(Playing behind closed doors became the norm during COVID-19 after the resumption of football in Southeast Asia, as seen in Melaka v Selangor in the Malaysia Super League 2020. Main Photo Credit: Facebook/Selangor FC)

2020 was a year of unprecedented disruption for Southeast Asian football. The advent of the coronavirus (COVID-19) impacted the most popular sport in the region in ways never seen before this century.

Previously planned and executed like clockwork, what should have been yet another season of uninterrupted play on the pitch suddenly became a major challenge. Confronting the menace of the virus, national football associations and confederations scramble to find ways to finish competitions where possible.

Through the hard work of the football officials, technical staff and players, football in Southeast Asia largely overcame the pandemic with few exceptions. AseanBola chronicles the events that charted and impacted the operations of the Beautiful Game in this part of the world this past year.

January – February: COVID-19 Lurks as Competitions Kick Off

The year began as it would in previous seasons, with clubs tuning up with pre-season matches ahead of their domestic and continental fixtures.

January would witness Southeast Asia’s first league fixture of the season and foray in the Asian club qualifiers. On 10 January, Shan United kicked off the 2020 Myanmar National League season with a 1-0 win over ISPE FC.

ISPE FC (in white) and Shan United (in red) featured in the opening game of the 2020 Myanmar National League on 10 January, the first competitive football match in Southeast Asia. (Photo Credit: Facebook/ISPE FC)

Subsequent weeks would see Brunei and Timor Leste make their maiden AFC Cup appearances in the Asean Zone qualifying playoffs, where their respective representatives Indera SC and Lalenok United would succumb to Yangon United of Myanmar and Indonesia’s PSM Makassar respectively.

Malaysian side Kedah, Thai powerhouses Buriram United and Philippines champions Ceres-Negros (now United City) would eventually lose in the final playoff round and miss out in joining Malaysian and Thai champions Johor Darul Ta’zim and Chiangrai United in the group stage.

The first signs that the COVID-19 pandemic would impact football in the region came in late February when defending Singapore Premier League champions Duli Pengiran Muda Mahkota (DPMM FC) of Brunei were unable to travel for the season-opening Singapore Community Shield due to strict travel restrictions.

March: Dominoes Fall As Pandemic Stops Football

Despite football associations taking precautions and attempting to keep the matches played, the rapid escalation of COVID-19 cases and deaths in Southeast Asia in March saw the stoppages of domestic and continental club competitions and postponements of scheduled 2022 FIFA World Cup Asian second round qualifiers.

The first national league to stop play was Thailand on 3 March, while the continent’s football governing body the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) announced the postponement of all AFC Cup group matches on 18 March. By then the Asean Zone group stage had already reached the halfway mark, with the matches already proceeding as scheduled without disruption.

An AFC Cup (ASEAN Zone) group stage match held in Cambodia before the competition was eventually cancelled in September 2020. (Photo Credit: the-afc.com)

After Thailand, Brunei (13 March), Cambodia, Malaysia and Vietnam (all 16 March), Indonesia (22 March), Myanmar and Singapore (both 24 March) and Laos (26 March) successively announced the suspension of their respective domestic leagues. Philippines postponed the start of the new league season while Timor Leste temporarily cancelled all football activities.

With once-lively stadiums silenced, the COVID-19 enforced football winter befell Southeast Asia as officials, coaches and players waited for the game to resume.

May – August: Climbing Out of Pandemic Darkness

While players and coaches coped with the toughened border restrictions and enforced suspension of play with virtual fitness and stand-alone training sessions, Thailand league officials announced in mid-April that the ongoing season would now be played from autumn to summer when the leagues resume in September.

Nam Dinh (in yellow) and Hoang Anh Gia Lai (in white) were the first teams to resume competitive action in Southeast Asia as they dueled in the Vietnamese Cup on 23 May. (Photo Credit: Vietnamnet.vn)

More national associations eventually rolled out plans to gradually resume action in their respective domestic leagues, while Vietnam became the first Southeast Asian nation to resume play on 23 May with the first round of Vietnamese Cup, ending 58 days of total non-activity in the region.

With changes in league formats, Cambodia (4 July), Laos (12 July), Malaysia and Myanmar (both 22 August) eventually followed suit. Although Timor Leste cancelled their domestic Liga Futebol Amadora for the 2020 season, the Copa FFTL took place with the first match held on 20 August.

September – December: Domestic Completion, But Not Without Sacrifice

Despite a second suspension in late July due to a second wave of the pandemic in Da Nang, Vietnam got their leagues going again on 26 September. Thailand resumed play for their now 2020-21 season on 12 September, with Singapore following suit on a shortened 2020 league calendar on 17 October.

Philippines commenced their 2020 Philippines Football League on 28 October, featuring a single leg of league fixtures with all training and matches conducted under a tournament bubble in Carmona.

United City (formerly Ceres-Negros, in black) and Kaya FC-IloIlo (in yellow) compete during the 2020 Philippines Football League bubble. (Photo Credit: Facebook/ Philippines Football League)

While many Southeast Asian nations successfully resumed and completed the scheduled competitions (except for the ongoing Thai season), Brunei and Indonesia were not as fortunate.

On 19 September, Brunei announced the abandonment of the 2020 Brunei Super League season owing to the pandemic, while DPMM FC withdrew from the Singapore Premier League on 26 October as they were unable to travel due to border closure.

Indonesia’s attempts to resume their domestic leagues had been hindered by the non-approval from the police authorities and the out-of-control pandemic situation across the archipelago.

While the resumed leagues, except Thailand, were successfully completed by year-end, they were mainly played with reduced number of rounds of fixtures and adjusted formats. Domestic cup competitions were also sacrificed with all, except Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Timor Leste, cancelling them.

International Heartbreak for Southeast Asia

While domestic competitions were successfully resumed and completed throughout Southeast Asia, the same could not be said for continental and international football.

The first bad news came in July when the regional governing body the Asean Football Federation (AFF) decided to postpone the biennial AFF Championships (currently known as the AFF Suzuki Cup), originally scheduled for year-end, to 2021.

On 10 September, Johor and Chiangrai became the remaining regional representatives in Asian club competition after the AFC announced the cancellation of the 2020 AFC Cup due to pandemic-induced logistical challenges.

With no competitive international football for 2020, Thailand were reduced to taking on the Thai League All-Stars in a special friendly match in November 2020. (Photo Credit: Facebook/ Football Association of Thailand)

National teams would have no competitive action for 2020 after AFC announced on 11 November that the remaining World Cup Asian qualifiers would be pushed back to March and June 2021.

From two, Chiangrai became the only Southeast Asian club to see out their Asian campaign on 12 November after Johor were denied permission to travel to Qatar to see out the rescheduled AFC Champions League (East Zone) group fixtures.

The Beetles eventually saw out their continental campaign with a 1-1 Group E draw with Chinese side Beijing FC on 3 December, and played out the last competitive match in their 1-0 home win over Sukhothai in the rescheduled Thai FA Cup second round on 30 December.

Chiangrai United (in orange) were the only Southeast Asian club to complete their AFC fixtures and played in the last competitive match of 2020 in their 1-0 home win over Sukhothai in the Thai FA Cup second round on 30 December. (Photo Credit: Facebook/ Chiangrai United)

While football overcame its most intense adversary in 2020, the pandemic continues to loom large with a surge in cases in the region at the time of writing.

For Southeast Asia, the main mantra for the past year was to wait patiently and play on, albeit with compromised formats and under strict conditions, as best as possible.

Could the hopes of normalcy in the domestic and continental competition fixture calendars return in 2021? Only time and the state of COVID-19 in this region over the next few months will tell.