Thursday 08 November 2018, 04:55

Colour and passion mark Southeast Asia’s football jamboree

  • Enhanced format for biennial Southeast Asian championship

  • Huge and passionate crowds commonplace for regional showpiece

  • Thailand among favourites, Philippines and Indonesia seek maiden crown

It may be off the radar for many of world football’s cognoscenti, but one of the game’s most colourful and indeed unique tournaments is about to kick-off in Asia. The world’s most populace continent may have its traditional power-bases at either end of the continent via the likes of Japan and IR Iran, but few if any other sub-confederation international tournament can generate the raw fervour on offer in Southeast Asia, home to well over half a billion inhabitants.

Managed by the ASEAN Football Federation (AFF) and known as the AFF Cup, six-figure crowds have been witnessed in Indonesia and Malaysia. Newly-expanded to ten teams, the tournament has a distinctive flavour being held over five weeks with home and away matches spread across the region.

Massive attendances also typically turn out in Thailand, while Vietnam’s 95-million inhabitants were sent into delirium when they claimed their only title a decade ago. Add some athletic and enterprising football to buoyant and rowdy crowds, the odd fearsome tropical downpour and some cloying humidity, and the end result is a potent mix.

AFF Cup 8 November-15 December Group A: Vietnam, Malaysia, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos Group B: Thailand, Indonesia, Philippines, Singapore, Timor-Leste

Elephants set the pace – Holders Thailand have been the most successful team across the 11 previous editions of the tournament. The War Elephants have won five titles, ahead of Singapore (four), Malaysia and Vietnam (one each).

The England connection – Sven-Goran Eriksson recently assumed the Philippines’ reins and the former England FIFA World Cup™ manager follows in the footsteps of several Three Lions’ stars to coach at the tournament including Bryan Robson, Peter Reid (both Thailand) and Peter Withe (Indonesia).

On the road – Timor-Leste are easily the smallest nation at the tournament, having qualified for just the second time – and first since 2004 – with a preliminary-round victory over Brunei Darussalam. Host of the first match in global qualifying for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia, the former Portuguese colony will have to play all their matches away due to lack of a suitable option in the capital Dili.

On the continent – Philippines have never won the tournament, yet aside from Thailand and Vietnam, they are the region’s only side who will feature in the upcoming AFC Asian Cup. Affectionately known locally as the Azkals (Street Dogs), the ever-developing Philippines will be debuting in the continental championship when they take the field in the United Arab Emirates in the New Year.

Garuda aim to fly highest – Indonesia will be looking to avoid extending an unwanted record. The world’s fourth largest nation have been runners-up five-times across the 11 tournaments. Eighty years since becoming the first Asian side to feature in the World Cup (as Dutch East Indies), there would be no better time for Indonesia to break their drought.

Honda driving remotely – Having never reached the semi-finals, Cambodia are outsiders but they can call on the know-how of one of the continent’s genuine legends. Goalscorer across three World Cups for Japan, Keisuke Honda has been lending a hand remotely – and occasionally in person – whenever commitments with Melbourne Victory allow. Argentine Felix Gonzalez will take charge of Cambodia over the length of the tournament.

Foreign legion – Aside from Eriksson and Gonzalez, this edition of the tournament is marked by the volume of imported coaches from outside the region. The foreign contingent is headlined by Ghana’s Serbian coach from South Africa 2010 Milovan Rajevac (Thailand). The list also includes assistant to Guus Hiddink for Korea Republic at the 2002 World Cup Park Hangseo (Vietnam), German Antoine Hey (Myanmar) and Japanese Norio Tsukitate (Timor-Leste).