|FROM YANGON, MYANMAR
Day 7 - October 10
It was only a matter of time until the Myanmarese cousin of Montezuma was catching up with me. I have to say that I am proud of my six days of eating like a local and still maintaining perfect bowel efficiency, but the seventh day - mercifully a day with no games - was humbly spent in the vicinities of the hygienic facilities of my hotel room.
It was a bit frustrating to be bottled up in my quarters while I could feel the whole city around me was, as usual, pulsating with life, but it gave me the chance to take a deep breath and to have a look at the history of the tournament I am covering from my armchair - though, to be honest for most of the day I was sitting on another kind of seat.
Let me then unleash the historian in me (master degree with honors, if you allow me to show off a bit, on this day of capitulation), and dig out a quick review of this competition. My first point when selling it, is that this is the only cup that most of the participant countries might hope to win nowadays, or in the near future.
As a matter of fact, we can’t deny that the eleven ASEAN countries have a relatively modest football history. If memory doesn’t fail me, the only Southeast Asian country that ever participated to a final phase of the FIFA World Cup was Indonesia, way back in 1938. As Dutch East Indies, they faced Hungary, lost 6-0, packed up, and took a long trip home by train and boat.
One notch down, moving to the AFC Asian Cup, the regional tournament that involves the whole Asian continent, the best result ever was a second place by Myanmar (than called Burma) during their roaring 60's.
In 1972 Thailand and Cambodia made it to third and fourth place, and since then, despite hosting the tournament in 1984 (Singapore) and 2007 (a joint effort by Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam) no Southeast Asian country made it anywhere near to the continental final.
The ASEAN Football Championship (formerly the AFC Championship Cup) kicked off in 1996, and already saw all ten ASEAN nations (Timor Leste was then still part of Indonesia) squaring off in Singapore. The first champions were the Thais, who did dominate the tournament for the following years, winning three of the first four editions.
The competition took place regularly every two years, until its main sponsor, Tiger Beer, pulled out after the 2004 edition. That year also saw Timor Leste’s not-too glorious debut: the representative of the then youngest country on our planet conceded 18 goals, losing all four their games.
It took three years before the following edition was organized in Singapore and Thailand. This was also the first edition seeing a qualification round between the five teams with the lowest rank, a formula that still exists nowadays.
A late Khairul Amri equaliser in Bangkok helped Singapore win the 2007 final over two legs (3-2 on aggregate) against Thailand. It was the third triumph for the Lions, who, just like Thailand, had by then taken three titles out of the first six editions. The star of the tournament was Noh Alam Shah, then 26-year-old, and today still in activity after a rather controversial career.
The Japanese motor company Suzuki became the main sponsor of the tournament since 2008, and from that year the new formula saw, after the qualifiers, two groups of four teams played in two countries, and semifinals and finals played over two home and away games. Winners in 2008 and 2010 were first timers Vietnam and Malaysia.
Fast-forward to today’s qualifying tournie in Yangon: with the exception of Cambodia, who have lost all three of their games and are already eliminated, Friday and Sunday’s games leave hopes for Myanmar, Laos, Brunei and Timor Leste to join Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines in Bangkok; or Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore in Kuala Lumpur for the two groups of the tournament proper.
Having paid my tribute to the Myanmarese’s cousin of Montezuma, I hope will be at the Thuwanna Stadium to witness the last four games and the unfolding drama that comes with them.