A displaced teenager from one of the world's poorest countries has emerged as the hero in the Thai cave rescue mission.

Adul Sam-on, a 14-year-old member of the Wild Boars soccer team, played a vital role in the dramatic rescue mission of his teammates and coach.

The teenager is proficient in five languages — English, Thai, Burmese, Mandarin and Wa, a language spoken near the Myanmar and China.

It was his knowledge of English that was crucial because it allowed him to talk to the British rescue divers on behalf of the group when it was discovered nine days after becoming stuck.

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Vitally, Adul provided clarity to the rescuers on how long the team been in the cave and what they needed.

The Thai Navy SEAL Force shared a photo of the boy with a huge smile on his face. No matter how dire the situation looked, he could afford to smile with optimism.

"I'm Adul, I'm in good health," the rake-thin teenager said in Thai in a video that emerged hours after the group was discovered. He also offered a traditional Thai "wai" greeting — trademark politeness, his teachers say.

Adul Sam-on, (right) 14, can speak five languages and played a crucial role in the rescue mission.
Adul Sam-on, (right) 14, can speak five languages and played a crucial role in the rescue mission.

"The first thing that comes to mind when I talk about him is his nice manner. He gives a 'wai' gesture to every teacher he walks past, every time," his instructor Phannee Tiyaprom at Ban Pa Moead School told AFP.

Adul has been praised for his ability to speak proficient English in a country where less than a third of the population understand the language.

He was the only one able to communicate with the British divers that discovered the boys on Monday night.

"What day is it?" he shouted, telling the divers they were hungry in footage broadcast around the world after the agonising search for the boys.

As news of the rescue mission went global, we learnt titbits about all the boys. Duganpet Promptep, the captain, went in with the group to overcome his fear of the dark. Peerapat Sompiangjai was celebrating his birthday the day he ventured in with his friends.

But Adul has one of the most sobering stories.

The boy's parents dropped him off at a Thai Baptist church eight years ago, asking that the pastor and his wife care for him, The New York Times reported.

In Myanmar's self-governing Wa region, which is neither recognised by Myanmar nor internationally, education and employment opportunities are scarce.

Instead, the region is known for drug trafficking and guerrilla warfare.

But Adul's status as a stateless child gave him a desire to excel, and he surpassed his fellow classmates.

The young soccer player was known as the overachiever of the group.

According to The Wall Street Journal, his friends and teachers describe him as an all-rounder. He plays three instruments, has won trophies for every sport from volleyball to futsal, and was a straight-A student.

He was the top student in his class at the Ban Wiang Phan School in Mae Sai, with an unparalleled academic record.

"Soccer is my life," he told one of his best friends, Luea-Boon Junta.

School director Phunawhit Thepsurin described the teenager as a "gem".

"He's good at both studying and sports … he's brought our school several medals and certificates from his achievements," the director told AFP.

Fighting between ethnic rebels from the United Wa State Army and Myanmar troops has driven thousands to seek safety and greener pastures in other countries, including in Thailand.

Adul is among more than 400,000 people who are registered as stateless in Thailand, according to the UN Refugee Agency — though some estimates put their numbers at 3.5 million.

"Whilst some progress has been made, stateless people in Thailand continue to face challenges accessing their basic rights," UNHCR spokeswoman Hannah Macdonald told AFP.

With no birth certificate, no ID card and no passport, Adul cannot legally marry, get a job or bank account, travel, own property or vote.

Thailand has vowed to register all stateless people by 2024, but until then people like him remain stuck in legal limbo.

Coach Ekkapol Chantawong — or "Ek" — who was also pivotal to the boys' survival, had a tough upbringing as well.

Ek came to the Wild Boars team almost straight out of the Chiang Mai monastery where he was studying to be a monk.

At the age of 10, he cheated death when a disease swept through his village killing his seven-year-old brother, then his mother and ­father.

Until he was 12, Mr Ekkapol was looked after by extended family but was a "sad and lonely" little boy, his aunt Umporn Sriwichai told The Australian.

Relatives decided to send the boy to a Buddhist temple to train to be a monk.

The boys idolised Ek, and most of them shared the experience of growing up poor and displaced.