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July 4, 2007

ASEAN Football
The 2007 Asian Cup is about to start with games spread across four ASEAN countries. The progress of their teams will go some way towards indicating what progress has been made in recent years. For Thailand, success in the group stage is the only thing that will help dim the misery of the failure to beat Singapore in the ASEAN 2007 Championship. That match had been fought out under allegations of cheating when the Singaporeans, playing at home in the first leg, received a late penalty for which even their own players did not appeal. The political conflict between Thailand and Singapore meant that the second leg had the potential to spark a major diplomatic incident and it is no surprise that the Singaporean FA returned thousands of unwanted tickets

Supachalasai Stadium was packed (with seemingly more than the official capacity in attendance) with yellow-shirted Thais in a state of advanced nationalist fervour. The yellow shirts show their devotion to HM the King, who celebrates his 80th birthday this year. All was well as Thailand took an early lead to equalize on aggregate and the crowd awaited the inevitable winner. The referee did his part by ruling out a Singapore goal for offside (it was not even close to being offside) and determinedly keeping the red card in his pocket throughout the game despite the rash of QPR-China style tackles that are common in this part of the world. But then, with less than ten minutes to go, Singapore attacked, substitute Khairul Amri was ushered to the edge of the area and whacked the ball into the net, while the goalkeeper kindly stood in the middle of the area from where he waved at the ball fondly as it sped past. And that was the end of that.

Singapore are the highest ranked ASEAN nation – they were 115th in the world before the tournament and Thailand 125th. In one of the only parts of the world in which football has improved, Singapore is doing its bit by nationalizing players from Serbia, China and various parts of Africa, while signing an agreement with Brazilian clubs to co-operate – i.e. Brazilian players will come and play in Singapore and help raise the standard. This is essential (although other countries of course cried ‘foul’) because the level of fitness and lack of competitiveness is ruining the chances of any country ever qualifying for the World Cup. The Laotian team consisted of students who had rarely played before; Vietnam is much improved but seven of their best players have been banned for match-fixing offences of various sorts; Burma looked set to qualify for the semi-finals before failing to beat the perennially-useless Philippines in a goalless draw which sparked more than one cry of ‘fix,’ although there is no evidence of this.

Everyone, meanwhile, is waiting for the Australians – they are now eligible to play in the Asian Cup. The Australians are, as ever, highly confident and coach Graham Arnold has already specified qualification for the final as the minimum that will be acceptable. Australia beat Singapore 3-0 at the weekend, while operating at only 60% of their potential. Other favourites for the competition fared in various ways: China, rocking after a series of dodgy results, managed to beat a team of retired world stars 2-0 with a couple of spectacular strikes and a team half-full of Hong Kong players for the first 45 minutes.

South Korea and Japan will put out decent teams but have become handicapped in recent years by the export of star players to Europe and the difficulty of fielding them – fit and in a good frame of mind – on a regular basis. From West Asia, both Iran and Saudi Arabia look strong as ever while Iraq, despite the many problems of living in exile and facing daily reports of the deaths or injury of family members, have maintained a strong team spirit under their itinerant Brazilian coach Vieira. As for ASEAN teams, they have no real chance of anything. AseanAffairs

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