Group B hosts Myanmar hadn’t been favoured to reach the semi-finals of the AFF Suzuki Cup but on the back of impressive wins over both Cambodia and Malaysia they did just that to book a date with Thailand, with the first leg set down for Yangon this coming Sunday.
After having conceded twice in their opening loss to Vietnam they only let in one more goal thereafter as well as scoring as many (five) goals as the group winners did in what’s been a strong all-round team showing from a youthful White Angels outfit.
At the heart of the team though has been the second oldest member of the squad in 27-year-old Yan Aung Kyaw; with the captain playing a key role from his defensive midfield position in shielding his defence and controlling the tempo of the game through the centre of the pitch.
He spoke exclusively with FOX Sports Asia in the buildup to one of the biggest football matches his nation has ever faced.
FSA: This is a very young Myanmar team, with the average age only around 22, and you are the ‘wise old head’ of the team but still only 27 yourself so you do feel a need to guide the team more than otherwise would have been the case given just how young the side is?
YAK: Firstly, it’s been 12 years since we’ve reached the semifinals and the players are just hungry to play here and test ourselves at the highest level. Of course, as you said, we have a young side and with not a great deal of experience and that presents problems.
Sometimes during the match the players just want to keep attacking and they need to show a little more control so I suppose that’s where my experience comes in to help my younger brothers.
That’s what I call them, my younger brothers, because we are like one big family so I make sure they can settle down and remain calm during matches.
FSA: Can it help in one way though that the team is so young in that they haven’t had the experience of losing at this tournament as with Myanmar teams in the past and not had to face this Thailand team on too many occasions – a team that everybody expects will win here?
YAK: In football anything can happen and we have a good advantage in that we can host the first match here in Yangon with a lot of spectators coming and the team is united with a strong mentality and we believe that we can do something so we don’t look at the age just how we can win this match.
FSA: Is it more important then to make sure that you score or that you stop Thailand from scoring to set things up nicely for the second leg?
YAK: The first match we have to focus on not conceding whilst trying ourselves to get a goal or two to really keep our hopes alive before moving to Thailand.
FSA: You’ve played very well in this tournament so far, having to shield the back four and then start the attack as the midfield lynchpin – are there any international footballers who you like to try and model your game on?
YAK: I really like Claude Makelele – he’s definitely my favourite player; he’s a very aggressive player and can follow the attack and he put all his mind and energy into every game that he played.
FSA: So, we can call you the Makelele of Myanmar, then!?
YAK: Of course, that would be nice!
FSA: Coming into the tournament, the preparation was very good for a long time before some wobbles right at the end with some poor friendly results and some key players being axed from the team – how much did that affect the squad?
YAK: Honestly, we had a lot of pressure before the tournament started because we lost some friendlies and that affected us in the first half against Vietnam in our first match but we came back well. Then there was still pressure in the next two matches but we did well to embrace that pressure and we fully deserve our spot in the semi-final.
The absence of Kyaw Ko Ko also affected the team, especially the younger players, but we had to be professional and put that behind us and move on.
FSA: Not many people perhaps expected Myanmar to reach this stage; can you keep those surprises coming and actually win the Suzuki Cup?
YAK: Honestly, I also read many newspapers from the region before the tournament and saw that people were not impressed by Myanmar football but now we are at the semifinal stage and people can see the reality.
We have so many good young players in our squad but they are getting experience at this big tournament so in the next four or five years I’m sure we can keep improving and continue to do well in the ASEAN region – that’s our target, to just keep improving step by step.
By Scott McIntyre