South-East Asians dreaming of Brazil
These are interesting times in South-East Asia. Thaksin Shinawatra's Pheu Thai Party is likely to win the imminent Thailand general election without the man himself even being allowed in the country, Lee Kuan Yew has finally (officially at least) retired from Singapore politics, the Khmer Rouge are on trial and Myanmar's pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi addressed the US Congress by video. And on Wednesday, teams from the region start their quest to reach the 2014 World Cup.
It is a year since a moment of Luis Suarez magic eliminated South Korea at the second-round stage in South Africa and Japan's Yuichi Komano smashed his spot-kick against the crossbar to send Paraguay into the last eight. Despite those South American slayings of Asian giants, all on the world's largest continent are dreaming of Brazil.
For South-East Asia, it is important that dreams are not dashed too early and one or two of its teams survive to the final stages. Despite the targets set in the past by various federations of making future World Cups, representation in Brazil, Russia and probably Qatar is not going to happen. Even when Qatar hosted the Asian Cup in January, ASEAN nations were conspicuous by their absence. Being home to some of the passionate football fans on the continent, the region deserves better.
Whether it will get it is about to be seen. Thailand, Singapore and Indonesia join the fray in the second round later in July - the likes of Korea and Japan take the field in September when the first of two group stages gets underway - leaving the first round open for the likes of the Philippines, Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia to hog the spotlight. ESPNsoccernet spoke to coaches past and present.
Due to the Philippines' links to the United States, the archipelago has been traditionally less attracted to the beautiful game than its neighbours - it didn't even enter qualification for the 2006 or 2010 World Cups. The 2010 AFF Cup however, woke the country up to its potential. At South-East Asia's biennial slugfest, one always worth a watch, the former American colony finally reminded the continent that it actually played football.
A qualifier for the eight-team competition, the Azkals, led by a 33-year-old Englishman in the shape of Simon McMenemy, beat defending champions Vietnam and drew with Singapore and Myanmar to earn a two-legged semi-final with Indonesia. A lack of suitable venues at home meant that both games were held at Jakarta's intimidating Gelora Bung Karno Stadium and two 1-0 defeats followed.
First-round opponents Sri Lanka now hold few fears, though a much tougher test lies in wait in the second round. "The fans in the Philippines are incredible and if they are like that against Sri Lanka then they should beat them comfortably," predicted McMenemy. "I am confident of that though Kuwait in the next round is a different question." The team, which is now led by German coach Michael Weiss and has been preparing in Germany, contains a number of players of Filipino descent with experience of playing in Europe. Led by former Chelsea pair James and Phil Younghusband, the Philippines also boast the likes Paul Mulders of Dutch club ADO Den Hag and ex-Germany Under-20 defender Stefan Schrock.
"The success at the AFF Cup meant that holding trials and bringing players in was more accessible for management," said McMenemy, who is now in charge of Vietnamese club Dong Tam Long An. "Players who were qualified to play for the Philippines and playing in better leagues suddenly wanted to play for the country. In the past, they were not so interested in travelling long distances to lose 5-0 or 6-0. Now the team is holding its own and is attracting better players."
Elsewhere, one of Laos or Cambodia are not even going to get a scent of the samba style in Brazil as they meet each other, with the action starting in Phnom Penh on Wednesday and then moving north to Vientiane four days later. Like everything else in the country, football in Cambodia is still recovering from the reign of the Khmer Rouge and the estimated 1.7 million people that were killed in the seventies. The trial of the four surviving leaders of the brutal regime is dominating headlines this week though progress to the second round and a match with China would be warmly welcomed.
According to their young South Korean coach Lee Tae-Hoon however, the tournament is not the be-all and end-all for the football team.
"We are training now and preparing for this game as much as we can," Lee, who is two months into a 12-month contract, told ESPNsoccernet. "Football in Cambodia needs to develop more and this is a good opportunity for us. Laos are in a similar situation to us and this is a game that both teams will think they can win. Of course, all coaches want to win every game they play and this is an important game but more important than the result is how we play. If we can show that we are moving forward and moving in the right direction, then that is progress."
Laos are perhaps slight favourites. The boys from Vientiane pulled off one of the best results in their history at the AFF Cup when only a last-minute equaliser prevented a 2-1 win over Bryan Robson's Thailand in their opening game. The draw was still pretty impressive, though, especially as David Booth had had little time to spend with the team prior to the tournament. A gruff Yorkshireman, Booth has quite a CV in the region with the names of Brunei and Myanmar, as well as various Indian clubs, sitting alongside Grimsby and Darlington.
"I took Laos to the AFF finals at the end of last year but then I left as a new president came in and I found out that my contract expired a little earlier than I expected," Booth said. "They are quite well-organised and when I was with them, they started to win some games and started to look like they may win games and this was a new thing for them. It gave encouragement to the players and staff to keep going and keep working hard and that is what they need."
"We played Cambodia at the AFF qualification stage and were unlucky not to win, it was a draw. I would suggest that both teams are quite equal in terms of talent and tactical ability. They are two teams striving to get better." While there were some usual minnows making waves at the AFF Cup, the competition marked a return to form for one of the region's traditional powerhouses. Malaysian football has been through some tough times of late especially as far as the national team was concerned. Despite co-hosting the 2007 Asian Cup, the Tigers finished bottom of their group and had a campaign to forget when trying to reach the 2011 tournament.
But the team bounced back from a 5-1 group-stage thrashing at the hands of Indonesia to lift the trophy in Jakarta with a 4-2 aggregate win in the two-legged final. Satiananthan was the boss from 2008 to 2009 before falling out with the federation and, despite past differences, says he was delighted with the triumph. The former coach also believes Malaysia will ease past Taiwan in the first round of qualification and then defeat rivals Singapore to reach the group stage.
"It will be easy for us in the first round as we play Taiwan and we can beat them easily," Satiananthan said. "In the second round against Singapore, I see no problems. Singapore are in a transitional period. They depended too much on foreigners who are getting older. We will qualify for the final rounds but honestly we have to be at our best to get a positive result against the giants in Asia."
"The team is full of confidence after they won the AFF Cup and now is getting full backing from the fans, the media, the government and the team management. Malaysia are improving because there are lots of younger players knocking on the door of the national team."
In other ties involving South-East Asian teams, Timor Leste face Nepal, while Vietnam and Myanmar should be too strong for Macau and Mongolia respectively.