Future looks bright for Toyota Mekong Club Championship

Scott McIntyre Scott McIntyre

Scott McIntyre was at the opening game of the Toyota Mekong Club Championship 2017 and believes the tournament has an important role to play in ASEAN football.

The ASEAN Club Championships, the A3 Champions Cup, the Aga Khan Gold Cup, the Colombo Cup and many others beside – sub regional tournaments in Asia have a far too brief and brightly burnt out history.

It’s refreshing then to see that the Toyota Mekong Club Championship has already outlived the bulk of previous attempts at organising regional club football in Southeast Asia and beyond and, if the atmosphere in the Vietnamese capital on Saturday night is anything to go by, then the major task of capturing hearts and minds is already fairly well entrenched.

FOX Sports Asia was at the opening match of the fourth edition in Hanoi between V.League 1 side Sanna Khanh Hoa BVN and the Cambodian League’s top-ranked Boeung Ket FC and it was a non-stop cacophony of noise amongst the healthy crowd at the Hang Day Stadium.

A colourfully-dressed collection of drummers under the iconic portrait of Ho Chi Minh in the back stand kept the beat going amongst a band of Sanna Khanh Hoa fans, whilst a gathering of those in red in the main stand chanting ‘Vietnam’ non-stop clearly came for the patriotic party that reached fever-pitch at halftime as a local pop star revved the crowd up.

Starting in 2014 as a four-nation tournament, the past two editions saw five clubs sides compete before a reversion to four for the current edition and as one of the organisers, Feizel Mohamed, told FOX Sports Asia, the TMCC is already becoming a key part of the regional footballing slate.

“We realised – in terms of football consumption in the Mekong region – things were a bit limited and the tournament is not only resonating with the fans, but it’s also a perfect opportunity for the clubs right after the season finishes,” explained Feizel.

“With most of them involved in upcoming ACL or Asian Cup matches it also gives them key games at a time when there is not that other opportunity.”

On the pitch, there were plenty of goals to keep the crowd entertained in a far more competitive match than may have usually been the case in a clash between Cambodian and Vietnamese clubs.

Four times Sanna Khanh Hoa had the lead but they were pegged back on each occasion by a plucky Boeung Ket side as the match finished 4-4 ahead of next week’s return in Phnom Penh.

With the loss of a host of players to international duty at clubs that finished above them domestically, the V.League’s 6th-placed finishers were that nation’s representatives and, given that they were hosting the Cambodian kingpins, the result only confirmed Vietnam’s growing status in the region.

Tactically, it was something of a surprise to see the home side content to basically lump the ball forward for long spells with the team that looked more comfortable in possession unexpectedly being Boeung Ket.

That’s not to say that there weren’t some classy players on display with Sanna Khanh Hoa’s midfielder Nguyen Hoang Quoc Chi and deep-lying playmaker Le Duy Thanh catching the eye with some delightful passages of pass-and-move creativity that is the hallmark of the best players to have emerged from Vietnam in recent times.

The return fixture should be a lively affair but regardless of which club progresses they’ll surely fancy their chances in the one-off semi against Vientiane outfit Lao Toyota with the real challenge coming in the final.

Although Laotian side Lanexang United – now sadly in hibernation – stunned Buriram in the home leg of the final last year they went on to lose 2-1 on aggregate, but the gap from powerhouses Muangthong (this year’s Thai representatives) down to the other trio of clubs is a sizeable one and it’s hard to see any of those touching the Thai giants.

The absence of a club from Myanmar this year has taken the gloss off things slightly and, even though it’s somewhat obtuse to suggest so given the name of the tournament, it’s perhaps not a bad idea to even look to expand the event beyond the northern nations that the Mekong traverses to keep its growth alive.

That of course was the intent of the now-scrapped ASEAN Super League tournament but as this taster in the north of the peninsula has shown there’s an appetite for pitting the best of one nation against another. And, if handled properly, that can only be a positive for Southeast Asian football.