It’s not just a sporting spectacle. In fact, the AFF Suzuki Cup has contributed to a greater understanding between Asean nations and its people.
It's the Euro or Copa America of our region. After all, where else would the best of the Asean region come together in the name of football? Yes, the AFF Suzuki Cup has come to be the tournament to showcase the best of the sport and its players, and this year’s edition, hosted by both Vietnam and Singapore, will once again see the 10 countries in the region locking horns later this month.
The biennial competition, organised by the Asean Football Federation (AFF), began life as the Tiger Cup in 1996, having been sponsored by Tiger Beer brewer, Singapore-based Asia Pacific Breweries.
When the sponsorship ended in 2004, the tournament was rebranded the AFF Championship, before Japanese auto company Suzuki took on the mantle as title sponsor and rebadged it the AFF Suzuki Cup.
And like any other regional tournament, it’s one that has stoked the fires of rivalry among neighbouring countries. Understandably, no country would like to be seen as inferior next to its neighbours. Yup, these are practically derby matches.
Hence, our country has traditionally witnessed a fierce sense of competition with the likes of Singapore, Indonesia and Thailand. And within the Indochina region, there has always been a struggle for supremacy between Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam and Thailand.
But with enmity, comes an intrinsic desire to know more about each other. Between these countries, there is a huge cultural exchange. While Thai restaurants have been commonplace, there are more eateries serving Vietnamese and Indonesian cuisine these days. Spend a day or night out in the federal capital and it won’t be too hard to stumble upon a national from any (if not all) one of these countries.
Of course, as a tournament, the Suzuki Cup accords players the perfect platform to showcase their ability for big money moves to clubs with greater prospects. Malaysia’s own Safee Sali moving to Indonesia’s Pelita Jaya in a hefty transfer after the tournament’s 2010 heroics is akin to James Rodriguez being snatched away from Monaco by Real Madrid following the Colombian’s dazzling display at the recent Fifa World Cup.
The tournament’s growing significance in the region has seen respective governments providing better infrastructure for the growth of the sport, with the starting up of academies, laying of new pitches, construction of stadiums, hiring of western coaches and a variety of improvements.
But for all that the AFF Suzuki Cup has contributed to the development of the Asean region, it’s greatest offering remains footballing entertainment.
Singapore has had the pleasure of bringing its small island nation four tournaments worth of success (1998, 2004, 2007 and 2012), while Thailand are three-times champion (1996, 2000 and 2002).
For us Malaysians though, 2010 was the fairytale year. Spurred by the ingenuity and tactical nous of Datuk K. Rajagopal – who had successfully moulded a nifty under-23 team as youth team coach previously – the Malaysian Tigers were worth their place as champion.
It all began rather unceremoniously though, with a humiliating defeat at the hands of arch rivals Indonesia, 5-1 in a Group A game. The boat was steadied with a 0-0 draw against Thailand before confidence was regained by thrashing Laos 5-1.
This all made for impressive reading given that 14 from the entire squad comprised players from the Under-23 team.
Reigning champions Vietnam naturally posed a sterner test in the semi-finals, but a 2-0 home victory and 0-0 away draw secured Malaysia’s passage to its second final since the tournament’s inauguration, only to be entertained by red hot favourites Indonesia.
Walking into the lion’s den in the away game was never going to be an enviable prospect, so Rajagopal and his troops knew the game had to be sealed in the first leg at home at the National Stadium in Bukit Jalil in Kuala Lumpur.
Cometh the hour, cometh the heroes and on Boxing Day, every player in the national team played out of his skin, but none shone brighter than strikers Safee Sali and Norshahrul Idlan Talaha, and keeper Khairul Fahmi Che Mat, men who were also instrumental in getting the nation to the promised land.
The game was a dour affair in the first 45 minutes even though the stadium was being rocked to its foundations by vocal home supporters and the opposition’s fans. But following a six-minute time-out in the game called by Japanese referee Masaaki Toma for needless crowd interference (green laser lights were shone at Indonesian goalkeeper Markus Haris Maulana’s eyes), the game exploded when Malaysia’s No. 9 Norshahrul executed a Messi-esque shimmy by the byline and squared the ball to a grateful Safee, who slotted the ball coolly into the Indonesian net.
And before Indonesia could stop feeling sorry for themselves, Malaysia added a second, courtesy of fellow forward Mohd Ashari Shamsuddin. Safee ended the night with his second and Malaysia’s third, which had the stadium’s digital scoreboard proudly emblazoning the comprehensive 3-0 scoreline.
At the intimidating Gelora Bung Karno Stadium three days later, Malaysia miraculously took the lead (after Indonesia squandered a penalty), once again from a goal by Safee, who unleashed a left-footed drive after receiving a through-the-eye-of-the-needle pass from Mohd Ashari.
The Malaysian contingent was already given a torrid time by the Indonesians, and for security reasons, the team had to even train at the hotel grounds even. The Indonesian air wreaked of retribution following the 3-0 drubbing.
So, with their backs against the wall, the Indonesian team mustered a rousing finale and sealed a 2-1 victory late on in the game. Our neighbours won the battle, but we won the war and brought the coveted trophy to Malaysian soil for the first time amidst a heroes’ welcome.
Malaysia’s 2012 outing was far less memorable with our southern neighbours Singapore running out winners for the fourth time.
Nearly three decades have passed since the Asean bloc was inaugurated and the impending 10th edition of the AFF Suzuki Cup will once again ramp up the excitement of a tournament that’s become this region’s footballing extravaganza.
Malaysia to lift the trophy again? Here’s to the tiger-ish spirit of 2010 revisiting us.