Although the event proper doesn’t get underway until the end of next week, the 29th Southeast Asian Games kick off on Monday when the football competition begins in Malaysia.
Football has been a staple at the Games since way back in 1959, but in the modern guise of the tournament that started in the late 1970s, only three nations have won the Gold Medal – Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia.
That trio will again be among the favourites, although the emerging force that is Vietnam may well have a say in things. But there’s no doubt which nation is under the most pressure, and that’s the hosts.
Fox Sports Asia caught up with Malaysia’s coach, Datuk Ong Kim Swee, on the eve of the tournament to discuss the team’s preparations and their expectations for one of Southeast Asia’s most important football tournaments.
Fox Sports Asia: Datuk, thank you for speaking with Fox Sports Asia. We’re now barely a couple of days from the SEA Games kicking off. Can you start by giving us a sense of just how important this event is?
Datuk Ong Kim Swee: The Southeast Asian Games are not only about football but when it comes to hosting these Games, football is the main priority. Whoever hosts the SEA Games, the number one priority is doing well in football and that’s huge. To win a gold medal in football means that you win overall the SEA Games itself. For me you also have the government involved in the competition and there’s pride at stake especially with Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam and Thailand. Football is the number one sport in all these countries so whenever it comes to the SEA Games, football is the main attraction and everyone wants us to win the Gold Medal. This is my fourth SEA Games, going back to 2011, and every time we participate in the SEA Games my target is simply to win the Gold Medal.
FSA: There have only been a small number of nations that have won the competition. Do you see the gap narrowing a little between those other nations who are also hoping to win this time around?
OKS: It is, the gap is getting closer. It’s not like 2009 or 2011 when you could beat Laos, Brunei, Timor-Leste or Cambodia easily and that gap is getting narrower. You look at a nation like Brunei that only lost 2-0 to Australia in the recent AFC U23 qualifying and you can see from those results that it’s not an easy task any more.
FSA: Touching on Australia, they’re a member of the ASEAN zone in terms of the AFC; do you think there is an argument that they should also be involved in the SEA Games as well?
OKS: That would be interesting – this tournament is an U23 tournament like the Olympics but there you have three overage players allowed. For this tournament, that’s not allowed so it’s only players that are under 22. But I believe that if Australia were allowed to participate it would make it more interesting.
FSA: You’re in Group A, the section with five nations compared to the six in Group B. Even as you say that the gap is closing, the fact remains that Malaysia are expected to be too strong for Laos and Brunei which leaves you fighting for one of the two semi-final spots with Singapore and Myanmar, right?
OKS: I think you can say that yes but you can’t take Brunei lightly, you can’t take Laos lightly. Based on what I’ve seen of them in their recent matches tactically, they are not a bad team. So on paper, yes, it should be Malaysia, Singapore and Myanmar but you can’t discount the others.
FSA: How has the preparation being going, there are a few injury doubts but other than that, are you pleased with how things have been thus far?
OKS: Before we went to Bangkok for the AFC U22 qualifiers, we only had about five days and now we have had 10 days so I can’t ask for more. My only concern is that we have injuries with our two main strikers – S. Kumaahran and N. Thanbalan – so I hope they will be fully recovered before I announce the team on Saturday.
FSA: Are there any young stars from your squad that we should keep a particular eye on during the tournament?
OKS: Muhammad Akhyar is an attacking player who is only 19-years-old and I believe that one day this boy can go very far. He’s not afraid to take on any defence, even though he’s not physically as strong as others. But he’s very nifty and if he’s given an opportunity in these SEA Games he will rise to the occasion.
FSA: Looking at the other group, it seems the harder one with Thailand and Vietnam, plus Indonesia, and then other nations on the rise such as Timor and the Philippines. Who do you see as the nations
to look out for, from that side of the tournament?
OKS: I have no doubt that Thailand will go through and then that means that the race for the other spot will be between Indonesia and Vietnam. Cambodia can spoil the progress of other nations and they have a very balanced squad with seven or eight players that were involved in the AFC Suzuki Cup last season but you can’t
compare them to Indonesia, Vietnam or Thailand. We are the host country though and I believe that whoever is on the other side of the draw will try to avoid the host country. Of course we don’t want to meet up with Thailand in the semi-finals because we know they are the favourites. But for me, in the semi-finals, anything can happen and playing at home if we qualify is very important.