Malaysia, Vietnam surprise at AFC U-23 while Thailand falter

Gabriel Tan Gabriel Tan

FOX Sports Asia football editor Gabriel Tan reviews the group stage performances of Malaysia, Vietnam and Thailand at the 2018 AFC U-23 Championship.

Admit it.

If you had to choose one Southeast Asian side to make it out of the group stages at the 2018 AFC U-23 Championship, you would have chosen the only one that didn’t.

And it would have been a completely understandable choice.

Yet, while Thailand – widely regarded as the region’s strongest nation – failed to pick up a single point, it was Malaysia and Vietnam who became ASEAN’s first-ever representatives (excluding AFF members Australia) in the knockout round of the tournament.

To add further context to the magnitude of their respective achievements, Malaysia had to beat continental heavyweights Saudi Arabia on the final day to seal their last-eight berth, while the Vietnamese somehow qualified from a group consisting of Korea Republic, Australia and Syria!

Sure, the football they played may not have pretty at times but it wasn’t purely negative football. Ong Kim Swee and Park Hang-seo both adopted conservative approaches but with clear intent to attack at the opportune moment – a tactic which worked to perfection as the Saudis and Australia were handed shock defeats.

As Jose Mourinho has found out for himself, there will always be football “purists” who believe there is only one “correct” way to play football. That there is nothing to be gained from playing anything other than easy-on-the-eye, one-touch passing football, even more so at age-group level.

OKS is a self-confessed admirer of Arsenal at their free-flowing, attacking best. Would you not think he would love to achieve the same with his own side? One imagines Park would also have similar ambitions.

There is, however, a difference between pragmatism and naivety.

One day, the likes of Adam Nor Azlin, Danial Amier, Nguyen Quang Hai and Do Duy Manh will be regulars at senior level, looking to qualify for the FIFA World Cup or even playing at an AFC Asian Cup.

And they will once again be faced with the situation of taking on far superior opposition with the odds firmly against them.

When that time comes, opting to keep it safe while looking to hit on the counterattack rather than attempting to play expansive football against a team that is clearly better at it could just be the difference between defeat and victory against a Japan, Iran or Korea Republic.

That is exactly what the Thais attempted to do against DPR Korea, Japan and Palestine and what did they have to show for their endeavour? Three defeats, seven goals conceded and just one strike – by captain Chenrop Samphaodi – to their names.

This is not to say that Thailand should be criticised for their attempt to match it with the best. On the contrary, given the strides they have made in recent years with the seniors reaching the final round of World Cup qualification, it would have been expected that the Thais were likely to give it a go.

Nonetheless, the fact of the matter is, their results were sorely disappointing and the performances – especially in the 5-1 capitulation against Palestine – were not much better.

An inquest is likely to take place in the coming days and weeks and coach Zoran Jankovic has already been made out be to the fall guy, but there are others who should shoulder some responsibility too.

For one, Jankovic’s cause was not helped by a lack of support from clubs such as Chiangrai United, who withdrew Suriya Singmui, Shinniphat Lee-Oh and Phitiwat Sukjitthammakul due to injury only to field them in a pre-season friendly a day before Thailand’s opening game against the North Koreans.

All three had been first-team members of the side that had won gold at the Southeast Asian (SEA) Games just last August.

Speaking of the SEA Games, the Football Association of Thailand (FAT) should also come under scrutiny for allowing SEA Games-winning coach Worrawoot Srimaka to step down – of his own volition if reports are to be believed – immediately after that triumph.

Granted, the Thais were far from impressive despite ultimately claiming a 16th gold medal at the regional meet. Yet, the decision to allow a coach who knew his players inside out to step down and replace him just four months before one of their biggest tournaments is questionable at best.

Whatever it is, Thailand should have been there when the knockout round gets underway on Friday. But they aren’t.

Instead, we have Malaysia and Vietnam to thank for flying the flag for ASEAN and, regardless of how they fare against Korea Republic and Iraq respectively and how much further they will go, the 2018 AFC U-23 Championship will go down as a ground-breaking success for them, as well as the region as a whole.

So, apologies to all the football “purists”, but if defensive, counterattacking football is what gets the Malaysians and Vietnamese into the semi-finals, and even the final, let’s have more of it.