Southeast Asia World Cup Qualifying

Vietnam – ASEAN’s Last Hope

While AFF-affiliated Australia have booked their place in the third round of the 2022 World Cup qualifiers, the region of ASEAN are set to once again have a representative in the final frontier between the qualifiers and the World Cup itself. Thailand may have failed miserably in their quest for WC qualification in 2018, however should Vietnam manage to go through into the final round of World Cup qualifiers, it will represent a brand new chapter in the Golden Dragons’ remarkable rise that was started in 2017 after Park Hang-seo took over as head coach.

Despite their improvements in recent years, ASEAN sides once again found themselves outclassed in the ongoing qualifiers for the 2022 World Cup. While minnows in Timor-Leste, Brunei Darussalam, and Laos were knocked out quite early on in the qualifiers’ first round, the rest of ASEAN fared quite poorly in the second round despite some decent showings.

Former kings of ASEAN, Thailand found themselves in a crossroads after a disappointing showing in their last two qualifying matches. Despite decent performances against Indonesia and West Asian titans United Arab Emirates as well as forcing Vietnam into two 0-0 draws, the Changsuek started to crack after a 2-1 defeat away at Malaysia, before they crumbled completely once the qualifiers restarted after a lengthy COVID-enforced pause.

A second-string Thailand squad was forced into a 2-2 draw by already-eliminated Indonesia, before a damaging 3-1 defeat at the hands of the UAE effectively killed off any chances of qualification into the next round. Granted that these matches were played without two of Thailand’s best players – Chanathip Songkrasin was out injured and Theerathon Bunmathan stepped out of the squad for personal reasons – however, on paper Thailand should’ve done more against an Indonesia side lacking any meaningful experience. Another win against a vastly superior UAE, in the West Asians’ own backyard no less, is just an order too much to handle for the Changsuek.

With their campaigned marred by coaching changes, Indonesia never shifted out of first gear throughout their qualifying campaign. Promise was shown in their first match, a 3-2 defeat at the Gelora Bung Karno at the hands of regional rivals Malaysia, with a last-gasp goal from Mohamadou Sumareh condemning Timnas Garuda to defeat. However said promise was snuffed out after Supachok Sarachat scored a brace at the GBK to give Thailand a 3-0 win over Indonesia, before defeats against both Vietnam and the UAE signaled the end of the road for Simon McMenemy.

Caretaker head coach Yeyen Tumena oversaw a limp 2-0 defeat away at Malaysia that ended Indonesia’s World Cup hopes, before Shin Tae-yong was appointed to oversee the Garuda’s final three qualifier matches. A youthful Indonesia managed to nick a point off Thailand before being mauled 4-0 by Vietnam and destroyed 5-0 by the UAE, however Tae-yong had both the qualifiers for the 2023 AFC Asian Cup and the 2021 SEA Games in mind. The defeats against Vietnam and the UAE may be chastening in nature but hopefully Tae-yong and his coaching staff were able to identify Indonesia’s biggest flaws and improve them in the near future with their available pool of talent.

Malaysia, on the other hand, relied on naturalized players for their qualifying campaign. The likes of Sumareh (Gambia), Guilherme de Paula (Brazil), Dion Cools (Belgium), La’Vere Corbin-Ong (Canada) and Liridon Krasniqi (Kosovo) were given Malaysian citizenship based on either their heritage or their playing careers within Malaysian soil, with hopes that their impressive forms with their respective clubs would boost the Harimau Malaya even further.

However, the biggest irony for the naturalization program is that Malaysia’s native players such as Safawi Rasid and Norshahrul Idlan Talaha managed to perform better than a number of naturalized players within Tan Cheng Hoe’s squad. This inevitably invites sharp criticism from Malaysian football fans, who viewed that a number of their local talent will perform much better with the Harimau Malaya than the naturalized players called into the national team squad.

Malaysia’s slim World Cup chances were effectively wiped away by a 4-0 defeat at the hands of the UAE and despite Guilherme managing to win a penalty that he executed himself perfectly, the Harimau Malaya still succumbed to a 2-1 defeat at the hands of Vietnam that ensured their World Cup dreams were dead and buried.

While the concept of naturalization is still debated within Malaysian football, it has in turned worked wonders for the Philippines. Foreign-born talent such as Stephan Schrock, Neil Etheridge, Michael Falkesgaard, the Ott, Hartmann, Younghusband and Nazari brothers, as well as Patrick Reichelt managed to turn the Azkals from regional minnows to the third powerhouse of ASEAN behind Vietnam and Thailand.

Unfortunately for the Philippines, the draw for the second qualifying round worked against them as they were placed in the same group as Syria – who are having a renaissance of their own having almost qualified to the 2018 World Cup – and East Asian powerhouses China.

Despite a decent showing in their group, the Philippines’ failure to win against both Syria and China would ensure that they are knocked out of the running for the World Cup, with the Azkals only managing to earn one point from a possible twelve in the matches against the duo.

As for Myanmar, the 2021 coup d’etat and the protests that ensued until this day has affected the national team badly. A number of key players such as Kyaw Ko Ko, Aung Thu, and Zaw Min Tun have boycotted their own national team in defiance towards the military junta killing unarmed civilians in the streets of Myanmar everyday.

This meant that head coach Antoine Hey was forced to bring a weakened squad for Myanmar’s final qualifying matches and predictably they did not fare well. While prior to the coup a 7-0 defeat at the hands of Kyrgyzstan represent a slight blemish in form that saw Myanmar win twice over Tajikistan and Mongolia while also giving Japan a very good fight, the post-coup Myanmar squad was handily obliterated by their opponents.

Japan managed to put ten goals without reply into Myanmar once qualifiers restarted on May, before Kyrgyzstan ensured that Myanmar won’t be going to the 2022 World Cup with another demolition job, this time 8-1.

Singapore, on the other hand, had a respectable showing prior to the pandemic, earning 7 points from their first five matches, however the Lions collapsed once qualifiers resumed. Without key players in Safuwan Baharudin, Shakir Hamzah, Hariss Harun and Ikhsan Fandi, Singapore succumbed to three consecutive defeats at the hands of Palestine, Uzbekistan, and Saudi Arabia that ended their World Cup hopes.

Last but not least, minnows Cambodia was vastly outmatched by their qualifying opponents. They were no match for the likes of Iran, Iraq, Bahrain, and even Hong Kong, with the Cambodians losing to Iran twice by the double digits.

This leaves Vietnam as the only ASEAN representative left with a shot at the 2022 World Cup.

Park Hang-seo’s side has been phenomenal since the South Korean’s appointment to the Golden Dragons’ hot seat in 2017 and fresh off the back of giving Japan a run for their money in the 2019 AFC Asian Cup quarterfinal, Vietnam are once again setting the benchmark for their fellow ASEAN peers with an impressive display in the World Cup qualifiers.

Granted Vietnam were drawn into a relatively manageable group but a 1-0 win over the UAE in November 2019 shows that the Golden Dragons have what it takes to rub their shoulders together with the big boys. The fact that Vietnam also got their qualifying campaign up and running straight away after the restart also enabled them to position themselves nicely for the final stretch of qualifiers.

Having beaten Indonesia 4-0 and Malaysia 2-1 in their most recent matches, Vietnam came into their final match against the UAE only having to avoid defeat to ensure safe passage into the next round of qualifiers. And even if the UAE beat Vietnam, they’ll can be rest assured that their impressive performances throughout the second round of qualifiers would guarantee them as one of the best runners-up who will receive a ticket to the third round.

And while Kiatisuk Senamuang’s Thailand side could not keep themselves competitive with the big guns of Asia in the 2018 qualifiers, considering what Vietnam had achieved underneath Hang-seo, one can be optimistic that the Golden Dragons might spring a surprise or two in the next round should they qualify.

Having utilized the phenomenal team that reached the final of the 2018 AFC U-23 Championship as the backbone of his current side, Hang-seo could be confident that his boys have what it takes to take on Asia’s finest. The region of ASEAN have yet been represented in a World Cup ever since Indonesia made their debut bow in 1938 (as Dutch East Indies) and considering the rise that Vietnam are undergoing right now, they might be able to break that duck in the near future.

But first the last hope of ASEAN must contend with a number of tough challenges ahead of them, but even if they fall in one of those, it shows how far Vietnam have grown as a national team in recent years.