CHIANG RAI, Thailand (Reuters) - A soccer coach rescued with a 12-member squad of boys this week from a flooded cave in Thailand is a kind and humble young man who loves sports and hopes to become a Thai citizen, a relative and friend said on Thursday.
The coach, Ekkapol Chantawong, or Ek as he is known, has come under scrutiny as the only adult in the group of 13 who got trapped in the cave in the northern province of Chiang Rai on June 23 during an expedition.
He showed remorse in a note to the boys' parents that rescuers brought out of the cave, apologising and vowing to take "the very best care" of the boys.
"Ek is a kind and humble man," said one of his relatives, Charoenpol Rattanaweerachon, 52. "He loves sports, cycling and football since he was young."
"He's a country boy so he enjoys nature."
Attention has also focused on Ek's status in Thailand.
He is a member of the Tai Lue minority, one of several groups whose people have over generations moved around the region, across open borders in remote hills between southern China, Myanmar and Laos, and into northern Thailand's ethnic patchwork of communities.
Many such people do not have Thai citizenship papers and are officially stateless.
Weenat Seesuk, an interior ministry official in Bangkok, said Ek and three of the rescued boys from the "Wild Boars" soccer team were stateless.
"They are not Thai citizens," Weenat told Reuters, adding that officials were checking to see if they qualified for citizenship.