Thailand's celebrity cave boys head out on overseas tour

BANGKOK — The 12 village boys who were trapped with their soccer coach in a flooded cave in northern Thailand for almost three weeks are ready to spread their wings, heading out to meet fellow youth players in Argentina and do a brief tour of the United States.

The members of the Wild Boars soccer team, whose ordeal came to a happy ending in early July when an international team of cave divers brought them out in a complicated rescue mission, were leaving late Wednesday night on their 17-day journey.

It had been planned for them to take six months out of the spotlight to ease any psychological trauma. But Thailand's military government, eager to share in their glory, has trotted them out for public appearances and interviews. Movie deals are being negotiated. The government has basically become the manager for the boys' public life off the playing field.

According to deputy government spokesman Weerachon Sukoondhapatipak, the purpose of the trip is "not to take the kids out for a holiday but to show the world how our kids are." He said the trip also provides a chance for the boys to thank the rest of the world for the international rescue effort.

The boys, many of whom have expressed a desire to become professional when older, received invitations from several famous foreign teams. They were invited to attend the 2018 World Cup Final by FIFA President Giovanni Infantino, but were still recovering in a hospital at the time. They also received invitations to train with the youth academies of some of European football's most esteemed clubs, such as FC Barcelona and Manchester United.

The sporting part of their trip will instead take them to Buenos Aires, Argentina, where they will participate in the 2018 Summer Youth Olympics opening ceremony, observe the games and play a friendly match with a local youth team. The boys are also scheduled to sit down for a meal with Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach, who invited them, said Patama Leeswadtrakul, a Thai member of the International Olympic Committee.

After four or five days, they head for New York, where their schedule — still tentative — includes a news conference at the Thai Mission to the U.N. and guest TV appearances. Wild Boars coach Ekkapol Chantawong, player Adul Sam-on, and Narongsak Osatanakorn, the provincial governor who supervised the rescue, will make an appearance at the Asia Society, a nonprofit educational institution normally more used to hosting diplomats and other VIPs.

The next stop is Los Angeles, which has a large Thai population, some of whom will get to meet the boys. More press and TV activities are scheduled, along with a visit to the Universal Studios theme park, before their return home.

All expenses for the trip will be paid by the people who invited the team, according to Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam, who added that the boys will be traveling during their school break and the host groups gave assurances that they would not be exploited.

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