Thailand return to top of Southeast Asia
Mano Polking’s side lift their third Suzuki Cup in the last four editions
The first day of 2022 saw Thailand lift the AFF Suzuki Cup, the ten-team biennial tournament held in Singapore, to return to the top of Southeast Asian football. This 13th edition, taking place 25 years after the first one in 1996, should have taken place in 2020, but it was worth the wait for fans in this football-loving region of 650 million. The boys from Bangkok lifted the trophy for the sixth time, defeating Indonesia 6-2 on aggregate in the two-legged final. Many thought
Thailand would meet defending champions Vietnam in the last game but that clash came in the last four instead. Vietnam kept a clean sheet in five of the six games in the competition, but two goals in the first leg of their semi-final gave Thailand the advantage and that was all the War Elephants needed.
Both strikes came from Chanathip Songkrasin and the diminutive playmaker was one of the stars for Thailand. With four goals, “Messi Jay” finished as joint-top scorer alongside Teerasil Dangda, another legend and one of the three Thais to go on trial with Manchester City back in 2007. Mano Polking, the Brazilian-German coach, drew on his seven years working in the Thai Premier League – the best league in the region – to lead the team to a deserved win.
There was plenty to talk about in an incidentpacked tournament, but ultimately it ended with the familiar sight of Thai hands on the trophy
After Vietnam, came Indonesia in the final, for some reason still two-legged despite taking place in a neutral venue (traditionally, the group stage is held in one or two countries with the knockout rounds then taking place on a home and away basis). Thailand took the first leg 4-0 to make the return match, which ended 2-2, almost immaterial.
A sixth title for the talented Thais was not a surprise but Indonesia’s sixth final defeat was also welcomed at home. This underachieving nation of almost 300 million loves football – possibly more than any other in Asia – but has underachieved partly thanks to off-field issues such as political interference, corruption and other shenanigans. Coach Shin Tae-yong, who led South Korea at the 2018 World Cup, took a young team to Singapore and they performed well. A 4-1 win over bitter rivals Malaysia in the group stage will live long in the memory.
The same is true of the thrilling 5-3 aggregate victory against Singapore in the semi-final. The first leg ended 1-1 but the second was a belter. Indonesia took an early lead but, despite being reduced to ten men, Singapore equalised just before the break. Then, despite being shown a second red midway through the second half, Singapore took the lead with 16 minutes remaining. They almost held out but a late Indonesia equaliser took the game into extra-time when they inevitably won, though there was still time for the Lions to go down to eight players.
It was an epic way to bow out. Singapore may have been champions four times but they’ve failed to progress past the group stage on the last three occasions. Under Japanese coach Tatsuma Yoshida they played some good stuff on the way to the last four to give their fans something to cheer about.
Malaysia had targeted a place in the final but that was always optimistic. In beating Laos and Cambodia, but losing heavily to Indonesia and Vietnam, the Tigers showed that they are, at present, a mid-ranking regional team even if that may be hard for some to accept.
Vietnam, the only Southeast Asian team in the final round of qualification for the 2022 World Cup, were majorly disappointed to exit at the semi-final stage even if there was little to choose between them and Thailand. There is a feeling in some quarters that the Golden Stars, much-improved and harder to beat in recent years as they have gone on a wonderful journey with coach Park Hang-seo, have perhaps gone as far as possible under the popular South Korean coach.
Of the others, the Philippines won two group games and lost two, narrowly to Thailand and Singapore, a creditable performance for a team with little football under their belts in recent months. The same can be said of Myanmar, who also have the added complication of political instability to deal with. Cambodia have shown flashes in the past to suggest they could beat the region’s powerhouses and while the Angkor Warriors were largely competitive and entertaining under Keisuke Honda, they still have some way to go.
The additions of VAR and COVID meant that there was plenty more to talk about in an incident-packed tournament, but ultimately the AFF Suzuki Cup ended with the familiar sight of Thai hands on the trophy.