With the new year upon us, FOX Sports Asia football editor Gabriel Tan looks at the players and teams in ASEAN football who are set for a big 2018.
1) Trio flying ASEAN flag at AFC U-23 Championship
It won’t take long for the first major tournament to kick off with Asia’s best Under-23 teams competing at the AFC U-23 Championship in China.
For the first time since the tournament’s inception in 2013, Southeast Asia will have three representatives (four, if you include fellow ASEAN Football Federation member Australia) present.
Thailand and Vietnam are back again after qualifying two years ago and will be looking to improve on their group-stage exit, while Malaysia – under the stewardship of the experienced Ong Kim Swee – are preparing for their tournament debut and will face Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Jordan in Group C.
Vietnam look to have been handed the toughest task as they are in Group D with Korea Republic, Australia and Syria.
On the other hand, Thailand will be quietly optimistic in their chances of reaching the knockout round from a Group B that contains defending champions Japan, but also two very beatable teams in DPR Korea and Palestine.
2) Local leagues overflowing with ASEAN flavour
The decision by Thailand and Malaysia’s domestic leagues to introduce a foreign signing quota specifically for ASEAN imports already looks to be a brilliant masterstroke, both on and off the field.
While the dream for every Myanmar or Cambodia fans is to one day see Aung Thu and Chan Vathanaka grace the biggest stages, taking a smaller step in the right direction is not always a bad thing.
On the field, a premier talent from a neighbouring country can easily be better than a B or C-grade foreigner from Europe, South America or Africa. And off the field, the benefits reaped could be equal if not far greater.
Imagine how many Cambodian fans will now be following every Pahang match? Or how many Myanmar supporters will now be eagerly trying to get their hands on a Police Tero jersey with “Aung Thu 10” on the back?
Either way, the T1 League and MSL will have added intrigue and excitement purely because the likes of Hariss Harun, Evan Dimas, Kyaw Ko Ko, Thierry Chantha Bin and Hoang Vu Samson will be gracing them.
And, should the ASEAN import rule prove to be a success, it would pave the way for competitions like the Liga 1, S.League and V.League 1 to follow suit.
3) Can Indonesia, Philippines maintain momentum?
2017 saw a rebirth for domestic football in two Southeast Asian countries as Indonesia’s Liga 1 and the Philippines Football League had their inaugural campaigns.
While there is still room for much improvement – the PFL especially was plagued by several administrative and scheduling issues – there is no denying that both were a success.
The Liga 1 title race went down to the wire and, while traditional heavyweights like Arema and Persib Bandung faltered, potential powerhouses emerged in the form of Bhayangkara and Bali United.
And, although it may not be everybody’s cup of tea, the PFL’s Finals Series led to a thrilling and fitting conclusion as Philippines’ top four teams faced off for top honours, with Ceres-Negros ultimately emerging triumphant.
The first year is always expected to be a learning experience and expectations were never going to be too high.
In 2018, however, the pressure will be on both organisations to only replicate, but better, the success they have had.
4) Asia beckons as Thailand lead the way
Few would argue that – right now in ASEAN football – Thailand are leading the way on all fronts.
They are the strongest national team at the moment, both at senior and age group level, have clubs regularly competing amongst the continent’s best in the AFC Champions League, and are now exporting homegrown stars like Chanathip Songkrasin and Teerasil Dangda to a top Asian competition such as the J1 League.
2018 will be another platform for Thailand to show that they continue to make progress.
Buriram United would do well to reach the knockout round of the Champions League, while it’s high time Thailand had more than one representative in Asia’s premier club competition.
Honourable defeats to Chinese, Japanese and South Korean clubs in the final qualifying round should no longer be seen as acceptable. This year, provided they advance from the second preliminary round, Muangthong United and Chiangrai United have to strive to beat Kashiwa Reysol and Shanghai SIPG respectively at the final hurdle.
And it’s not just the future of Thailand on the line. Instead, they can set the example for the others to strive for.
Don’t forget that Malaysia will also have a team qualifying automatically for the Champions League group stage.
Whether it be Johor Darul Ta’zim, or another one of the teams that have tried but failed to catch them for the past four years, Buriram – over the next six months – could show them that teams like Guangzhou Evergrande, Cerezo Osaka and Jeju United are to be respected but not feared.
5) AFF Suzuki Cup is up for grabs again
Yes, in the grander scheme of things, the AFF Suzuki Cup should not rank as the biggest of prizes in Southeast Asia.
Teams should be setting their sights on loftier targets like qualifying for the AFC Asian Cup, Olympic Games, FIFA U-20 World Cup, FIFA World Cup… the list goes on.
But, there is just something about ASEAN supporters and the Suzuki Cup that can be simply traced back to the pure tribal nature of being a football fan.
Put simply, the Suzuki Cup is the one chance each team gets to claim the status of Southeast Asia’s best team for the following two years.
Everyone wants that.
The new format introduced for this year’s edition also adds a different dimension as the group stage will now be spread across the region, meaning each team will get to host at least two matches.
While it promises to be a logistical nightmare for all involved, it is a brilliant move for passionate fans all over who deserve to watch their heroes in action.
Thailand have conquered all that have come before them since 2014, but they were no longer as untouchable in 2016 as they were two years before as Indonesia gave them a real run for their money.
With Indonesia, Vietnam, Philippines and Myanmar rapidly closing the gap, while former champions Malaysia and Singapore will be determined to regain their pride, the 2018 edition of the Suzuki Cup promises to be the most exciting yet.