Myanmar undisputedly fall into the bracket of footballing minnows. They have never reached the FIFA World Cup™, only once qualified for the AFC Asian Cup, recently went 11 matches without victory and plummeted to 184 on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, and boast not one player who plays his club football overseas.
Yet it hasn’t always been that way for Myanmar football. In fact, they monopolised south-east Asian football – and were a dominant force in Asian football as a whole – from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s. Indeed Burma, as they were then known, finished champions at the Asian Games in 1966 and 1970, and incredibly won five consecutive South-East Asian Games titles from 1965.
And after cruising to a place at the In AFC Asian Cup 1968 by beating India, Cambodia and Pakistan without conceding a goal, they made a real splash in Iran. There, a brilliant Pu Ba goal earned them victory over Israel, while the same player and Yeni Yat propelled them to a 2-0 defeat of Hong Kong. Ultimately, though, a 3-1 loss to the hosts in Tehran meant they went home with silver instead of gold.
Sein Hlaing masterminded those Halcyon days, and he was bestowed with FIFA’s Centennial Order of Merit in 2004 for his magnificent achievements. The former winger was joined at the reins in 1972 by Bert Trautmann, the legendary goalkeeper who broke his neck in the 1956 FA Cup final but heroically continued playing to inspire Manchester City to victory. The German co-guided Burma to qualification for the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament Munich 1972, where they only lost 1-0 to both a formidable Soviet Union side and Mexico, before bowing out on a high with a 2-0 defeat of Sudan. Soe Than and Aung Moe Thin got the Burmese goals that day, while goalkeeper Aung Tin and defensive general Win Nyunt Myo also did themselves proud on German turf.
When Trautmann left his post in 1974, it proved the start of a steady decline for Burmese football. Politics meant they rarely attempted to qualify for major competitions, but their seldom attempts invariably ended in disappointment. In February 2010, a 3-0 loss to Tajikistan proved the start of an 11-match winless run, which included a 7-1 thrashing by Vietnam, and in August of this year, Myanmar fell to their lowest ever spot on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking: 184th.
Yet this month, under the guidance of Park Sung-Hwa, who struck 28 goals in 92 matches for Korea Republic during his playing career, Myanmar gave their fans significant reason to cheer. They began the five-team qualification tournament for the AFF Cup not expected to seize one of the two tickets to the finals. However, a superb volley from 20-year-old wingback Yan Aung Win earned them victory over Brunei Darussalam, before an opportunistic brace from the diminutive Kyi Lin secured a 2-1 reverse of Timor-Leste. Myanmar then banked themselves a trip to the AFF Cup, which will begin next month, by beating Cambodia 3-0, before a goalless draw with Laos sent them through to as the preliminary pool winners.
Myanmar’s national football team is not the only thing on the up. The Myanmar Football Federation (MFF), which was founded in 1947, incepted the Myanmar National League in 2009. It replaced the Myanmar Premier League, which had featured teams only from the city of Yangon, and involved clubs all over the country – much to the delight of the its football-crazed inhabitants. Such has been the success of the competition that has grown from an eight-team to a 12-team league, and plans are in place to introduce a second division and promotion and relegation for the 2014 season.
That same year, the people of Myanmar will be neutral spectators as the FIFA World Cup™ unfolds. Having only made their debut in the South Africa 2010 preliminaries, and having beaten Mongolia over two legs to reach the second round of Asian Zone qualifying for Brazil 2014, where they lost to Oman, there is optimism that before long Myanmar will be genuine contenders to represent the continent on the biggest stage of all. With the relentless drive of the MFF, and with FIFA’s impending aid, that hope is only sure to enhance.