Renowned as one of the world's biggest exporters of precious stones, Myanmar are less well known in football circles even in Asia. However, with a focus on youth development over recent years, the south-east Asians have shown their raw potential in football is as abundant as their natural resources.
The first breakthrough came last year when a rampaging Myanmar U-23 side won bronze in the 2011 South-East Asian Games (SEA), with a memorable 4-1 defeat of regional power Vietnam in the third-place play-off. That was followed by their recent qualification for the inaugural AFC U-22 Championship, where Myanmar impressed by finished the qualifying campaign undefeated level on points with group winners Korea Republic.
"The youth achievements came as a testament to our development plan," Tin Aung, General Secretary of the Myanmar Football Federation, told FIFA.com. "The qualifying success in the AFC U-22 Championship provides us with inspiration as we prepare for the 2013 SEA Games during which we will be hosts."
Starting from the bottom
The enigmatic Myanmar were, however, once among Asia's established powerhouses. They finished runners-up in the 1968 AFC Asian Cup, while twice winning gold in the Asian Games (1966 and 1970). At regional level, they are one of the most accomplished nations, having lifted the SEA Games title on five occasions (1965, 1967, 1969, 1971 and 1973).
But recent years have not been so kind to the nation formerly known as Burma. Indeed, the past three decades have seen Myanmar make little impression on the international stage, with the bronze-medal performance in the last SEA Games marking their best showing in the modern era. The 1968 Asian Cup has thus far proved to be their only appearance in the continental finals. Their first involvement in the FIFA World Cup™ qualifying didn't come until five years ago, when they crashed out after conceding eleven unanswered goals over two legs against China PR in the opening round for South Africa 2010.
Seeking to relive their past glories, the country's football authorities are all too aware they must start at the base with realistic plans. "We began our rebuilding plan by focusing on youth development," Tin Aung continued. "The initial program is to launch a nation-wide U-12 football campaign at primary school level, courtesy of cooperation by the Ministry of Education. Should everything go smoothly, we hope we can build a promising youth team who can qualify for the FIFA U-17 World Cup in 2021."
Their recent progress, according to the General Secretary, was only possible with consistent support from FIFA. He said: "The FIFA Goal Project has played a vital role in our rebuilding. With the Goal Project's help, we had our MFF headquarters built so we have very much improved our administrative and managerial abilities. The Football Academy in Mandalay and the third Goal Project laid ground for our youth success and furthermore, our professional league was successfully launched in 2009 courtesy of the FIFA Professionalisation Program.”
The nation’s progress was evident in their recent U-22 campaign which saw a host of fresh gems unearthed as they held Korea Republic to a goalless draw, while prevailing in their remaining four matches. Spearheading the line-up is captain and midfielder Kyaw Zayar Win, who scored five times, including completing a treble in the 6-2 defeat of Chinese Taipei. Defender Zaw Min Htun was a cornerstone in the back-line throughout, while the attacking duo of Kyaw Ko Ko and Khaung Si Thu regularly troubled opposition defences too.
Their U-22 side's brilliant display, under former Korea Republic U-23 coach Park Sung-Hwan who took over last year, of course, prompted the ambitious south-east Asians to target new heights. "Thanks to coach Park, our U-22 team has shown big progress in the AFC qualifying,” said Tin Aung. “Next we will prepare our team for next year's AFC U-19 Championship qualifying. Our expectations are not only to reach the final competition in 2014 but to finish top four to qualify for the FIFA U-20 World Cup.”