There are heroes and history aplenty in Southeast Asia. It is hard to take a taxi in Bangkok after a Thailand game and not be told that the team needs a modern version of legendary ’80s striker Piyapong Pue-on. Part of the deal of being a Malaysian fan is to mention “Super” Mokhtar Dahari, the tree-trunk thighed terrorizer of ’70s and ’80s defenses and there are the Barcelona antics of the Filipino goal machine Paolo Alcantara that have caused many a misty-eyed Manila night.
The present is not quite as glorious.
One-by-one, after falling behind those in west and east Asia, the region’s teams have fallen by the wayside en route to next year’s Asian Cup in Australia. Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam have played a combined total of 15 qualifiers and managed one point between them. Then Singapore were put out of their misery in the early days of the Year of the Horse, leaving just Malaysia with a chance of representing Southeast Asia in January next year — and even that is far from certain.
Failure would leave a region of 600 million without representation again, while about 150 million in west Asia have eight teams and counting — talk about underachievement.
The sad truth is that match-fixing is the most likely topic in the international media when you read about soccer connected to Malaysia or Singapore. If it is Indonesia then it is going to be about political chaos or players dying after not getting paid and being unable to afford medical treatment, while if it is Myanmar then perhaps it is crowd trouble. If it is another country, well, you are probably not reading about the other countries at all unless it is about another pre-season tour by an English Premier League giant.
In most of the region, you can watch pretty much every English top-tier clash live every weekend. Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal shirts are common sights and exhibition games are as popular as they are expensive. In Singapore, soccer-lovers gather round in cafes and restaurants while ignoring the local S-League.
In truth, the Premier League can be an easy target and blaming it for Southeast Asian ills is an oversimplification, but it does cast a long shadow that makes it that little bit tougher for the local game to find a place in the sun.
Corruption is a much bigger threat.
Stories of match-fixing still abound in Malaysia creating a climate of suspicion. When a T-Team goalkeeper let in a corner last season, he was immediately hauled off, then literally pushed off the pitch by English coach Peter Butler.
However, incompetence and politics are just as damaging.
Powerful people are attracted to the beautiful game in the region and often local media either cannot or will not call them to account.
What has happened in Indonesia will become a case study for how not to run a country’s soccer scene. It remains the only Southeast Asian participant in a World Cup (back in 1938 under the guise of the Dutch East Indies). However, it now has the distinction of being the country with the highest potential, but the lowest standard of governance.
FIFA, world soccer’s governing body, allowing a convicted criminal to run the national soccer association from his prison cell and return to office upon release was breathtaking, as were the eventual results that included the setting up of rebel leagues and federations, supporter deaths, player deaths, player strikes and a whole lot more.