England winning a World Cup penalty shootout, Germany finishing bottom of their group and Russia knocking out Spain all points to one thing – anything can happen in football.
One of Croatia, Russia, England or Sweden are going to be in the final of the 2018 World Cup. If one of those teams can come within 90 minutes of becoming world champions then it bodes well for the 2019 Asian Cup.
There may even be a new name on the continental trophy and while that doesn’t mean the name with be a Southeast Asian one, there is no reason why Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines can’t dream of extended stays in the competition.
Events in Russia show that the gap between the top teams and more middle-ranking sides is not that big. The same lessons should be kept in mind at the 2019 Asian Cup for those from the Southeast. It should give Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines plenty of encouragement. It doesn’t mean that authorities in Bangkok, Hanoi and Manila should start planning celebration parades for early February but it does mean that there is no need to be frightened of the big boys of Asia.
The trio may be happy just to provide some regional representation for the first time since 2007 when it was hosted in Southeast Asia, but there should be ambitions to stay in the United Arab Emirates for as long as possible.
It is clear that the gap between the top and the mid-level teams is closing in the world. Many ‘smaller’ football nations now have facilities that compare, equal or even surpass those that the traditional powers have. There are financial resources to be found all around the world that can be invested in all kinds of fields.
Many nations can now employ experienced and competent international coaches. More and more players are playing overseas, where they are learning and developing and when they return home for international duty, they are sharing what they know, inspiring others. In short, the game is becoming more globalised, there are no secrets any more and Asian nations, especially, have the ability to flex their financial muscles.
Just as the gap between Asia’s best and the world’s best is closing, the same can be said in the continent itself. The likes of Thailand and Vietnam have improved in recent years.
Watching Saudi Arabia kick off the 2018 World Cup against host nation Russia with hundreds of millions of viewers around the world, Thai fans must have felt a little wistful. After all in the first match of the final round in qualification, the Thais were unlucky to leave Riyadh with a 1-0 defeat after conceding a soft and dubious penalty. A goalless draw would have been a more accurate reflection of the game and the War Elephants could even have won.
Thailand were disappointed not to defeat Australia in Bangkok and deserved more than a 2-2 draw. If these results had been different, it does not mean the team would have headed to Russia but they would have been considerably closer. More important is the realisation that they can compete with teams that can compete at the World Cup.
At times the Thais gave their opponents in qualification too much respect. This was especially apparent in the home defeat at the hands of Japan. The 2018 World Cup has shown that there is no need.
If Korea, low on confidence and full of injuries, can go and defeat Germany 2-0 and do so deservedly, then Thailand can certainly be confident in a group containing India, Bahrain and the UAE.
If Iran can collect four points from the toughest group containing Spain, Portugal and a talented Morocco team, and come within inches of reaching the last 16, then there is no reason for the Philippines to be scared of Kyrgyzstan, China and South Korea.
And if Japan can get out of a tough group with Colombia, Senegal and Poland and feel heartbroken to lose 3-2 to a very talented Belgium team while winning the hearts of the watching world, then Vietnam have what it takes to get out of a group containing Iran, Iraq and Yemen.
Thailand – and other ASEAN teams – should take heed of what has happened at the World Cup. On their day, they can beat anybody. The talent is there just that maybe, the belief is not. The World Cup has shown however that reputations shouldn’t count for much.