The outstanding performances of Malaysia and Vietnam in the recently-concluded AFC Under-23 Championships in China were appropriately lauded, but it is time for Southeast Asia to assert themselves on the pitch beyond results and the regional village mindset in the wider Asian scene.

Long regarded as the backwater in Asian and world football, Southeast Asian nations have often struggled to make an impression beyond their backyards. For 19 days in January though, two of their three representatives in the AFC Under-23 finals – Vietnam and Malaysia – did more than enough to debunk the region’s inferiority complex.

Unfancied before the big kickoff in China, the duo defied expectations by progressing beyond the group stage. While Malaysia performed commendably to finish their campaign at the quarter-finals, Vietnam’s fairy-tale run to the final captured the imagination of the watching region.

The third edition of the Asian Under-23 finals also witnessed the birth of two new regional stars in Nguyen Quang Hai and Safawi Rasid. Both 20-year-olds displayed mental tenacity and fine skill to shine individually in the face of more fancied and tougher opponents.

Theirs’ and their nations’ showings in the finals demonstrate the desire of the players, coaches and association leadership in collectively pushing themselves beyond just being merely kampong rajas (kings in their own little villages in Bahasa translation, Southeast Asian powerhouses in this context).

Hunger and Desire Push Vietnam and Malaysia Beyond Group Stage

While Vietnam’s exploits in China have captured their compatriots’ imaginations to the extent of masses crowding out streets and stadiums in celebration, their success is a continuation of the Indochinese nation’s progress in Asian youth tournaments in recent years.

From consistent qualifiers into Asian age-group finals, they achieved their breakthrough in 2016 when they reached the semi-finals of the Asian Under-19 finals in Bahrain. That subsequently saw them make their maiden appearance in the FIFA Under-20 World Cup in South Korea the next year.

AFC U23 2018 Vietnam Nguyen Quang Hai
A breakthrough star in the 2018 Asian Under-23 finals with his long-range goals, Nguyen Quang Hai is one of a handful from the Under-20 World Cup squad to be promoted to an older age-group squad for this tournament.

Five from that Under-20 World Cup squad, including star midfielder Quang Hai, eventually made their way into the Under-23 side that raised decibels on Vietnamese football to unprecedented levels.

Their phenomenal progress at this level has been attributed to the heavily-invested but patient focus on youth development in the country in the past decade. These academies have contributed to the supply of talented generations of young players who could eventually surpass the achievements of legends Le Cong Vinh and Le Hyunh Duc in the near future.

Unlike Vietnam, Malaysia were greater in sum than individually in China. The majority of Ong Kim Swee’s squad were also part of the team that narrowly missed out on the Southeast Asian Games football gold medal on home soil last year.

Their general youth development is presently in transition mode following the disbandment of the national Harimau Muda programme two years ago. Local clubs are now responsible for their young players after 18 years of age, with some from the squad coming through via that route.

Given their maiden appearance in the Asian Under-23 finals, head coach Ong Kim Swee’s desire to make a strong impression in the tournament had rubbed off in his charges who delivered one pleasant surprise after another as Malaysians back home paid more attention beyond the cursory glance to their young compatriots’ exploits.

Cautious Tactics Dilute Achievements

Having achieved such unprecedented breakthrough in Asia, Southeast Asia would have every legitimate reason to feel euphoric on their representatives’ achievements. They should not get ahead of themselves yet. This is just one major Asian age-group finals after all.

Upon closer observation of the results of Vietnam and Malaysia in China, each nation only registered an outright win in their respective campaigns, and draws were plenty in the group stage and knockout rounds. In Vietnam’s case, they needed two consecutive penalty shootout successes to advance all the way to the final.

AFC U23 2018 Vietnam 2
Vietnam’s fairy-tale run in China uplifts the nation and Southeast Asia, but the cautious tactics has dampened the euphoria a little.

The results were impressive, but they largely delivered through conservative tactical approaches. Backs-to-the-wall defending and some individual inspired moments from Quang Hai and Safawi at the other end did the trick.

It was understandable considering the level of opposition they faced in the competition. Committing to pretty attacking football but leaving huge gaps at the back would have been tactical suicide against Middle East and East Asian opponents whose technical superiority would have put them to the sword.

The cautious tactical approach had reaped dividends for Malaysia and Vietnam in a short-term tournament setting, but it also exposed a region-wide inferior mentality where the mind automatically shifts to defensive mode in such match-ups.

Middle East players are known to be robust, combining technical flair with tough physical play, while players from South Korea, Japan, Australia and Uzbekistan have superior football educations that are streets ahead of the majority of Asia.

That does not mean Southeast Asia do not know how to play the game. The players from the region have some decent technique and usually like to play the easy-to-the-eye approach on the ground. The ability is there, especially in intense regional battles, yet because of their collective inferiority mindset, they struggle to translate the same swagger into the wider Asian stage.

Hence, that big reality check remains: Southeast Asia did not fully break out of their shell in China.

Thailand Flop in Asia Again

Exacerbating that poor regional mentality was Thailand, the third Southeast Asian representatives in China. Long dominant in regional national team and age-group tournaments, they frequently flattered to impress once they stepped into the bigger Asian stage.

The Southeast Asian Games football gold medalists had a campaign to forget. Deprived of three firstteam players prior to the tournament and a head coach who was only at the helm for less than five months, the odds of overcoming their group opponents got longer.

AFC U23 2018 Thailand v Japan 1
Thailand (in blue) find the going tough in yet another Asian football finals, this time in China.

And so it proved when they failed to overcome an under-strength Japan side, could not get the better of North Korea and collapsed completely in their final group game against Palestine, extending their Asian finals struggle.

Their latest continental malaise was a reflection of the leadership inside the Football Association of Thailand. The foreign coaches brought in by president Somyot Poompanmoung was a reflection of his part to erase any legacy his tainted predecessor Worawi Makudi and former national coach Kiatisuk Senamuang had previously laid out in the local game.

The problem the disruption caused was a lack of stability and continuity in the programme Kiatisuk had set up in his national coach era as the foreign national coaches pushed their agendas across, part of which could have been anathema to the already-productive youth football programme across the country.

It was reflected in China when the young Thais suddenly collapsed to a huge loss against the Palestinians after narrow defeats to their previous two East Asian rivals. With the Thai trait of being more supportive towards their local coaches than the farangs, the local-foreign friction within could eventually undermine the national teams and stymie the progress these players had made in their formative years through the local system.

New Goal for Southeast Asian Football: Show 2018 Success is No Flash in the Pan

All said and analysed, the China showings demonstrate that there is some potential for a Southeast Asian breakthrough in Asia in the near future.

Vietnam and Malaysia were helped to an extent that some leading lights did not field their strongest available sides, partially due to the lack of incentives in the form of Olympic Games football qualification. Still, their achievements shattered a ceiling that Southeast Asia could not match with the rest of the continent.

The 2018 finals should be the starting block towards a push for greater progress for the region in Asia. One way to maintain Southeast Asia’s presence in Asian football view is to consistently qualify for age-group finals – something Vietnam and Thailand have done consistently in the past few years.

AFC U23 Championship China 2018
Safawi Rasid (middle, in white) and Malaysia show fearlessness in taking on tougher adversaries from other Asian sub-continents.

Another path is to adopt a new mindset of needing to compete alongside the best in Asia, one that Malaysia and Vietnam have adopted in the finals. That reduces the thinking of the double-edged mantra that winning the regional Asean Football Federation Suzuki Cups and age-group tournaments, especially the much-coveted Southeast Asian Games football gold medal, is the be-all and end-all for Southeast Asian national team football.

As no Southeast Asian side has reached the stage where players can adapt to different tactical strategies and philosophies automatically regardless of coach as the foundation of adaptability has yet to be firmed, having a consistent level of continuity and building up from the progress the region has made in China could be the way to go.

When the Under-23 qualification and finals get serious again in 2020, it will be the stern test to see how much the region have actually grown by then.

While it is unrealistic to expect any Southeast Asian nation to qualify outright for the Tokyo Olympics football tournament, having at least one of them in the quarter-finals is the signal that the region is finally ready to mix it up with the rest of Asia on equal terms.