Football Tribe SEA Editor
Thailand’s hopes of winning a third consecutive AFF Cup were dashed on Wednesday, as a 2-2 home draw against Malaysia saw the Elephants face elimination at the semi-final stage on away goals.
While we can expect Adisak Kraisorn’s 94th minute penalty miss to soon be GIFfed all over the internet, it is first important to put the defeat into context.
There are a number of factors which make this loss appear worse than it really is. One such reason for the backlash against this Thai side could be the role of Milovan Rajevac, and his more defensive or pragmatic style. Coming from the free-flowing possession based football of Kiatisuk “Zico” Senamuang, the experience of watching Thailand has changed immensely in a very short period of time. The players’ criticisms of the defensive approach after the first leg also wouldn’t have done Rajevac any favours. It is understandable that most fans will be feeling nostalgic to the energetic, attacking football of the Kiatisuk era – but that shouldn’t be used a stick to beat the current coaching team with.
Another issue surrounding the defeat is its frankly poor timing. Many fans hoped Rajevac’s senior side would be successful in order to make up for the disappointment of the Asian Games disaster back in August. A 6-0 opening day victory against East Timor calmed the nerves, but this loss to Malaysia re-opens wounds and threatens to turn Thai fans against the footballing authorities once again.
It is important to make one thing clear – while this defeat may have “slowed progress,” it certainly isn’t a sign of regression. The way in which the other South-East Asian nations have “closed to gap” on Thailand is more a credit to their coaches and players, not an indictment of Thailand’s. If anything, the War Elephants should welcome the increased competition – this rising tide will close the gap between the region as a whole and the best teams in Asia, allowing Thailand to have access to stronger opposition far more regularly.
Without the squad’s four strongest players, Thailand successfully finished on top of the competition’s “Group of Death,” with a squad of players from diverse clubs across the Thai League. Additionally, the 2018 Thai League saw the emergence of many young players who had the chance to train with the senior team before the tournament. Coach Rajevac’s expansion of the selection pool has increased the barriers to entry for the national team, with the increased competition for spots sure to have a positive impact in the long run.
On a more positive note, Thailand won’t even have to wait long for a chance to prove themselves again. The War Elephants will field a full complement of players at the 2019 AFC Asian Cup, which could be all the more successful if the team can turn their failures from this tournament into learning points for the next.
Ultimately, while it is certainly a time to mourn over what could have been a historic cup triumph, it may not be wise to ring the alarm bells just yet. Thai football fans will not look back on 2018 fondly, but that doesn’t exclude the possibility of 2019 or 2020 being bright years ahead for the nation.