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Dec 18, 2012

The battle for Southeast Asian supremacy

The mayor of the French city of Reims described Asia's first ever appearance at the World Cup as giants against dwarves. Indonesia, then known as Dutch East Indies, lost 6-0 to Hungary at the 1938 finals and were eliminated. There is no such feeling of inequality these days as teams from the east take on the world's best but South East Asia still has not returned to the global stage to make its mark.

The region of 600 million-plus people is unlikely to do so in the near future, and this, coupled with a failure to make a consistent impact on the quadrennial Asian Cup, makes its own biennial tournament, currently known as the AFF Suzuki Cup, a big deal. Too big, say some; too important, causing national federations to focus on this eight-team meet almost to the exclusion of everything else and limiting a wider vision that could eventually lead to greater success in Asia. While there may be some truth to that, neither Singapore nor Thailand will care as they prepare for the first leg of the final of the 2012 tournament on Wednesday. The Lions and the War Elephants are both targeting a record fourth triumph.

It hasn't been a classic tournament in truth - more interesting than mesmerizing - though at least the regular sight of a team walking off the pitch in a mid-game protest has been absent and there have been no major spats. With 180 minutes, maybe more, of football remaining, however, there is still time for that. This wouldn't be the AFF Suzuki Cup if there were not some major controversy.

And what is the AFF Suzuki Cup? The format is simple: eight teams split into two groups of four - one hosted in Thailand, the other in Malaysia - with the top two from each progressing to semi-finals played on a home and away basis. Four-time finalists Indonesia fell at the first hurdle as did 2008 champions Vietnam. Both countries have serious problems at home and their eliminations struggled for space in local newspapers alongside those of possible FIFA bans or the dissolution of entire league teams.

That left room for little old Laos to catch the eye. Coached by former Yokohama F Marinos boss Kokichi Kimura, the usual whipping boys may have only have collected one point but were denied a win over Indonesia only by a late equaliser and pushed Singapore all the way before losing a 4-3 thriller. Well-organised and tidy in their use of the ball, Laos no longer look like minnows.

Myanmar came through the mini-qualification tournament that took place on home soil in October and like Laos, had an East Asian coach. But unlike the men from Vientiane, there was not the feeling that this was a team stronger than in the past. Park Sung-Hwa of Korea was unable to coax as much out of his players, who scored just once in three games, and the semi-final appearance of 2004 looks increasingly like a flash in the pan.

It wasn't that long ago that the Philippines were just as much an outsider as Laos and so surprised was the country upon reaching the semi-finals in 2010 that there was no suitable stadium ready for the home leg, meaning that both games were played in front of 80,000 fans in Jakarta. There was no such problem this time around with the Rizal Memorial Stadium packed to the rafters for the semi-final with Singapore. If German coach Michael Weiss had been able to call upon all his European-based stars then it could have been different. As it was, Singapore were just a little too strong, winning 1-0 on aggregate. Fans in Manila are happy with the progress being made. Next time though, expectations will be a little higher.

Defending champions Malaysia also just fell short of the final. The fact that the Tigers lost their opening game had been seen as almost a good thing. The memory and spirit of an opening 5-1 defeat at the hands of Indonesia in 2010, after which Malaysia went on to reach the final and take revenge on their neighbours and lift the trophy, was invoked when Singapore won 3-0 in Kuala Lumpur. Sure enough, two wins followed but Thailand proved to be too strong in the semi-final.

Here, there appeared some controversy. In the first leg in Malaysia, the visitors complained of laser beams emanating from the massive crowd at the Bukit Jalil Stadium. In Bangkok, the visitors bemoaned sub-standard training facilities. Also, the sending off of Malaysian defender Fadhli Shas in the second leg with the tie delicately poised was harsh and while it did prove to be something of a turning point, Thailand always looked a little better and soon took advantage with two second-half goals to ease into the final.

Malaysia can at least console themselves with the fact that, as co-host of the group stage, their fans had easily outshone their stay-away Bangkok counterparts. Attendances in the Thai capital for the first round were poor and worrying for a competition that sells itself on the back of local passion.

The Thais came out for the knockout stage, perhaps fully expecting to be there from the start. As the best team in the tournament so far, there is also an expectation of a first title since 2002. That was the year when current coach Winfried Schaefer was leading Cameroon to the African Nations Cup. A decade later, the German's shoulder length hair seems even blonder. An Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) title would not earn the worldwide recognition that his Cameroon triumph did, but would bring hero status in Thailand. Thai football overall is on the up and a win over Singapore would confirm their pre-eminent status in the region, as under Schaefer the nation was easily the most impressive performer in qualification for the 2014 World Cup.

That good form has continued here. A perfect record in the group stage took the Thais into a semi-final against Malaysia and with a further two goals from Teerasil Dangda, including a stunning header in Kuala Lumpur, the boys from Bangkok are feeling good.

Dangda has been the star of the tournament, with five goals so far, to confirm his status as South East Asia's hottest property. One of the three Thais who went to Manchester City in 2007 but never played, he is no longer a wide-eyed teenager but a dangerous all-round striker looking for a move to Europe.

Singapore coach Radojko Avramovic, goalkeeper with Notts County in the late 70s and early 80s, may be heading back to Europe after almost a decade in the city-state, announcing his decision recently to step down after the AFF Suzuki Cup. There were those, including this writer, who felt that he should have called it a day after six losses in six games in the third round of qualification for the 2014 World Cup earlier in the year, and given a replacement time for this tournament and the start of qualification for the 2015 Asian Cup in February, but Avramovic is 180 minutes away from ending his time in a blaze of glory.

How much that will be felt outside South East Asia will not be on the minds of any coach, player or fan over the next few days. The region's exile from the global stage could easily stretch to a century and more. The AFF Suzuki Cup is only going to become more important and a bigger deal.

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