By Ian Griffiths
Some 12 years after the ASEAN Football Federation sprang to life, Southeast Asia, amid fanfares galore, was eventually given a showpiece event to be proud of when the Tiger Cup - or the AFF Suzuki Cup as it is now known - made a first and eagerly anticipated appearance towards the tail end of 1996.
Granted, the whole thing may well have been a long time in coming, but, as the region's finest, led by traditional powerhouses Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam, descended on Singapore in a bid to claim bragging rights over their near neighbours, it soon became clear that the best moments in life really are always worth waiting for.
When the fun and games, ushered in by a spectacular laser and firework display, eventually got underway at Singapore's National Stadium on September 1, the hosts were grateful for a last gasp equaliser from livewire Fandi Ahmad to ensure a share of the spoils against cross-causeway rivals Malaysia. A day later, Thailand, with an ominous sign of intent, drubbed a woefully mediocre Philippines 5-0.
Away from the Lion City's legendary 'Kallang Roar', Group A hopefuls Indonesia and Vietnam started their quest for silverware in equally emphatic fashion by securing easy, no-nonsense victories over Laos and Cambodia respectively at Jurong's compact stadium.
Vietnam, despite being held to a surprise 1-1 draw by the plucky Laotians in their next game, went on to edge Myanmar for a prized semi-final ticket along with Indonesia who, fresh from bagging a further 10 goals, finished as deserved group winners.
As good as the Jurong festival of football was, the real drama surrounded a terrifically tense Group B where three teams went into the final round of games knowing that only a win would assure their continued involvement in what was rapidly becoming an absorbing contest.
A brace apiece from Malaysia's Anuar Abu Bakar and M. Chandran during an impressive 6-0 rout of Brunei, duly sealed the Tigers' place in the knockout stages, a result that left Singapore and Thailand to battle it out for the one remaining semi-final berth.
Roared on by a near capacity crowd, all was going well for the Singaporeans until the 70th minute, when danger man Natipong Sritong-in - whose total haul of seven goals would later see him feted as the competition's leading scorer - struck to secure a vital three point success for the men from the 'Land of Smiles'.
In an instant, and with Singapore reflecting on what could have been, Thailand manager Thavatchai Sajakul's pre-tournament prediction that his side would win the Tiger Cup, began to look a distinct possibility.
Three days later, Thavatchai's prophecy took one step nearer to becoming a reality. Having beaten Vietnam to win SEA Games gold nearly 10 months earlier, strikes from Kiatisuk "Zico" Senamuang and Worrawoot Srimaka, coupled with a Natipong double, saw Thailand defeat Vietnam once again to keep their Tiger Cup dream alive, the 4-2 win rich reward for a display packed to the rafters with vibrant, attacking football.
Leading up to the final, Malaysia, 3-1 conquerors of Indonesia in the other semi-final, were in confident mood as they reflected on their morale-boosting 1-1 draw with Thailand during the group stages.
Ably led by captain fantastic Zainal Abidin Hassan, the Malaysian camp felt confident that they had the ability to stop the Thai juggernaut and claim the prize of regional supremacy. How wrong they were.
Just nine minutes into a gripping finale, Kiatisuk fired home to give the Thais a lead their initial dominance deserved. With Natipong and Kiatisuk causing panic amongst the opposing backline, Thailand pressed relentlessly for what would have been a decisive second goal and came close to doing that when Natipong's acrobatic header flew only inches wide.
To their credit, Malaysia, in the face of a seemingly never ending onslaught, stood firm and, during a brave second half revival even threatened to restore parity. It proved, however, to be a case of too little too late for Wan Jamak Wan Hassan's charges as Thailand held on to record a narrow 1-0 win and lift the inaugural Tiger Cup trophy.
ASEAN football has never looked back since.