Four days ago in the central Myanmar city of Mandalay, Australia chalked up quite a remarkable scoreline in brushing aside Timor-Leste in their second group match at the AFF Championships.
Not the men’s tournament, the Suzuki Cup, whose draw takes place in the same nation today but rather the more generic women’s version which was both shamefully under-reported internationally and more positively a strong portent of what’s to come when the men clash in mid-November.
The 20-0 win, complete with nine different scorers, was a record-breaking affair and even the more noteworthy given it was achieved with Australia’s Under-20 side but perhaps the most remarkable figure was the reported 25,000 strong crowd for a match between two neutral teams.
That the host nation was playing in the latter part of a double-header surely helped things but what it does is clearly point to the robust passion of football in Southeast Asia with the Suzuki Cup arguably a bigger deal than even the continent-wide Asian Cup in terms of emotions stirred, debates started and eyeballs both on the screen and in the stands.
Unlike Europe and South America who don’t even bother with ‘sub-confederational’ tournaments those in other regions, notably Africa, the Caribbean and Asia are in many ways the very pinnacle of the game for a group of nations that make up almost two-thirds of FIFA’s global membership.
It’s Southeast Asia though where the blood pumps faster, the emotion runs deeper and where regional supremacy remains a genuine mark of legitimacy.
Occasionally that passion can boil over and the last tournament alone saw a roll call of incidents that would have created global headlines had they occurred in, say, the recently completely European championships.
Death threats issued against the Philippines, accusations of match fixing, laser lights shone from the stands at the Shah Alam, smoke bombs thrown in clashes between rival Malaysian and Vietnamese hooligan factions and a range of debris raining down on the pitch from Singaporean fans in another match.
Sure, things get out of hand from time to time but this is the raw fire and zeal that the global game grew from before the sport became a sanitized, corporate, experience and it’s without question that the only remaining cauldrons where that flame still flickers are in Asia and South America.
The final of the recently-completed European Championships drew a crowd of 75,000; four years ago in Malaysia the second leg alone of the Suzuki Cup final saw 90,000 plus at Bukit Jalil.
Only Thailand, of all the dozen AFF member nations remain in the running for a spot at the 2018 World Cup and perhaps as many as two-thirds may struggle to even reach the 2019 Asian Cup meaning the Suzuki Cup is quite literally all they’ve got to look forward to in the international arena for the next half decade.
It’s why most nations are sparing no expense in their preparations with the Philippines heading to Europe and North America to fine-tune things, Myanmar too to Europe, Singapore are recently returned from a camp in Japan (though it was not without its troubles), Malaysia journeyed with mixed success across large swathes of the Pacific and Vietnam will head to South Korea in a couple of months.
Thailand, of course, will have played Saudi Arabia, Japan, UAE, Iraq and Australia by the time the group stage commences as they continue their push to reach the global finals in Russia in two years time and it’s why they’re quite clearly the team to avoid when the draw takes place later today in the southern city of Yangon, the only city to hosts matches in Myanmar with the Philippines the other host nation.
Given that the War Elephants conclude their preparation with the Socceroos match in Bangkok just four days before the Suzuki Cup itself starts means they should be perfectly conditioned but it also raises questions as to why Australia, at least in the men’s side of things, are till not participating in their own regional tournament despite being a member of the AFF for more than three years.
Time will tell on that one but as they watch the drama unfold later this year they may just regret not affording their male footballers the same opportunity as they did the female ones, even if most neutrals hope for a more balanced scoreline when November rolls around.