For an hour, the Myanmar fans were solidly behind their national team with the noise of their cheers and drums spiking whenever the players surged towards the opposing Laos goal.
But as the game went on, and it became clear the players would settle for the 0-0 draw that would take them to Southeast Asia’s AFF Suzuki Cup, the crowd turned on their own team.
They threw their support behind the visitors from tiny, neighbouring Laos, urging them to score a goal that could have knocked Myanmar out of the qualifying tournament and further into the international wilderness.
It never came, but as the final whistle blew, cheers for Laos mixed with boos for the home team as the fans, disaffected by Myanmar’s four-decade slide to a record low in the world rankings, shuffled out of the stadium.
In the immediate aftermath of last month’s match at Thuwanna Youth Training Centre Stadium, Myanmar’s coach Park Sung-Hwa defended the pragmatic approach. But the approach did not find favour among Myanmar’s proud supporters, who have watched their team’s steady decline blamed on a lack of support and facilities, and widespread, crushing poverty.
Best in Asia
Myanmar stood among the best in Asia from the mid-1960s to the 1970s, which is regarded as the country’s golden age of football. In that era, led by legendary coach Sein Hlaing, Myanmar won the Asian Games gold in 1966 and 1970, and triumphed in five consecutive editions of the Southeast Asian Peninsular Games from 1965 to 1973. It also finished runners-up at the 1968 Asian Cup and qualified for the Munich Olympics in 1972, where they won the Fair Play Award.
However, since then moments of brightness have been rare: reaching the 1993 SEA Games final, and the Asean Football Championship semi-finals in 2004.
The low point came two years ago, when they were thrashed 7-1 by Vietnam at the Suzuki Cup and finished bottom of their group.
With three wins and a draw during the qualifiers, Myanmar rose 28 spots from a historic low of 184th to 156th in the latest world rankings. But to sustain the improvement much work is needed, particularly at the grass roots.
Hope for the team
Political developments give reason for hope, with formerly isolated Myanmar’s opening-up to the outside world expected to bring extra sponsorship.
“Obviously there are companies queuing up now to get into Myanmar and to promote their brands,” said Ian Mathie, senior vice-president, football, for Southeast Asia and Australia at marketing and media company World Sport Group.
“Football sponsorship is a proven way to attract interest and to gain market share.”
But for now, coach Park is realistic about the task facing his team at the Suzuki Cup.
“It will be very difficult because Myanmar have never beaten Vietnam or Thailand in the tournament and we need to get a win against one of them to progress to the semi-finals,” he said. “But we are preparing as well as we possibly can and we hope that we can do well.”
Published in The Express Tribune, November 23rd, 2012.
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