Footballing Weekly: Asian Cup shows Malaysia, Singapore how wide the gulf they must

Disappointment for the Vietnam (left) and Malaysia national teams after their exits in the group stage of the 2023 AFC Asian Cup. (PHOTOS: AFP)

Disappointment for the Vietnam (left) and Malaysia national teams after their exits in the group stage of the 2023 AFC Asian Cup. (PHOTOS: AFP)

SINGAPORE — The ongoing AFC Asian Cup in Qatar has been followed with much interest by football fans in Southeast Asia. Why? Because an unprecedented four national teams from the region – Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia – had qualified for the tournament, the most number of representatives in the Cup’s 18 editions.

But while the region celebrated the four teams entering Asia’s top international football competition – with Indonesia and Malaysia qualifying for the first time since 2007 – they were quickly given a dose of reality amid the team’s struggles to advance out of the opening group stage.

So far, only Thailand have confirmed their spot in the last 16, while Malaysia and Vietnam were eliminated even before they complete their group matches. Indonesia could still advance from Group D as one of the four top third-placed teams, if Oman do not win their final Group F tie on Thursday evening (25 January).

For Malaysia and Vietnam, there was only deep disappointment, after both sides felt optimistic that they had prepared well for the tournament. In particular, the Harimau Malaya had placed faith in their Korean head coach Kim Pan-gon after a highly-encouraging first two years of his tenure, and assembled a strong backroom staff to prepare the players for this competition.

Yet, they showed nerves as they crumbled 0-4 to Jordan, and while they fought hard against Bahrain in their second group match, a moment of lapse cost them dearly as they lost 0-1 to Bahrain through a stoppage-time goal.

Vietnam, who had hired veteran coach Philippe Troussier to continue their rapid rise as one of Southeast Asia’s football powerhouses, began well as they took a shock lead against Cup favourites Japan. However, it has been downhill since then, as they lost all their group matches, including a 0-1 defeat by Indonesia.

Tough slog as usual for Southeast Asian nations

These performances showed just how much more work Malaysia and Vietnam – both fast-improving sides in the region – still need to be done. Malaysia, for example, had earned plaudits for their 100-per-cent start to their 2026 World Cup qualifiers, but struggled to replicate those stirring performances at the Asian Cup.

Vietnam were AFF Championship winners as recently as 2018, and while they are consistently in battle with Thailand as regional kingpins, they are struggling to replace their top veterans who had taken them to the top of Southeast Asia.

It has always been a tough slog for Southeast Asian nations in football – none of them have won the Asian Cup, let alone qualify for the World Cup. With the Asian Cup expanded to a 24-team competition since the 2019 edition, however, qualifying for this tournament should at least become the benchmark of progress for the football-obsessed countries in the region.

Yet the dominance of the teams from other Asian regions has laid bare the gap that Southeast Asia teams must close, before they can even dream of regional glory. And for those yet to make the leap to Asian Cup qualification, such as Singapore, the road to success continues to get dauntingly longer.

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