They may not make it to the World Cup final, but the schoolboy team rescued from a flooded cave in Thailand have been hailed as “heroes” by top footballers and clubs after their dramatic ordeal.
Paul Pogba, Manchester United and Barcelona were among the masses around the world to breathe a sigh of relief as the Wild Boars team finally emerged after more than two weeks trapped underground.
In a sign of how their plight had gripped players at the ongoing World Cup in Russia, Paul Pogba dedicated France’s semi-final win against Belgium to the youngsters.
“This victory goes to the heroes of the day, well done boys, you are so strong,” the Manchester United midfielder tweeted after Tuesday’s 1-0 win.
England defender Kyle Walker, ahead of Wednesday’s semi-final against Croatia, also welcomed the news and offered to send them football shirts.
“Amazing news that all of the Thai kids are out of the cave safely! I’d like to send out shirts to them! Is there anyone who can help with an address?” he tweeted.
The 12 boys, aged 11-16, and their 25-year-old coach became trapped by rising floodwaters after setting off to explore a cave complex in northern Thailand after football training on June 23.
The last of the group was finally extracted on Tuesday, 18 days later, after a painstaking and dangerous international rescue mission led by Thai Navy SEALs.
However, football’s world governing body FIFA said the Wild Boars, who are recovering in hospital, remained too weak to take up an earlier invitation to Sunday’s World Cup final in Moscow.
FIFA said it had been informed “that due to medical reasons, the boys will not be in a position to travel to Moscow”.
“FIFA’s priority remains the health of everyone involved in the operation and we will look into finding a new opportunity to invite the boys to a FIFA event to share with them a moment of communion and celebration,” a spokesman said.
– ‘Hooyah’ –
But both the team and their rescuers could be in line for a trip to Old Trafford after Manchester United invited them to their home ground this season.
“#MUFC is relieved to learn that the 12 footballers and their coach trapped in a cave in Thailand are now safe,” the club tweeted.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with those affected. We would love to welcome the team from Wild Boars Football Club and their rescuers to Old Trafford this coming season.”
United extended a similar invitation to the 33 Chilean miners who were trapped underground for 69 days in 2010, giving each of them a shirt with his name on the back and a number reflecting the order they were rescued.
The boys will also head to Barcelona’s Camp Nou stadium after the Spanish giants invited them to next year’s Barca Academy International Tournament and a home game.
Rescuers had weighed up several options to save the boys, including keeping them in the cave through the months-long monsoon season.
But they were prodded into the dangerous task of “diving out” the team through submerged chambers and claustrophobic passages as oxygen levels in the cave plummeted and rains menaced.
The group were led out in three batches by a team of 13 international divers flanked by the Thai Navy SEALs, who greeted each successful rescue with a “Hooyah” on their Facebook page.
Earlier, Japan’s World Cup squad, Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp and Croatia’s football federation were among those to send messages of support during the boys’ ordeal.