Tuesday, January 04, 2022


What Makes The AFF Suzuki Cup Special?

To paraphrase someone else, South East Asian football is a game of 90 minutes where some vainglorious official will try to grab the headlines for their own reasons and the Thais will win anyway and so it proved at the just finished AFF Suzuki Cup where Thailand triumphed over Indonesia 6-2 on aggregate proving they remain the strongest football nation in the region and, for me, continuing my love affair with the tournament.

I'm not really interested in international football as a rule. I haven't really bothered with England since the late 1980s and rarely watch World Cup or Euro games but when it comes to the AFF Suzuki Cup I'm there. In fact I'm still gutted I didn't make a single game at the most recent one, the first time since 2007, though I guess some pandemic does offer me an excuse.

So, what is so special about the AFF Suzuki Cup? Well, for a start it means something. Games like Indonesia v Malaysia and Singapore v Malaysia have a meaning that transcends the region. I remember the 2010 Final in KL and  looking on in awe at the thousands of Indonesian fans at Bukit Jalil and they weren't all migrant workers or students. Flights out of Jakarta were carrying numbers of supporters and I remember the chill down my spine as I was waiting at the airport seeing other fans waiting patiently for their own flight north, proudly wearing their merah putih.

Then there is the sheer openness of the tournament. Out of the 10 competing nations only Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar and Timor Leste go into it knowing they don't stand a chance in hell of even reaching the semi finals leaving six countries believing they can genuinely lift the trophy. That's a pretty high ratio for an international tournament. Look at the AFC Asian Cup for example. Perhaps six teams fancy their chances each competition but most other nations, including those from ASEAN, are just there to make up the numbers.

Another factor that makes the AFF Suzuki up so special is nothing to do with football. Don't underestimate the change budget airlines have bought to the region. When I first arrived inter regional flights cost a small fortune, way beyond my lowly budget most of the time. Indeed, when Air Asia first came on the scene I remember watching some business expert on BBC World saying they wouldn't work because Asians liked to pay lots of money for things - I remember thinking at the time he'd never been in Foodland in Patpong where crowds of shoppers waved fistfuls of money off vouchers or Pizza Hut over the road where students and office workers alike competed to build the highest salad they could at the buffet counter.

It's a cliche but budget air travel really has brought ASEAN closer together. Again, when I arrived in Jakarta from Bangkok there was perhaps seven or eight flights a week between these two capital cities operated by flag carriers. Before Covid, there were five or six a day! And football fans grasped the opportunity with both hands, taking advantage of cheap fares to travel the region watching their nation do battle in the biennial competition and doing so fairly cheaply.

The rise of the internet has also helped increase awareness of the players involved. What self-respecting football fan in the region doesn't know of Chanathip or Safee Sali or Hasan Sunny?

Some may argue the AFC Asian Cup is more prestigious but is it? The Thais are the strongest team in ASEAN and have been for yonks but they have only got out of the group stage once, in 2019, and before that had failed to qualify in the previous two tournaments. What kind of prestige is that? Should fans be grateful they got to the knock out round before losing? What influential politician or federation official is going to want to be associated with 'honourable defeat'?

My Indonesian in-laws don't like going to air conditioned shopping malls. They are happy to do their shopping at a local market and get their food from a nearby warung or kaki lima. They don't feel a glitzy shopping mall rammed with shops selling overpriced scents and coiffured hi-so ladies is for them and they are happy in the familiarity of their own world. In a way that is ASEAN football. The AFC Asian Cup is for the likes of Japan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, South Korea, Qatar, Iran and Australia, nations with the resources and facilities to aim high. Where's the prestige in being whipping boys for the rich and powerful?

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