Barack Obama has been in Burma, Cambodia and Thailand this week to much fanfare and excitement. Sports writers in the region have something else on their minds, however, as the AFF Suzuki Cup kicks off this weekend.
The biennial tournament features eight teams from Southeast Asia and is a big deal in the region, especially because Asia is most passionate when it comes to football. With some nations struggling to make their mark at World or Asian Cups, all energies are focused locally.
Sometimes this gives the impression that while the tournament is a big deal in the region, most of the outside world does not even notice.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Burma makes headlines for lots of things, but football is not one of them. And even in the world of football, the nation makes headlines more for what it does off the pitch than on it.
Domestically, the country is ambitious but is starting from a low point. The Myanmar Premier League folded in 2009 and was replaced by the Myanmar National League.
Yangon United won the last two league titles. Additionally, it is backed financially by U Tay Za, a local tycoon with close ties to the government and described as a “regime crony” by a Wiki-leaked diplomatic cable.
While there was some investment made in the team and in its local infrastructure, there is still a long way to go for it to become competitive.
Yangon United has yet to make an impact in the AFC Cup, the continent’s second tier competition for ‘developing nations’ such as Iraq, Thailand and Kuwait.
The same goes for the national team, which is the one that most fans care about. However, there is often controversy surrounding the national team. Withdrawing from qualification for the 2002 World Cup (no reason was given) meant it was banned when 2006 came along.
Crowd trouble during a 2014 qualifier against Oman initially saw the team banned from 2018, which was partially overturned upon appeal. Now, Burma can participate but will have to play home games on neutral territory.
The people of Burma may love football, but if the country is ever going to become a power, it needs success at the ASEAN event that starts this week.
Co-hosts Thailand and Malaysia are the favourites, though Singapore and Indonesia are always hopeful of taking the trophy. The Philippines is also improving and is something of a dark horse.
The format is unusual but pretty simple. The two groups of four – one based in Bangkok and the other in Kuala Lumpur – will provide two teams each for the semi-finals. These games will be played over two legs on a home and away basis for the teams that make it.
Burma has been drawn with Thailand, 2008 winner Vietnam and Philippines. 2010 semifinalist and dark horse.
Making it out of the group would be a major success and suggest that football is on the right track, but fans will not be holding their breath. In the end, it would be great if the national team could start making headlines for things it does on the field and not off it.