Scott McIntyre assesses the chances of Timor Leste fresh from their qualification for this year’s AFF Suzuki Cup
On Saturday evening, Jose Fonseca was sat in a darkened room in Dili watching his lifelong football dream unfold without him some two thousand kilometres away.
The captain of the Timor-Leste football side had aggravated an existing injury in the opening match of the recently concluded Asian Games and was forced to withdraw from the national team as they headed to Malaysia a week ago for two football matches that could well define the lives of these young men.
In his place the sturdy defender Jorge Victor took the captain’s armband and did a superb job in marshalling a team of part-time footballers that play in a country not without its fair share of social problems, and whose national stadium wasn’t even deemed fit enough to host the two-legged AFF Suzuki Cup playoff match against Brunei Darussalam.
As a nation that only gained independence barely a decade and a half ago and where the local football league could generously be described as semi-professional, the achievement in edging Brunei 3-2 on aggregate to qualify for the finals of the Suzuki Cup is nothing short of remarkable.
This is just the second time that Timor will feature in Southeast Asia’s showpiece tournament and the first edition that they have qualified for after having gained automatic entry back in 2004. With dreams of Asian Cup or World Cup qualification being just that, the forthcoming tournament is as close to the game of their lives as these young players will possibly ever experience.
And the @affsuzukicup lineup is complete!
🇹🇱 Timor-Leste have survived despite defeat to 🇧🇳 Brunei Darussalam to qualify for #AFFSuzukiCup18 Group B, where they will meet 🇹🇭 Thailand, 🇮🇩 Indonesia, 🇵🇭 Philippines & 🇸🇬 Singapore‼️https://t.co/4KBbYpFuVb
— FOX Sports Asia (@FOXSportsAsia) September 8, 2018
Having looked in control in booking a 3-1 first-leg advantage in their ‘home’ match in Kuala Lumpur last weekend the expectation was that Timor should have little trouble in progressing from the return match, but when Brunei’s England-based captain, Faiq Bolkiah, arrived from abroad to captain the hosts in the second leg it gave the team a real boost in front of a vocal crowd in Bandar Seri Begawan.
With Brunei having been in greater command of things and then pegged a goal back with a quarter of an hour to play it took immense concentration and organisation from Timor to survive several late scares but when they did the relief and elation was clear to see.
Some players were hurried off for media commitments, others lay on the pitch receiving treatment for cramp and others still found their nation’s flag and paraded it around the pitch to celebrate what’s arguably the team’s most important victory.
In the background stood the side’s Japanese coach, Norio Tsukitate, who was only appointed just ahead of the Asian Games with assistance from the JFA and who has done a wonderful job in both keeping the team sound defensively and also allowing their natural attacking flair to shine in key moments.
Now that they’ve reached the finals the task becomes even more daunting as they face the defending champions, Thailand, first up in a group that also contains heavyweights Indonesia as well as ambitious Philippines and Singapore.
FULL-TIME | Brunei 1-0 Timor Leste
— AFF Suzuki Cup (@affsuzukicup) September 8, 2018
Whilst progressing from the group seems a tall order it’s not out of the question that the nation can pick up a win along the way – likely against an out-of-sorts Singapore side that struggled to draw with 155th-ranked minnows Mauritius at home this week and who are clearly there for the taking.
More important than that though is the chance for the spotlight to be shone on several members of the squad who are clearly good enough for moves into the biggest leagues in Southeast Asia.
Anybody who’s been following the exploits of the side in recent years is well aware of their clinical two-man frontline of Henrique and Rufino Gama with both being lithe, pacy and technically gifted finishers who wouldn’t at all look out place in the biggest regional leagues of Thailand, Malaysia or Vietnam.
When the silky midfielder Jose Fonseca is fit he’s also one that’s sure to catch the eye, as is the dynamic winder Joao Pedro who was a key creative threat in the playoff.
At the back Jorge Victor is both a robust presence and a ball-playing option whilst the goalkeeper, Aderito, is also a safe and assured option.
This is the generation that was forced into the senior side earlier than would have perhaps been advised after the nation was caught up in a fake-passport scandal a couple of years ago that saw record bans handed out from FIFA.
Having emerged from those dark clouds this vibrant young side could well be an emerging regional power in years to come and are far from the easy beats that many will expect them to be come November when the finals get underway.
The hope is that the national stadium in Dili will be renovated in time for the country to host those group stage matches and as the recovering captain, Jose Fonseca, told FOX Sports Asia the whole nation is now living the dream.
“Unfortunately I was injured and couldn’t be with the team for these matches but being in Dili I was able to see just what qualification means for my country.
“Everywhere you go people are talking about football and this team and we hope to play at home in the Suzuki Cup and make Timor-Leste proud and show the region about our football.”