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SEA Games final another failure of regional football

The SEA Games 32 men’s football final last Tuesday was not the most shameful game between Thailand and Indonesia.

These two teams also left an embarrassment at Vietnam’s Thong Nhat Stadium in the 1998 Tiger Cup (now AFF Cup).

At that tournament, Singapore topped group B, followed by Vietnam. In their final group A matchup, both Thailand and Indonesia only needed a draw to advance.

Neither team wanted to win because they did not want to face host Vietnam in the semifinals.

So both sides left their goals open and invited their opponents to score. In the 90th minute, when the score was 2-2, Indonesia defender Mursyid Effendi intentionally scored an own goal, forcing Thailand to become the match winner.

In the semifinals, Indonesia then lost to Singapore while Vietnam defeated Thailand.

After the tournament, FIFA opened an investigation into the Group A incident and Effendi received a life ban from international competitions.

For their part, Thailand was booed by their fans when they returned home. The Thai media called them a “disgrace.”

Fast forward to this week: Unlike the 1998 game, both teams were desperately trying to win the 2023 SEA Games final on Tuesday night.

Thailand, with a talented and balanced squad, entered the game confidently. Indonesia were also well-prepared and closer then they had ever been to winning their first SEA Games gold medal after 32 years of competition.

The game was hot from the kickoff: hard tackles and rough plays.

Indonesia took advantage of mistakes by the Thai defense to lead 2-0, with a referee’s error contributed to the second goal. This excited Indonesia but upset Thailand.

Later, when the score was 2-1, Indonesia players and coaching staff mistook the referee’s freekick call for the final whistle and celebrated early. Seconds later, Thailand equalized at the very last minute of the second half.

Thai players and coaching staff rushed into the Indonesian team’s technical area to celebrate, which was unnecessary, and the fights and chaos that broke out between members of the two teams later on was inevitable.

A member of Indonesias coaching team (black) is beaten after running over Thailands area to celebrate Indonesias goal in extra time of the SEA Games 32 mens football final on May 16, 2023. Photo by VnExpress/Hieu Luong
A member of Indonesias coaching team (black) is beaten after running over Thailands area to celebrate Indonesias goal in extra time of the SEA Games 32 mens football final on May 16, 2023. Photo by VnExpress/Hieu Luong

What happened in this final is clearly another failure of Southeast Asian football in front of the entire world.

Southeast Asia is still considered a low-level football region, not only in terms of quality of play but also in terms of sportsmanship, chivalry and football behavior.

I have attended many tournaments in the region and have witnessed provocative celebrations, as well as on- and off-field fights between teams like Thailand, Indonesia, Myanmar and Malaysia. These incidents received multiple warnings from AFC and FIFA.

Southeast Asian football teams are always obsessed with the desire to “be the king” of the region, but they have no vision towards the rest of Asia and the world. The mindset leads to the unhealthy competition and the mindset of having to get even at all costs, both of which make important matches unnecessarily ugly.

This situation represents the struggle and slow development of Southeast Asian football. Unable to level the playing field with the rest of Asia and the world, teams in the region are stuck in a loop with each other. The Southeast Asian title has become their only measuring stick.

Escaping the loop and aiming for bigger goals is a way for the teams to have a new vision and change their short-term football mindset, instead of just focusing on regional titles. Japan and Korea are vivid examples. When they play at the same level with the big teams at the World Cup, they don’t necessarily have to win regional titles at any cost. They invest in the long run to aim for bigger goals.

Building a strong football culture is a process that requires a lot of resources: developing football training academies, selecting players, organizing strong national leagues, participating in international tournaments, and creating mechanisms and conditions for more local players to play abroad. All these solutions implemented synchronously can create a sports environment that is healthy, strong, highly competitive and nurturing of great talents.

A good coach and a strong group of players can bring victory and temporary joy, but to build a good football scene in a region like Southeast Asia, it is necessary to be patient in laying a strong and solid foundation.

*Phan Anh Tu is a former general secretary of Hanoi Football Federation, former director of Hanoi Sports Competition Training Center.

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