The Tiger Cup begins tomorrow with defending champion Thailand and co-hosts, Indonesia and Singapore, the leading contenders to win Southeast Asia's premier soccer tournament.
Though Taiwan is not involved because it's governing body is affiliated with teams in North and East Asia, local interest is expected after the visibility of Asian soccer was boosted to unprecedented levels by the World Cup, co-hosted in June by South Korea and Japan, the nine-nation Tiger Cup is expected to attract huge crowds between Dec. 15 and Dec. 29.
The teams are divided in two groups.
Group A consists of Indonesia, Myanmar, Cambodia, the Philippines and Vietnam. All matches will be played at Jakarta's 80,000-seat Bung Karno stadium, after plans to stage some on the tourist island of Bali were canceled in the wake of October's bombings that killed more than 190 people.
Group B, comprising Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia and Laos, will play at Singapore's National Stadium.
Indonesia kicks off the tournament by playing underdog Myanmar -- the former Burma -- tomorrow. The other match of the day will be Vietnam -- outside favorites -- against Cambodia.
Singapore opens its campaign against Malaysia next Wednesday, the same day Thailand plays Laos.
The semifinals, on Dec. 27, and the finals, on Dec. 29, will be held in Jakarta.
Thailand, No. 71 in FIFA's world rankings, is widely tipped to continue its dominance in the region. The Thais have won two of the three previous Tiger Cups and the last five Southeast Asian Games gold medals.
In 2000, Thailand powered through the home tournament and grabbed the crown with a 4-1 victory over Indonesia.
Thailand's assistant manager Virach Charnpanich said that the team expects to sail through to the group stage by collecting full points.
``We expect to take on Vietnam in the semifinals before battling for the title with archrivals Indonesia,'' Virach said. ``I think we will stand a good chance to win the title if our players are not injured.''
Although soccer is by far the most popular sport in Southeast Asia, none of its nations has ever qualified for the World Cup finals, although some -- like Indonesia -- have been trying for half a century.
Local interest in soccer heightened during the World Cup when the South Koreans stunned the traditional powers of soccer, upsetting Spain and Italy to reach the semifinals. Japan reached the quarterfinals stage.
The Indonesian national side -- once known as ``the Brazilians of Asia'' -- is emerging from a period of turmoil caused by economic collapse in 1997 and also has high hopes for the upcoming tournament.
Tondo Widodo, assistant coach of Indonesia, said his ``team is professional, disciplined and motivated. We are ready to fight.''
``Everyone is dangerous, but Thailand especially wants to win the title,'' Widodo said. ``It's a big advantage for us playing at home.''
Indonesia placed fourth, third and second in the three previous Tiger Cups which are held every second year.
``It's now our turn to finish first,'' Widodo said.
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