

“After the storm came calm, this is a new life for him,” assistant coach Noppadol Kanthavong said.

Coach Ek also now heads a media company that will act as the go-between for the production houses, the boys and their families for a Netflix production.

Meanwhile tourists snap selfies by a bronze statue of the diver who died trying to save the ‘Wild Boars’ football team from a flooded cave, while momentos from their rescue fly off the shelves — scooped up by the 1.3 million people who have descended on a once serene mountainside in northern Thailand.  The cave entrance remains off limits to visitors.