The 10th edition of the biennial AFF Suzuki Cup has come to a close and the tournament delivered a final to remember.
To say that the tussle between Malaysia and Thailand delivered thrills, spills and no little entertainment would be quite the understatement.
A keenly contested final swung from one extreme to the other with the War Elephants winning 2-0 in front of their home crowd. If Thai coach Kiatisuk ‘Zico’ Senamuang thought that the title was in bag after the first leg he was in for a rude shock.
The Malaysians have made a habit of overcoming seemingly impossible odds and so nearly did it again in the second leg. Dollah Salleh’s men raced into a 3-0 lead at home and were 10 minutes away from securing an unlikely title. Safiq Rahim once again led the way scoring two goals, a penalty and freekick, which saw him end up as the tournament’s top goal scorer. Indra Putra, who was brought back in from the international wilderness, netted the other with a header.
The Thais, who lost in the 2012 final against Singapore, were determined not to be the bridesmaid again and conjured up two goals in the last 10-minutes. Charyl Chappuis capitalized on a mistake by the Malaysian keeper Farizal Marlias before Chanathip Songkrasin, the player of the tournament, netted a screamer in the final minutes to deliver the trophy for the Thais.
The War Elephants lost 3-2 on the night but won the tie 4-3 on aggregate. In all fairness the Thais were probably the best team in the tournament and deserved the spoils of victory.
Thailand vs. Malaysia – AFF Suzuki Cup Final Leg 1
Malaysia vs. Thailand – AFF Suzuki Cup Final Leg 2
The tournament overall has seen drama from the group stages right to the final. Here are a few highs and lows of the AFF Suzuki Cup.
The fans: Tournaments featuring smaller football nations cannot survive if the fans don’t buy into it. Fortunately, the crowds turned up and in full force. The final legs saw 65,000 pack the Rajamangala Stadium in Thailand whilst 95,000 fans full the Bukit Jalil National Stadium for the return leg in Malaysia.
The semi-finals were similarly well supported and even the group game match between Singapore and Malaysia drew a crowd of close to 50,000.
Overall, the fan response (with a few unfortunate exceptions) was positive and shows that football supporters here are just as keen on their national sides as they are with their Premier League, La Liga, Bundesliga or Serie A teams.
The next edition of the AFF Suzuki Cup has a lot to live up to and for it to do that fan support is crucial.
There are plenty of good stories to pick from this tournament. Take for example the coach of Thailand Kiatisuk Senamuang. He’s become the first man to win this tournament as both a player and a coach leading the Thais to a fourth AFF Suzuki Cup final and ending a 12-year drought in the process. Revered in his homeland as a player Senamuang has further cemented his name in Thai football folklore. If that wasn’t enough his father promised to quit smoking if Thailand brought back the trophy. Not a bad haul for the man nicknamed ‘Zico’.
Dollah Salleh deserves credit too for masterminding Malaysia’s path to the final. Opting for experience Salleh’s side flirted with elimination on a number of occasions but he managed to instill a fighting spirit in his team. Indeed Malaysia nearly pulled off another Houdini-esque escape in the final but in the end the Thais proved to be too good. There will be an element of rebuilding and Salleh has earned time to oversee the transition.
The player of the tournament tag sits well with the young Thai nicknamed ‘Messi Jay’. At 5ft 2inches he is on the diminutive side but withstood the physical treatment and lit up the tournament with his goals and skills.
The rumour is that J League side Shimizu S-Pulse are interested in him. If true not only would it be a big boost for his career but for the profile of Thai footballers too.
The standard of goalkeeping it’s fair to say is not of the highest order. Indecisiveness, soft goals and flapping at high balls all featured prominently. The tournament was not a decidedly positive showcase for the goalies of South East Asia.
The number of goals that came as a result of saves is worth noting. Two of Thailand’s goals in the finals came as a result of the goalkeeper not diverting the ball into ‘safe’ areas or behind for a corner.
If the level of goalkeeping is to improve top quality coaching is required to iron out the flaws and deficiencies for the number 1s in the South East Asian region.
The incident that marred the Malaysia-Vietnam match in the semifinals is something the sport can do without. Malaysian ‘fans’ reportedly attacked visiting Vietnamese supporters when the latter’s team was winning. It may have been an isolated case but that’s still one too many. Fortunately, scenes like these were not repeated in the finals.
Some Singaporean fans didn’t cover themselves in glory too throwing bottles of water and toilet rolls (yes, I know!) on to the pitch after perceived refereeing injustices. Maybe their grievances were justified but throwing items on the pitch is not the smartest way to make a point.
The state of the pitches:
Some of the pitches didn’t seem fit for a proper international tournament. The pitch at the Singapore National Stadium was under scrutiny whilst the one at the Bukit Jalil National Stadium in Kuala Lumpur was not much better.
Indeed Malaysia’s semifinal venue against Vietnam was switched from the Bukit Jalil to the Shah Alam due to the fact that the pitch at the former was not conducive to an international match.
The climate in the region is challenging with respect to maintaining pitches and the answer could be artificial turf but whatever the solution an international tournament deserves to be played on better surfaces.
Onwards to Oz:
The next big tournament in the Asian footballing calendar occurs in January when Australia hosts the AFC Asian Cup. After a poor World Cup showing by the Asian nations the Asian Cup provides the perfect opportunity for teams to banish any post-Brazil blues.
Japan are the current holders of the cup, they have talent to retain their title but can they hold on to their crown? All will be revealed in Australia at the end of January.
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