In the 29 editions of the South East Asian (SEA) Games, there have been only four sporting disciplines that have featured throughout the bi-annual event’s 58 year history. Athletics, badminton and boxing have been the mainstays and football has been the only team sport to have featured in that elite list.
So popular is the sport among the 11 nations that participate in the event that the organisers decided from the 1985 edition onwards to conduct a women’s tournament as well. Across both the men and women’s categories, Thailand has towered above the rest.
The men’s team has reached the final a whopping 19 times in the 29 editions, winning the title 15 times. The women’s team meanwhile has reached the final seven times and has won five. At Kuala Lumpur, the ‘War Elephants’ are looking for their third successive title in the men’s division.
The discipline has remained a competitive and eagerly anticipated tournament despite the dominance of the Thais – they won eight successive titles from 1993 to 2009. Within that time frame though, the event’s popularity was used to encourage national teams to focus on youth development. At the 2001 edition, which was the last time Kuala Lumpur hosted the SEA Games, the football tournament was made an Under-23 event.
The setting became ideal for national teams to field a set of players needing a competitive event to make the transition to the senior team. Despite the change, Thailand continued to rule to roost, winning six titles since then. Yet, when it comes to the FIFA world rankings, it is Philippines, slotted 126 that is the highest ranked team among those that feature in the SEA Games. Meanwhile, the Thais are second on 131.
The tournament has come a long way since its first edition. In the inaugural 1959 edition, South Vietnam’s 3-1 victory in the final against Thailand served as a morale booster, given that the nation was deeply embroiled in the Vietnam War at the time. Now the tournament promotes youth activity and flair. So much so that the upcoming event’s age group has been reduced to an under-22 level.
Thailand will be among the favourites, and so too will be the hosts. After all, it is the Malaysians who were the last team to have denied Thailand the title – winning the competition in 2009 and 2011. There will be a similar sentiment in the women’s section as well, where Thailand enters as defending champions.