The Premier League’s December program is starting to click into full gear and plenty of eyes in South East Asia will be looking on the games with the usual fanatical interest.
Football is huge in South East Asia, from Vietnam to Indonesia the appetite for the game is insatiable. Walk around streets of Malaysia or Singapore and you’ll see a plethora of different kits from top Premier League sides to the big two in Spain.
The top European leagues have targeted Asia (much like they are doing with the US) in order to expand their reach and grow their audience.
Naysayers have said that the local leagues suffer as a result with fans (and their money) flocking towards their more illustrious European counterparts. The flip side of the coin is that the local leagues don’t have much to offer the fans in South East Asia.
Tournaments like the AFF Suzuki Cup (formerly the Tiger Cup) shows what can happen if things are organized well. The biennial competition began in 1996 and is now in it’s 10th edition and gives football’s ‘smaller’ nations a trophy to compete for and the competition means a lot for players and fans alike.
As for the standard of football itself? It certainly has been entertaining with no shortage of talking points on and off the field.
There have been a number of spectacular strikes throughout the tournament. Hariss Harun’s spectacular effort against Myanmar is worth a watch as is Khampheng Sayavutthi free kick for Laos against the Philippines. The standard of goalkeeping has been a mixed bag ranging from farcical to fabulous.
Off the pitch there was the bizarre saga of Malaysia’s Gary Steven Robbat being listed for three different clubs. On a darker note a number of Malaysian ‘supporters’ clashed with Vietnam fans during the Vietnamese team’s 2-1 victory away to the Malays. Subsequently, the website of the Malaysian FA was attacked by suspected Vietnamese hackers. Meanwhile Philippine players were the subject of death threats after Thai ‘fans’ blamed them for the dismissal of the team’s striker Adisak Kraisom in the first leg of the semi-final between the two nations.
Back on the pitch the physicality of the sides or lack thereof means that teams are susceptible to direct attacks. Directness and pace have been key features in this edition of the AFF Suzuki Cup with defenses being caught at sixes and sevens at times.
That said when the more technically proficient sides get their game together the patterns of play can be quite intricate.
Despite not having any stand out ‘star’ names the tournament does have players who boast a level of pedigree. Thailand’s Charyl Chappuis, who is half-Swiss, plied his trade in Switzerland before moving to Thailand.
Philippine internationals James and Philip Younghusband were on Chelsea’s books in their youths. They owe their international careers in part to Football Manager after a ‘mystery gamer’ discovered that the pair who were born and raised in England had Filipino heritage and were eligible to play for the Philippines national team. The Philippine Football Federation got in touch with Chelsea, where they were playing at the time, and the rest as they say is history.
Martin Steuble is currently with Sporting Kansas City having previously played in the Swiss league.
Of the teams that have taken part, Thailand (nicknamed the War Elephants) have probably been the best all round side in the tournament winning all but one of their games on the route to the final.
Technically proficient the Thais coached by former national team legend Kiatisuk ‘Zico’ Senamuang go into the final, which is a two-legged affair, as favourites. They confidently dispatched of the Philippines in the semifinal, grinding out a 0-0 draw away having played the final 20 minutes with just ten men before winning the home leg comfortably 3-0.
Their opponents will be Malaysia. The Tigers have lived somewhat of a charmed life in this year’s AFF Suzuki Cup. In the group stages they were on the verge of being eliminated by defending champions Singapore. Needing to win away from home to go through, Malaysia were drawing 1-1 before scoring two goals right at the death to seal their place in the semifinals.
The Singaporeans felt harshly done by as they believed that the penalty, which led to Malaysia’s second goal, should not have been given. Desperately looking for a leveler, which would have seen them advance into the semis, the Singaporeans were caught on the break. Malaysia though did what they had to do but they certainly left it to the last possible second.
In the semifinals Malaysia once again decided to do things the hard way. They lost the first leg at home 2-1 against an impressive Vietnamese side. The Tigers, coached by Dollah Salleh, turned it around in the second leg in Vietnam defeating their hosts 4-2 to book a place in the final. The Vietnamese defense had no answer to Malaysia’s direct tactics and paid the price for their disarray at the back.
So dire was the performance by Vietnam in the semi final of second leg that the Vietnamese football authorities are set to investigate the game in order to determine if the result could have been deliberately fixed.
The first leg of the final will be played this Wednesday in Thailand with the second being held the following Saturday in Malaysia. The form book suggests a win for Thailand. The Thais defeated Malaysia away 3-2 with a last minute winner in the group stage so Senamuang’s side know they have the beating of the Tigers.
That said Malaysia have been so unpredictable that nothing can be taken for granted. In Safiq Rahim Malaysia have the tournament’s joint leading goal scorer and have shown they are more than comfortable playing away from home.
If the Malays can maintain their good away form and get a result in Thailand then they can set themselves up for a grandstand finish in the second leg in Kuala Lumpur.
If Thailand play to their strengths then they should have enough to clinch their fourth AFF crown ending a 12-year drought.
Who’ll end up with the trophy? Will the Tigers of Malaysia roar or will the War Elephants of Thailand trample over their opponents? On Saturday we’ll find out.
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