The landslide victory of the opposition Puea Thai Party in Thailand’s general election may have been last Sunday’s top political story in Southeast Asia. But it certainly wasn’t the most talked about topic in the rest of the region.
For most TV viewers and internet surfers in Laos, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Burma, it wasn’t Thai politics that they were thinking about, but the football games their respective national teams were involved in the same day. Indeed, it was only much later in the day that many found time to learn about the astonishing electoral success of Yingluck Shinawatra, who was chosen as Thailand’s first female Prime Minister (and Southeast Asia’s newest female icon).
Sunday was a great day for Southeast Asian football, with five of the seven teams competing at the weekend progressing to the second round of the Asia division of the 2014 World Cup qualifiers. The five will join Singapore, Thailand and Indonesia, who had already gone through.
The wins will fan the noticeable revival of football pride in Southeast Asia. People have been returning in large numbers to the region’s stadiums, national team players have become popular personalities, and there’s been a new wave of patriotism tied to the fortunes of the teams.
There was a huge celebration in Malaysia, for example, when its team became the overall champion of the ASEAN Football Federation Cup last December. But the mood was equally festive in Indonesia, where fans still cheered for their national team despite its failure to win the title.
Meanwhile, despite the continuing dominance of basketball in Philippine sports, football has emerged as a popular game among both the rich and poor. The stunning victory of its national team against defending champions Vietnam last year in the ASEAN Football Federation Cup instantly sparked the interest of the people in the magical pleasure of watching and playing football.
The renewed interest in football in the region has prompted governments to give more open support to their national teams and to get behind bigger and better venues. Sensing the political value of publicly backing football, politicians and their parties have been quick to become dedicated fans. Aside from issuing congratulatory statements to their victorious national teams, politicians are also sending players around their respective countries to encourage young people to take up sports.
But it can be a double-edged sword. Fans were sorely disappointed a few months ago when a power struggle within the Indonesian football league threatened to undermine the performance and selection of players for the national team. Football controversies like this make politicians nervous as they are aware that many members of the public expect their government to guarantee the continuous and smooth running of football.
And of course, there are politicians who exploit football nationalism for selfish reasons, including trying to distract the attention of those who might otherwise be incensed by the inability of the government to improve their living conditions.
Still, this kind of nationalism is at least an improvement on the ultra-nationalism of the warmongers who stoke tensions with neighbours for electoral gain. Cambodians and Thais, who have watched their two countries exchange deadly fire over a border dispute in recent years, could perhaps urge their leaders to try a little football nationalism instead.