Having lived in most SE Asian countries at some point over the past twelve years I am well qualified to talk about the almost fanatical interest displayed in these countries towards the game of football. In the beginning I was surprised to find out how much knowledge was bandied around about lowly placed English teams, or the delight in discussing the recent transfers in the European teams. But now I just accept it all and listen with a smidgeon of irony as Thai, Vietnamese and Malaysia nationals discuss football in more detail than they could ever provide, on say, their national economy or political infrastructure.
I still remember the absolute frenzy that surrounded the World Cup in 1998 when I was living in Ho Chi Minh City. The city came to a complete standstill as every match was played. In the middle of the night you could hear the entire city roaring as one when a goal was scored. Did I mention that Vietnam hadnt even qualified for the World Cup?
One day as I was walking to work I came upon a huge crowd on the corner of two streets. To my dismay a man was being beaten in the middle of the ring of onlookers by two others. I turned to people nearby and said; What is going on here? The response was; He cant pay back his gambling debts. He lost everything on the World Cup. That year there were more suicides recorded in Vietnam than ever before. From anecdotal evidence most of them were linked to gambling poorly on the World Cup results.
Back in 1998 the Tiger Cup was also big news. Now it has changed its name again from the ASEAN Football Championship to AFF Suzuki Cup but it hasnt lost its appeal. This year Vietnam will co-host the games with Indonesia. The type of pride and competition that only neighbouring countries can adequately demonstrate will be on show again Im sure.
But it is the Asian Cup which is worrying everyone. To be held in Qatar in 2011, there will be teams from South Asia, East Asia, Central Asia and West Asia. South East Asia however is looking very, very dodgy. Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam are already out of the running and Thailand and Singapore only have a very slim chance of qualifying. This is a wee bit embarrassing for a region which has hopes of World Cup qualifications and which has even been mentioned as a possible host for the event in future.
So what happened? How did a region that is football crazy manage to stuff this up so badly? Especially as in SE Asia overall attendances are increasing at matches and the standard of play is reaching new heights. Thailand have hired well known English coaches to take them through to the World Cup in 2014 and a Vietnamese striker is even playing in Portugals top tier.
Admittedly Indonesia found themselves in a difficult group, including Australia and Oman, but Vietnam and Malaysia in particular have just been on disappointing form. Vietnam has never regained the dizzy heights it experienced in December 2008 when it won the last ASEAN Cup and was finally put out of its misery by the superior playing of China and then Syria. Malaysia was thrashed by the UAE at home which was particularly dispiriting seeing as this team won only one measly point in the final round of World Cup qualifiers and are known for being a weak side.
So, SE Asian football needs to get its act together. While the entire male population of the region has become an expert on football leagues in the UK to the smallest event in Siberia, the actual players and national managers are letting the side down. But perhaps if all the men in the region turned their attention towards their own, domestic teams a brighter future could be forged.