AFF Suzuki Cup Draw Made (Forget Nasssty Politicssses)

The draw has been made for the AFF Suzuki Cup to be held later this year – and Thailand and Singapore, the two leading teams, are to be kept apart for the group stages. The tournament brings together the leading Southeast Asian nations, such as they are, for games to be held in both Thailand and Indonesia during December of this year. Given how far away regional teams are from qualifying for the World Cup or even the later stages of the all-Asia national and club tournaments, the Suzuki Cup (previously the Tiger Cup) is about as big as it is going to get for the foreseeable for local footballers.

A preliminary group tournament will be held in Cambodia to winnow out two teams from the five weakest: Cambodia, Laos, Philippines, Brunei and Timor Leste. Those two teams will then qualify in one of the two main groups: the first brings together Singapore, Indonesia, Burma and the runner-up from the qualifying round and the second group has Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam and the winner of the qualifying round. Given the current state of political play, I imagine organizers will be pleased if games between Thailand and Cambodia and between Indonesia and Timor Leste can be avoided, as there are likely to be high feelings involved. Various other combinations of teams offer possible outbreaks of long-standing tensions (Singapore and Malaysia, for example) but these are not currently at a high level.

Favourites for the tournament will be holders Singapore and of course Thailand, which has historically been a strong nation at this level. Recently, both Burma and Vietnam have emerged as strong threats and Vietnam in particular seems likely to remain strong owing to its organized national league (albeit that it appears to be riddled with corruption) and the money available to tempt good players to play there. The success of the Burmese team is more likely to have been good team spirit in a squad of players facing all kinds of difficulties in their daily and professional lives. Malaysia and Indonesia should both be able to put out competent teams but seem to have stagnated recently. No one else has got any chance, frankly.

Another Crushing Defeat

With inflation at a ten year high, the Stock Exchange of Thailand taking another big hit yesterday, problems among the police (and also this), as well as doubts that democracy itself can be sustained, let us turn to the world of sport, which so often gives us reason to exalt in honest endeavour and triumph over adversity.

Or not, as the case may be.

Last night Thailand’s bid to qualify for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa was dealt an almost certainly fatal blow – a 3-2 home defeat to Bahrain means the Kingdom now has zero points from three games, which is nine points behind the visitors. The best that can be hoped for now is to win the three remaining games (not very likely) and hope for the best with results elsewhere (also not very likely). Almost certainly Bahrain and Japan will qualify for the next stage of the competition.

Despite all the money and interest shown in sport, especially football, in Southeast Asia, the quality remains disappointingly low. Last night, Southeast Asian champions Singapore were crushed 7-3 at home by not so mighty Uzbekistan. Yes, Uzbekistan are not a bad Central Asian side (although I thought Kazakhstan had more potential in the long run) but to be swatted aside like this is close to humiliating. Can you imagine Qatar or the UAE (which have similar resources) being beaten at home like this? True, those countries play the typically Middle Eastern style which it destroys the soul to watch with the endless murder of football but that is just sensible deployment of resources (and no, not allocation to the referees).

So why is football so bad here, despite the number of people playing it? First, there is no proper national league. Instead, teams from Tobacco Monopoly, BEC Tero and Bangkok University, among others, contest the league. A national league was launched a few years ago but attendances were so low it stopped after one year – yet it offered genuine opportunities for people to support their home town teams. Perhaps Thais would prefer to support Manchester United instead.

Second, the players are not fit enough, both physically and mentally. Last night, the team played spiritedly enough in the first half but then faded in the second.

Third, inconsistent and short termist management. The coach and the coaching structure are relentlessly changed with no thought to long-term development. A few years ago, Peter Withe was in charge and was making real progress – then he was sacked because the FA refused to pay the rent for his apartment. Since then, regression, no matter who gets the chance to be in charge. Sven-Goran Eriksson would understand this.