SOUTHEAST Asian teams were not only a force to be reckoned with in Asian football, they were instrumental in the development of the modern game in the world’s most populous continent. Consider this: five of the 13 founding members of the Asian Football Confederation were from Southeast Asia, namely Burma (Myanmar), South Vietnam (now Vietnam), Indonesia, and -- drum roll please -- the Philippines. And of all places, the AFC, one of FIFA’s six continental confederations, was officially founded in Manila in May 1954. That’s how important Southeast Asia’s role was in Asian football.
Although the AFC is headquarted in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, football in Southeast Asia is a far cry from its glory days. With no Southeast Asian having qualified in any post-war World Cup, Burma could lay claim to the best performance among Asean men’s national teams in an Asian tournament, after earning a runner-up finish in the 1968 AFC Asian Cup. In the succeeding tournament in 1972, hosts placed third, while the Khmer Republic (Cambodia) took fourth place, similar to South Vietnam’s performance in both the inaugural tournament in 1956 and the next one in 1960.
It was all downhill for Asean football after that. Since 1972, no senior men’s team from the region has even qualified for the AFC Asian Cup (which determines the Asian champions). The poor performance of Asean teams in Asia belied the popularity the sport enjoys in the region, which boasts of “one of the biggest football championships in the world, the AFF Football championship” with the fiercest of rivalries to boot. And fortunately for members of the Asean Football Federation, the AFC offered development programs and tournaments to elevate football in the region.
One of the teams that showed what a no-nonsense football program can do is Vietnam, which recently surprised the continent after placing second in last week’s 2018 AFC U-23 Asian Cup. Although it lost to Uzbekistan 2-1 in extra time in a heartbreaking final, the Vietnamese celebrated the “miracle” as though they had won the tournament, flooding the streets while waving national flags, and welcoming the players as modern-day heroes. Another Asean team, Malaysia, managed to reach the quarterfinals, an admirable feat as well. Before that, no Southeast Asian team, not even regional powerhouse Thailand, had made it past the group stage of the AFC U-23 Asian Championship, which had its inaugural tournament in 2013. An U-23 team not only offers a glimpse of how the senior team would be like in the years to come, it also serves as a good barometer of the state of football in a country.
The Vietnamese U-23 team’s road to the finals was inspiring as it was impressive, of course, but the decent performance of the other Asean teams in the U-23 qualification rounds showed palpable hope for football in the region. Apart from quarterfinalist Malaysia, Thailand did manage to advance to the group stage. During last year’s qualifications, Myanmar earned 6 points, while Indonesia, Laos, Cambodia and erstwhile minnows Timor-Leste took 4 points apiece.
These participating Southeast Asian teams that didn’t qualify have something to be proud of, except maybe for the U-23 Philippine team, which earned a whopping 0 wins, 0 draws and 3 losses for 0 points with 0 goals. At least fellow 0-pointer Brunei scored a goal and conceded 2 fewer than the Philippines, which consequently puts the latter at the bottom of the Asean U-23 heap. So much for a Philippine resurgence.