PETALING JAYA: Defending champions Malaysia have been handed a tricky draw for the SEA Games men’s football competition in Myanmar next month.
The national Under-23 boys have been drawn in Group A with Vietnam, Singapore, Laos, Brunei and the Philippines while Group B comprises runners-up Indonesia, Thailand, Timor Leste, Cambodia and hosts Myanmar.
At first glance, one would see it as a favourable draw for Malaysia and expect national Under-23 coach Ong Kim Swee’s boys to cruise into the semi-finals.
But there is actually nothing much separating the teams in both groups.
Team manager Datuk Affendi Hamzah said it would be foolish to predict the strength of teams based on past results.
“No matter how you look at it ... all the teams are going to find it tough to make the semi-finals. In the past, two or three teams dominated the proceedings, but not anymore.
Now there are at least six teams who are all strong contenders for the gold medal. The level of competition has become tougher over the years,” said Affendi.
Five teams have entered the final in the last three SEA Games (2007-2011). Thailand defeated Myanmar 2-0 in 2007 while Malaysia won the last two finals – defeating Vietnam 1-0 (2009) and Indonesia 4-3 on penalties (2011).
Thailand have won the gold 11 times since 1977 and hold the record of eight consecutive victories from (1993 to 2007).
On paper, the two teams likely to be a threat to Malaysia in Group A are Vietnam and Singapore.
Vietnam picked up the silver in 2009 while Singapore are back-to-back bronze medallists in 2007 and 2009.
Affendi said that most of the teams have done vast preparations, including hosts Myanmar, who are currently in Japan for their final phase of training cum exposure.
“I have been told that some of the teams are serious and have gone to Europe to prepare for the SEA Games,” he said.
He also said that Singapore would be no pushovers either. The Lions XII, which is the project squad for the SEA Games, did well to win the Super League title this season. The team comprised a handful of senior players while the rest are from the SEA Games squad.
The national Under-23 squad have been consistent in the last two SEA Games, thanks to the Harimau Muda A Project squads. The teams have been sent to Europe and played in the Corgon Liga in Slovakia to gain experience and exposure.
This year, Kim Swee again took the boys to play some top notch matches against Corgon Liga sides (top division in Slovakia) as well as friendlies against professional clubs in Hungary and the Czech Republic during the five-month European stint since March.
The Harimau Muda A team are currently in Cambodia for the invitational BIDC tournament.
However, the Myanmar SEA Games may see only 10 instead of 11 teams participating.
Speculations are rife that the Philippines are likely to withdraw from the competition although the draw was conducted in Naypyitaw on Wednesday.
A source from the organising committee in Myanmar said that the Philippines are likely to pull out.
In women's football at the Myanmar SEA Games, there will be a total of eight teams.
Malaysia, whose best performance was a silver medal at the Chiang Mai SEA Games in 1995, have been drawn in Group B with Thailand, Laos and Timor Leste while the teams in Group A are defending champions Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia and hosts Myanmar.
The women’s football competition will be held at the Mandalar Thiri Stadium in Mandalay.
Meanwhile, in men's futsal, Malaysia have been drawn in Group A with hosts Myanmar and Indonesia.
Defending champions Thiland are in Group B with Vietnam and Laos.
A total of five teams will play in a round robin competition in women’s futsal. They are hosts Myanmar, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia.
Group A: Malaysia, Vietnam, Singapore, Laos, Brunei, Philippines
Group B: Indonesia, Myanmar, Thailand, Timor Leste, Cambodia
Group A: Vietnam, Myanmar, Philippines, Indonesia
Group B: Thailand, Laos, Malaysia, Timor Leste
MEN'S FUTSALGroup A: Myanmar, Indonesia, Malaysia
Group B: Thailand, Vietnam, Laos
Round robin: Myanmar, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia.