Southeast Asia

OPINION: Thailand and Malaysia Face “Group of Death” in AFC U16 Championships

With just days remaining until the start of the 2018 AFC U16 Championships in Kuala Lumpur, the coaches of the respective national teams are preparing for the showdown. The coveted prize for the four semi-finalists is qualification to next year’s FIFA U17 World Cup in Peru.

For the four South-East Asian nations competing – Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam – qualification to the international tournament would be a major milestone.

However, for two of those nations, just taking the first steps may already be a challenge.

Despite being hosts, Malaysia has drawn one of the toughest groups in the tournament, as they are set to take on neighbors Thailand, as well as Japan and Tajikistan in the opening round.

Both Thailand and Malaysia have implemented major regimes at youth-level in order to improve their youth teams at international tournaments.

The hosts will use this tournament as a means of seeing whether or not their recently implemented National Football Development Plan, implemented to produce world-class stars and improve the nation’s performances, has come to fruition. This emphasis on the nation’s youth could make the side a force to be reckoned with on home soil.

Elsewhere, Thailand too has a number of initiatives supporting their bid for success at the upcoming tournament. The nation has struck a deal with Ekkono, a private coaching company which has seen a number of Spanish coaches land on Thai shores to support the nation’s budding young talents. Additionally, the “Fox Hunt” program, led by Thai-owned Premier League club Leicester City, has seen a number of talented youth prospects make the journey to England to be trained by the 2016 Premier League Champions.

Lastly, Japan’s emphasis on promoting youth football as a means of future national team success has been made clear for all to see. The Samurai Blues won Silver at the 2018 Asian Games earlier this month, taking only players under the age of 21 for a tournament designed for Olympic teams.

All these factors mean that Group A could be the one to watch at the upcoming tournament, and may be an incredibly tough hurdle for all the teams involved.