SEA Games: Holders Vietnam and kingpins Thailand tipped as favourites for football gold
The battle for SEA Games football supremacy starts on Friday (May 6), with perennial powerhouses Thailand and defending champions and hosts Vietnam touted as favourites to win the Under-23 tournament.
Vietnam are in Group A with Indonesia, Myanmar, the Philippines and Timor Leste, while Thailand headline Group B, which is completed by Singapore, Malaysia, Laos and Cambodia.
With home advantage, Vietnam - who will again be led by senior team head coach Park Hang-seo - are favourites to retain their title at the 10-team tournament where three overaged players may be named by each nation.
But Thailand - the most successful team in SEA Games football with 16 titles - have shown their desire to claim their 17th, which can be seen from the Football Association of Thailand's (FAT) decision to install Mano Polking as their Games coach in a one-off assignment.
Polking, who became a national hero after helping the senior team regain the AFF Suzuki Cup title in January, told The Straits Times that while he is eager to repay the faith shown in him by the FAT, it will be tough to overcome the Viets should they meet.
He said: "They are the clear favourites. They have been training together for sometime, they have home-ground advantage and the crowd behind them. If they don't win it, then I won't understand it at all."
Polking added that while preparations have not been ideal, his squad will do their best. Although the FAT has rescheduled domestic league and cup matches to help the SEA Games side, some clubs have refused to release their players. They are not obliged to do so as the tournament is not on Fifa's international match calendar.
Midfielders Worachit Kanitsribumphen and Weerathep Pomphan and experienced goalkeeper Kawin Thamsatchanan are the Thais' three overaged players.
Said Polking: "It's always a rivalry between us and Vietnam. But at this moment we will not think of them till we meet them. We could not get all the players that we would have loved to have, but I am a positive guy and we are focused on our strategy. The FAT trusts me and that means I want to do my best. I am a bad loser anyway and I can't stand losing. It'll mean a lot to me and Thai football if we can do it (win gold)."
He can expect a partisan crowd if they meet as home fans expect nothing less than a celebratory party at Hanoi's 40,000-capacity My Dinh National Stadium for the May 22 final, said Vietnam-based football analyst and writer Quan Tran Tue.
He said: "Most fans here realise that the team this year is not as strong as the one that won in 2019 and yet the expectation is to win gold. We are the hosts and the fans want the team to win it on home soil. Compared to most of the teams in the competition, Vietnam have had a good preparation in the lead up so at the moment, a lot of signs are there that Vietnam can win it again. "
The Viets have already shown their prowess this year when they won the Asean Football Federation (AFF) U-23 Championship in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, in February. They beat Thailand 1-0 in the final.
The Vietnam Football Federation has also shown strong support by pausing its domestic league for the Games. Hence, Park had free rein in his selection, calling up the national team's key figures - central midfielders Do Hung Dong, 28 and Nguyen Hoang Duc, 24 and forward Nguyen Tien Linh.
Others have not been as lucky. Singapore were unable to call upon the services of Ikhsan and Irfan Fandi as their Thai club BG Pathum United had also declined to release the pair.
Veteran coach Steve Darby, who led the Vietnam women's team to a gold medal at the 2001 Games and coached the Thailand men's side at the 2009 edition, said the gold medal will go to the Viets or the Thais, acknowledging the backing both teams have received from their respective associations.
He said: "The fact that Polking and Park are taking the teams shows these teams are taking the tournament as a "must win" as opposed to deeming it as a developmental tournament. If I had to choose a winner, I would go for Thailand, the strength of their local league is the best in the region and that's where the players will come from. They also have an excellent coach.''
Darby added that while Vietnam are holders, it does not count for much at the Games.
He said: "I think being defending champions is irrelevant at the SEA Games, because there is usually a complete change of players for each squad. This also eliminates the concept of revenge, as this is a new experience to most of the players.
"National pride is the biggest factor and the young players will be under pressure to impress."
While attention is on the Thais and Viets, Indonesia are expected to be the dark horses. They will be led by their national team coach as well and the tournament's highest profile tactician Shin Tae-yong, who led South Korea at the 2018 World Cup. The Garuda Muda have 11 players in their 20-men squad who were part of the senior team that reached the Suzuki Cup final in January.
They could vie for the bronze medal along with Malaysia.
Besides the unavailability of the Fandi brothers, Singapore have also been hit by a long-term injury to captain Jacob Mahler, who tore the anterior cruciate ligament and meniscus in his left knee last month.
It will be tough for them to finish in the top two of their group and reach the semi-finals for the first time since 2013, but coach Nazri Nasir, who has called up Geylang International goalkeeper Zaiful Nizam, Young Lions defender Syahrul Sazali and Hougang United midfielder Zulfahmi Arifin as his overaged players, is still targeting a medal.
With the likes of Laos, Cambodia and Timor Leste having put up creditable results at youth football tournaments in the past year, it points to an intriguing tournament ahead.
Darby said:"A surprise team that produces a freak result can change the whole tournament. A surprise result can keep Vietnam or Thailand off the top of their group and hence make them meet in the semi-finals. Laos are progressing and could produce a result. It is impossible to predict Myanmar and the Philippines' performance until they turn up while Malaysia and Indonesia are good teams.
"It's a complex tournament to predict but it has the potential to be a great one."