SEA Games review: Thailand set standards as Myanmar wins over neutrals
Twenty seven pulsating matches at the 28th Southeast Asian (SEA) Games football tournament saw defending champions Thailand justify their favourites' tag as they went through undefeated, scoring 24 goals while conceding just one.
Hosts Singapore suffered an embarrassing group stage exit while Myanmar played the role of dark horses to perfection.
We run you through the highs and lows of a memorable U23 tournament:
Best Team: Thailand
Kiatisuk 'Zico' Senamuang's faith in his assistant saw Choketawee Promrut given the task of retaining the SEA Games title. Full credit to the former Tampines Rovers defender as he did it with little fuss and a whole lot of discipline.
From day one, Choke's disciplinarian style was clear for all to see. Off the pitch, they were consummate professionals. On it, they were unstoppable.
They went through Group B with five comfortable wins. If not for Le Thanh Binh's 90th minute goal for Vietnam in the final group game, the Thais would have retained their title without conceding even once.
Their record of goal scoring and clean sheets are impressive statistics for any international tournament but their passing ratio is even more impressive. In the group stage, they attempted 2,426 passes, of which 2,224 were successful. That's an accuracy rate of 91.7%.
In the final against Myanmar, they turned it up a notch completing 439 of 517 attempted passes.
Players like Sarach Yooyen, Chanathip Songkrasin, Artit Daosawang and Narubadin Weerawatnodom were a class above the rest. What is even more impressive is the latter will still be eligible for the next SEA Games, meaning he could be the first man to bag three consecutive football gold medals.
Fifteen gold medals and counting for Thailand: will the rest of Southeast Asia ever catch up?
Worst team: Singapore
It was a dream that had grown over many years.
The nation waited, with bated breath, as new national stadium bricks were laid.
There were two years of preparation, including training camps to Turkey and Japan. But within the span of less than a fortnight, the Young Lions' hopes were shattered when Indonesia sent them tumbling out, with a 1-0 win in the final Group A game.
The script was not supposed to go like this. But when you look at the stats throughout their four games, one thing comes to mind: was there ever a good enough plan to rival powerhouses like Thailand and Vietnam?
Singapore started off with a commendable 1-0 win over Philippines. But in that game, they attempted a paltry 135 passes with 107 managing to find a teammate. That is just 1.5 passes every minute.
Their stats at the end of their four Group A matches read: 771 passes attempted, 542 completed.
For a team who were supposed to end a nation's football gold medal drought, it was simply not good enough.
The tactics deployed by Aide Iskandar and his coaching team were to go with Sahil Suhaimi as the starting striker. Plan B was to bring on 17-year-old forward Irfan Fandi.
Surely, after two years of planning, we can't be looking at long ball tactics and such a poor passing ratio?
Coach Aide did the honourable thing to step down after his team's failure. The Young Lions must start rebuilding in time for the 2017 edition to be held in Malaysia.
Best Player: Sarach Yooyen (Thailand)
He has developed a knack of finding that killer through ball for his teammates. But the two things that have seen Sarach grow from a decent midfield to a passing maestro -- ASEAN's answer to Xabi Alonso -- were his leadership and his new ability of scoring long-range goals.
With one simple touch, he unleashed a left-foot blinder to give Thailand a 1-0 victory over Malaysia in the group stage.
In the semifinal against Indonesia, the talented Evan Dimas was left chasing shadows as Sarach orchestrated his team's attacking moves like a seasoned symphony conductor.
You know how important a player is to his team when the coach takes him off in the 60th minute of the semifinal to ensure he is fit and ready for the gold medal match.
Sarach is a 23-year-old midfield wizard who deserves a chance in the J-League or K-League to hone his Alonso-like skills. Southeast Asia should be proud.
Best Fans: Myanmar
Kyi Lwin's Myanmar team topped Group A and were one of the more entertaining sides to watch. Up in the stands, the White Angels fans were equally vibrant.
Once the knockout stages came to life, it was a sight to behold as the Myanmar supporters packed the Sports Hub to the rafters.
Chanting the name of their multi-cultural nation, they simply inspired their heroes. When their team allowed Vietnam to equalise in the semifinal, they responded by singing the Myanmar national anthem to send chills down the spine.
Against the mighty Thais in the final, Myanmar fans showed their class when they gave Sarach and his team a standing ovation, applauding their archrivals for a job well done.
Add to that: their insistence of handing out thrash bags to encourage their fans to pick up rubbish after games, it is hard not to admire an amazing set of supporters.
Most embarrassing moment: Malaysia's Nazmi Faiz's spit-saga
There was already a pervading sense of pessimism prior to the tournament. Malaysian fans were unsure if coach Ong Kim Swee had the quality players he needed to win the gold medal.
As they laboured to a 1-0 opening win against Timor-Leste, Selangor FA's Nazmi Faiz committed the deplorable act of spitting at Timor-Leste's Felipe Oliveira, which saw him receive a red card.
The former Beira-Mar playmaker would receive a six match ban from the organising committee with Ong deciding to send his star man home.
Shorn of their top player, Harimau Muda lost their next two Group B matches to Thailand and Vietnam, to see them crash out of a tournament.
Goal of the tournament: Chanathip against Indonesia
Thailand were already in cruise control after putting four past a hapless looking Indonesian side.
Then came the move of the tournament when a certain superstar nicknamed 'Messi Jay' decided the time was right to bring out the party tricks -- and score his much-awaited, first goal of the tournament.
With barely a minute left on the clock, Thailand began moving the ball from their own half, and completed a 22 pass move which involved all 10 outfield players.
Peerapat Notechaiya was the assist-maker when he squared the ball to Chanathip. The pint-sized attacker took one look at goalkeeper Teguh Amiruddin before placing a sweet left foot shot into the bottom corner.
Twenty two moves, 10 players involved and a fitting goalscorer. Possibly one of the best moments of SEA Games football history, let alone the 2015 tournament.
We will eagerly await the next SEA Games -- in Kuala Lumpur in 2017. It is hoped that the Singapore and Malaysian teams can do better in two years time than their insipid showing at this Games.
Certainly, Thailand have set the standards for others to follow, thanks to their sparkling display in Singapore.
ESPN FC editor Kelvin Leong is a former media officer for Singapore and ex-regional editor of ESPNSTAR.com. Twitter: @KelvinLeong29.