(Brunei Darussalam National Under-16 Side before their 2-1 qualifying win over Hong Kong in September. Main Photo Credit: Chinese Taipei Football Association)
Usually regarded as minnows in Southeast Asia and beyond, an exciting batch of young boys from Brunei Darussalam could change that perception if they are allowed to build on their impressive youth football results this year.
When 2017 comes to a close at the end of this month, it shall be remembered as the watershed year for Brunei youth football. The impressive exploits of their national Under-16 side shattered the long-perceived stereotype of the sultanate as lightweights in international youth tournaments.
Where previous sides would head into Asian qualifying campaigns and regional tournaments merely hoping for their best, the Young Wasps broke new frontiers as they delivered their best-ever campaigns in Southeast Asia and beyond in the space of three months.
In July, Brunei enjoyed their best-ever finish in any regional youth tournament as they earned a record five points in five matches in the Asean Football Federation (AFF) Under-15 Championships in Thailand.
They recorded the historic first regional competitive win in youth level with a 2-0 triumph over Cambodia. Goalless draws against Timor Leste and the Philippines saw them finish fourth in their six-nation group.
Two months later, they came within a whisker of a historic qualification into a major Asian finals in the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Under-16 qualifiers in Chinese Taipei. Despite wins against Macau and Hong Kong, a narrow late loss to the hosts saw them finish third in the five-nation group.
As Brunei football look back with satisfaction the feats of their Under-16 boys, AseanBola takes a closer look on how they have been able to make such an impact in Southeast Asia and beyond.
Systematic Planning and Patience in the Development Programme
Brunei’s transformation did not happen overnight. Their Under-16s’ breakthrough was a result of more than three years of careful nurturing under the supervision of former technical director Mike Wong Mun Heng and their head coach Stephen Ng Heng Seng.
One of the main tasks the Singaporean duo undertook upon their arrival at the sultanate was to groom a generation of young Bruneians from the ages of 12 who would eventually form the core of the national youth squad ready to be competitive at international tournaments.
Youth football festivals were organised in the various districts to bring the game closer to the grassroots. Through this initiative, a group of promising boys were subsequently handpicked for centralised training under the Tabuan Muda programme.
New facilities were also built at the same time, including two full-sized fields next to the National Football Association of Brunei Darussalam (NFABD) headquarters, so that the various national youth squads would have a centralised location for training.
Support from the boys’ parents was vital as they were regularly given feedback on their children’s progress by the coaches. The awareness of their development has led to them giving strong backing to the project.
Last but not least, the local environment was conducive for football development as the lack of modern entertainment distractions allowed the boys to fully concentrate on growing their individual and team games.
Concentrated Development Reaping Results
With regular technical and tactical training, the results began to bear fruit in the past two years. The core of the phenomenal Under-16 side dominated the FIFA-sponsored domestic youth league as they clinched back-to-back titles in 2016 and 2017.
Domestic domination was followed up with international progress. Previous Brunei youth teams would usually sit back in numbers and play the hopeful long ball forward, but not with the present squad.
Through the strong collective mentality inculcated by senior staff coach Ng and his technical team, the young Bruneians played fearlessly against tougher opponents and delivered a handful of shock results along the way.
They were unafraid to mix it up with a combination of short and direct passes when in possession, and showed decent tactical awareness to counter their opponents’ strengths and expose their shortcomings with pace and dribbling skills.
Despite the notable improvements, they remain a work in progress. They were sometimes still hesitant in their individual defensive positioning, and vulnerable to being outmuscled and overpowered by much stronger opponents. North Korea and Malaysia exploited those weaknesses ruthlessly in their heaviest defeats during those three months.
The One to Watch for the Future
While the Brunei Under-16s are the best youth batch produced, their standout star is forward Aminuddin Masri.
The 15-year-old is an intelligent player whose creative instincts make him the focal point in the team’s attacks. His excellent positioning in the final third makes him a threat to opposing defences with his ability to anticipate final passes or crosses.
He possesses fine individual technique that allows him to exploit any weaknesses from defenders, as he demonstrated with aplomb with a brace in Brunei’s 2-1 Asian qualifying win over Hong Kong. With sound dribbling skills and a keen eye for goal, he is touted as a potential star forward for the future.
Can The Legacy Be Continued?
Ng’s tactical exploits with his national Under-16s has not gone unnoticed in the NFABD management, as he is recently entrusted to lead the main national team in the upcoming Aceh international quadrangular against hosts Indonesia, Mongolia and Kyrgyzstan.
Having followed this batch through the various age-groups, the former Malaysia Cup winner should be allowed to continue his good work as the boys have responded favourably to his coaching methods.
If the upward progress curve continues all the way to senior level football under his tutelage, it is highly possible that Brunei will be talking about Amiunddin and company in the same breath or higher as the likes of Liew Chuan Fue and Sallehuddin Damit from the famed 1999 Malaysia Cup winning team, or Wardun Yusoff, Azwan Ali Rahman and Rosmin Kamis from the successful 2015 S.League title-winning DPMM FC squad.