Footballing success is not something usually associated with a country like Laos, however, the fans from the south-east Asian country did have the opportunity to enjoy a moment of joy after their team finished runners-up behind Myanmar in October's qualifying for this year's AFF (ASEAN Football Federation) Suzuki Cup.
The Laotians, under newly-appointed Japanese coach Kokichi Kimura, got their campaign off to a good start with a 1-0 defeat of Cambodia. Despite falling short against Timor Leste 3-1, they rallied to sweep past Brunei Darussalam by an identical scoreline, before holding hosts Myanmar to a goalless draw which sealed their place among the top two.
And they received double reward for their excellent display. While securing progression to the regional showpiece previously known as Tiger Cup, Kimura's charges climbed 16 places up the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking to 177.
The feats saw Laos continue their progress under a series of foreign managers over recent years. After Austrian Alfred Riedl’s brief spell in charge of the team, David Booth took the reins in 2010. Under the Englishman they gained a series of spirited results, notably a 6-1 thumping of Timor-Leste sandwiched by two impressive 2-2 draws against the Philippines and Thailand.
Riedl's compatriot Hans-Peter Schaller then followed suit last year, taking them through the preliminary opening round for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ by eliminating Cambodia over two legs.
Even more impressive was the spirit they displayed in the subsequent second-round meeting with China PR. While few gave the Laotians a chance against the world’s most populous nation heading into the first leg, the south-east Asians found themselves 2-0 up after 31 minutes, only for the Chinese to eventually prevail 6-2.
After taking over this year, Kimura began to instill a possession based style into the attacking-minded Laotians. Furthermore, the former Yokohama Marinos coach prepared a young, promising squad for this month’s Suzuki Cup finals as Laos sought a major breakthrough in the region.
Look to the future
They stated their intent in last Sunday's opener by impressively drawing 2-2 against Indonesia. Kimura's side twice took the lead through, only to be denied a famous win by Vendry Mofu’s last-minute equaliser.
"I think we played brilliantly," stated an excited Kimura, quick to pay tribute to his side for their disciplined play. "Everyone knows Indonesia are a strong team and they have a lot of great players. But my players did their job very well and tactically they understood what I wanted during the game."
The next outing against hosts and defending champions Malaysia proved the hardest for Laos, who fell behind after 15 minutes. But teenager playmaker Khonesavanh Sihavong drew his side level before the break and the brave visitors held on to the 1-1 scoreline until late in the second half, when a quickfire three-goal salvo saw the Malayan Tigers prevail 4-1.
Despite the setback, Laos rallied to take a 2-0 lead against three-time winners Singapore, only to see the Lions battle from behind to scrape through 4-3. While it may seem a case of missed opportunities, captain Visay Phaphouvanin voiced optimism about the team's future.
“I can see that we have made good improvement," said the talismanic Phaphouvanin, who has scored 18 times in 48 international appearances. "We were able to show that we could take the fight to bigger teams like Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. We need to work on the strengths of our players but our passing and movements were very good in this tournament.”