The eyes of the football world have been firmly focused on the Far East since Chinese Super League teams began splashing vast amounts of cash on some top European, South American and African talents. But what of the region to the south of China and all the way down to Indonesia – a heavily populated and generally football-mad part of the world, but one which barely registers an international profile in the sport?
Southeast Asia covers 10 nations, none of which has even come close to qualifying for a World Cup finals competition in the last 50 years. The Dutch East Indies, which became Indonesia, did participate in 1938 but only after the withdrawal of Japan. From Myanmar to Timor-Leste, no country has threatened to become part of Asia’s elite, never mind a world power.
This is despite the region boasting a total population of over 600 million – almost 10 percent of the world’s population. Indonesia alone has over 250 million citizens, while the Philippines boasts almost 100 million, Vietnam 90 million and Thailand is approaching 70 million.
With the exception of the Philippines, where basketball is king, it could be argued that football is the most popular sport in the other nine nations in the region. Singapore, Laos, Brunei and Timor Leste have limited human resources, with fewer than seven million people in each of these countries, but what has prevented the other six countries from reaching a higher level?
If we go back more than 40 years the picture was different economically, politically and geographically, all of which had an impact on the game’s development.
At the 1968 Asian Cup, Myanmar – then known as Burma – were runners-up to Iran, a country that has since become a regional powerhouse and qualified for several World Cups. The Asian Cup was not the tournament it has since become, with the finals contested by just five teams in a round-robin format. As south-east Asian representatives, Myanmar finished ahead of China, Israel and Hong Kong.
Four years later hosts Thailand finished third, defeating the Khmer Republic (later Cambodia) in the third and fourth-place playoff. The latter had defeated Kuwait – who played at the World Cup 10 years later – 4-0 to reach that playoff.
The tournament expanded to 10 teams in 1980 and has since continued to evolve but no south-east Asian team has finished in the top four since 1972. The region was engulfed by political turmoil and conflict in the 1960s and ’70s as communism took hold in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, while Myanmar became increasingly isolated under its military dictatorship.
Indonesia’s opposition to communism led to its own internal strife and conflict, which gave rise to the rule of General Suharto – a classic strongman leader. Malaysia and Thailand had their own issues but less upheaval, though they were always nervously looking around at their neighbours and wondering what could happen to them.
Whether or not these conditions had an impact on the development of football in the region is debatable, but it cannot be denied that over the same period, football in other, often less developed countries, came on leaps and bounds.
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African countries began to make their presence felt at World Cups in the 1980s and Saudi Arabia’s progression to the last-16 in 1994 marked the first time an Asian team had gone that far. Things went further in 2002 when co-hosts and regular participants South Korea reached the semi-final and lost just 1-0 to Germany.
Along with Japan and Australia, the Koreans are now regular fixtures at World Cup finals, with various guest appearances coming from other Asian nations. But south-east Asian countries are never anywhere to be seen.
There have, however, been indications that change could be coming. The expansion of the World Cup to 48 teams in 2026 will certainly provide more opportunities, and the growing economic wealth and professionalisation of football in the region can help it build stronger foundations on which to develop football.
The current regional leader in this regard is Thailand. Since 2007, the domestic league in the country has gone from strength to strength and has seen the rise of several clubs that have constructed brand new stadia and excellent training facilities.
With the exception of a wretched 2016 campaign, Buriram United have performed well in the Asian Champions League (ACL), including a quarter-final appearance in 2013. Muang Thong United will hope to put on a good show in 2017 with a squad that includes former Newcastle United striker Xisco. Like the aforementioned duo, Bangkok Glass, Ratchaburi and Chiang Rai United have new purpose-built football stadia and hope to challenge for the title in the years ahead.
Other clubs are at different stages in their progression. Bangkok United, who came second in 2016, are leasing a university stadium over 40 kilometres from the city centre, while former heavyweights Chonburi are currently experiencing financial difficulties that have seen them downsize considerably. Nevertheless, the overall picture is healthy and interest in the domestic game has boomed since the days when everyone’s favourite team was Manchester United or Liverpool.
Before the greater professionalisation of the Thai game, the country’s top players had to go to Singapore, Vietnam or Malaysia to develop their careers. Now, it is players outside Thailand who cast envious glances towards a country whose league has the best teams and the highest salaries.
Thai players have also started to look a little further afield. Striker Teerasil Dangda moved to Almería in La Liga in 2014 on a loan deal. Things didn’t really work out for Teerasil, but it was a brave move and a valuable experience. Playmaker Chanathip Songkrasin, the current darling of the Thai fans, recently signed a deal to go on loan to Consadole Sapporo in the J League. While it may lack the prestige of a move to a European side, it is an important step in the right direction.
Last year, Thailand’s national side reached the final stage of AFC World Cup qualifying and were the only south-east Asian nation to do so. After an unfortunate 1-0 loss to Saudi Arabia on matchday one, three further defeats suggested they were out of their depth. But the fifth fixture saw an upturn in fortunes as they more than matched Asian champions Australia in a 2-2 draw on home turf.
The bulk of Thailand’s squad has come through youth levels together as head coach Kiatisuk Senamuang identified youth development as key to the country’s future success. Last year, the Football Association of Thailand (FAT) unveiled plans for youth leagues that they hope will give the country a fighting chance of qualification for the 2026 World Cup. Recent expansion plans will clearly boost their chances.
Former England international defender Terry Butcher had the opportunity to coach some Thai teenagers on a trip to the country last year and suggested that ability levels were on a par with European nations but that the mentality needed to change. Butcher told ESPN: “While they have as much ability as players in other countries, they need to be a bit cuter and streetwise. In a competitive sport, you’ve got to fight. But I think it will happen for them eventually, maybe in a few years or maybe in the next generation.”
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Current FAT president Somyot Poompunmuang insists the country are putting together ambitious plans for the long-term and the financial clout of sponsors like Toyota is helping them along the way. The Thais defended their south-east Asian crown (the AFF Cup) in 2016, winning the title for a record fifth time.
While much remains to be desired in the management of the game in Thailand, progress is being made slowly but surely and the ‘War Elephants’ look the most likely to make the breakthrough. But, while Thailand lead the way, other countries are showing signs of progress, even if results on the bigger stage have yet to materialise.
Vietnam has considerable potential in terms of its population and the growing enthusiasm for the game. The V League became professional in 2000 and, while certain clubs can struggle to pull in over 2,000 fans, others attract closer to 20,000.
In the 2016 ACL, Vietnam’s representatives Becamex Binh Duong came bottom of their group but they did manage a home win over eventual champions Jeonbuk Hyundai and a draw with Jiangsu Suning – the club of former Chelsea midfielder Ramires. It was a similar story the previous year when the same side upset Japan’s Kashiwa Reysol at home and also earned a point against Jeonbuk. While Vietnam’s best side may be far from challenging for such a title, they are at least demonstrating the ability to compete with sides who have far greater resources.
The national side is a source of frustration as it continually underperforms on the big stage. They did make an impressive run to the quarter-finals of the 2007 Asian Cup as co-hosts and a year later won their one and only AFF Cup, four fewer than Thailand.
But the future may be brighter for the Vietnamese. They showed they could mix it with Iraq by claiming a 1-1 draw at home to them in World Cup qualification in 2015. In 2016’s AFC Under-19 Championship, Thailand slumped to three defeats out of three at the group stage, while Vietnam made it through to the last four, qualifying them for the FIFA Under-20 World Cup for the first time.
The country’s most promising young player, Luong Xuan Truong, spent last season on loan at Incheon United in the K League and is set for a second season in South Korea – this time with Gangwon FC. Twenty-two-year-old Nguyễn Công Phượng is also trying his luck elsewhere in Asia with a loan move to Mito Hollycock in Japan’s second tier.
Myanmar are also beginning to produce players that could make a big impact in the years ahead. Twenty-year-old striker Aung Thu was one of the names on everyone’s lips in Myanmar’s run to the last four of last year’s AFF Cup and looks set for a move to Thailand or Vietnam in the next year or two.
The vast majority of Myanmar’s national side are now aged 23 or under as they take a leaf out of Thailand’s book and try to bring players through from the youth set-up.
Myanmar reached the FIFA Under-20 World Cup in 2015. It was a humbling experience as they lost all three group games – including a 5-1 defeat to New Zealand – but it could represent an important experience for the young players who took part.
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The Myanmar Football Federation recently opened a national football academy in Yangon as the country also plans ahead.
Like Myanmar, Cambodia’s recent history as a country has been difficult, but there are also positive signs. Following some free-scoring performances in the domestic league with his club Boeung Ket Angkor, 23-year-old star man Chan Vathanaka recently signed for Fujieda MYFC in Japan’s third tier. It may not be a glamorous move but it is a further sign that countries with more established professional football infrastructure are looking towards Southeast Asia as a source of talent.
Cambodia has yet to make any kind of impact at international level and have yet to reach the last four of the AFF Cup. But narrow defeats to Malaysia and Vietnam in last year’s competition suggest that they are becoming more competitive.
Malaysia established its Super League in 2004 and its own super club is emerging as Johor Darul Ta’zim (JDT) dominate at a domestic level. JDT also claimed the AFC Cup – contested by Asian clubs in ‘developing’ football nations – in 2015 and they now aim to make an impact in the ACL. The club is building a state-of-the-art stadium as it looks beyond the Malaysian Super League. The owner and key benefactor is Tunku Ismail Idris – Johor’s Crown Prince.
Like Vietnam, Malaysia’s national side flatters to deceive and it has recently endured some tough times, with humiliating 6-0 home and away defeats to Palestine in World Cup qualifying in 2015, in addition to a 10-0 defeat in the UAE. With the national team in turmoil, the country is looking to JDT’s ambitious approach to lead the country forward.
Singapore are in a similar funk to Malaysia at international level, without the same level of humiliating defeats. In the past two editions, they have failed to make the last four of the AFF Cup – a tournament they have won four times. Interest at club level appears to be dwindling and the government, rather than supporting the game, seems to be hindering its development. The recent example of Home United Youth Football Academy being forced to restrict operations due to complaints about noise is an indication of this.
As things stand, Malaysia and Singapore do not look the most likely to break the mould. Thailand and Vietnam are at the forefront, with Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos making positive steps. So where does that leave the region’s most populous countries?
The Philippines has never been a hotbed of football, but they have shown steady improvement over the last decade and have consistently ranked among the top teams in Southeast Asia – often coming above Thailand and the rest. While this says something about the flawed ranking system, the Azkals have ranked as high as 120 from a low of 191 in 2005.
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In recent years, the national side has searched high and low for foreign-born players of Filipino parentage and this has unearthed so-called Fil-foreigner players like Walsall goalkeeper Neil Etheridge and former Chelsea youth players, Phil and James Younghusband.
This year, The Philippines Football League (PFL) is scheduled to replace the Manila-centric United Football League in order to have a truly national professional league. Football fans will be hoping that it can replicate the success of the Thai League when it went nationwide in 2007, though they will have to battle with the greater popularity of basketball.
Finally, Indonesia stands out as the great underachiever. Even if the spread out nature of the nation of thousands of islands makes it difficult to govern, a population of 250 million should produce a decent talent pool.
The last time things looked promising was when former Aston Villa and England striker Peter Withe led the team from 2004 to 2007. Withe had previously worked wonders with Thailand, keeping them in and around the top 60 in the FIFA rankings over a five-year period.
The 2004 Asian Cup campaign saw Indonesia earn a victory over Qatar – a first-ever in the tournament – and suffer narrow defeats to Saudi Arabia and South Korea. That year also saw Indonesia reach the final of the AFF Cup, where they lost to Singapore.
Three years later, as co-hosts, it was a similar story in the Asian Cup as the Indonesians won one game – against Bahrain – and lost the other two. Withe was soon on his way and the team has failed to progress ever since. Between 2009 and 2016, the FIFA ranking dropped from 120 to 171. The domestic league was suspended in 2015 and the international side were banned from the 2018 World Cup qualifiers due to government interference in the domestic game, further hampering progress.
Hope was evident in the national team’s surprise run to the AFF final in 2016 where they lost just 2-1 on aggregate to Thailand. There is much to be done in Indonesia but if they can learn from some of their neighbours, they could surpass them all in the future.
Timor-Leste briefly threatened to be contenders when they controversially naturalised several Brazilians but since most of these players were prevented from playing for the national side, progress has gone into reverse. Brunei sit two spots above the in the FIFA rankings at 189.
For the time-being, Southeast Asia remains a relatively unknown quantity in world football. It has never produced a world-class player or even one who has played for a major club. Filipino fans may point to former Barcelona player Paulino Alcántara – who played for the Catalan club from 1918-1927 – but although Alcántara was born in the Philippines, he grew up in Spain and these were very different times; Alcántara managed to play for Catalonia, the Philippines and Spain.
Southeast Asia is a region with vast human resources and a passion for football. The slow and steady professionalisation of the game can reap rewards if development is well managed. FIFA’s decision to expand the World Cup brings the dream of qualification closer of the likes of Thailand and Vietnam. Their aims will be to first establish themselves among Asia’s elite so that future generations will be allowed to dream of more lofty ambitions.
By Paul Murphy. Follow @PaulmurphyBKK