Even those following Asian football closely over recent years are not likely to associate Myanmar, a country that sits at 155 in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, with a once-feared continental giant. That, however, was once the case for the south-east Asians.
Few may, however, remember that they were once Asia's pioneers. The country, previously known as Burma, finished runners-up in the 1968 AFC Asian Cup, while also winning the South-East Asian Games (SEA) football gold medal on five occasions between 1965 and 1973 - all achieved under legendary coach Sein Hlaing. They also represented Asia at the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament at Munich 1972, enjoying a 2-0 defeat over Sudan only to crash out after the group stage.
But Myanmar have since made little impression on the international stage. Their subsequent bids for the AFC Asian Cup have ended in either failures or withdrawals, while also continually suffering early exits in qualifying for the FIFA World Cup™. And they even fallen to the status of minnows on the regional front, having failed to progress beyond the group phase in the past four AFF Suzuki Cups.
Recently, though, Myanmar under Korea Republic mentor Park Sunghwa, sprang to life in 2014 AFC Challenge Cup qualifying this month, where they remained undefeated to progress to Asia's second-tier competition finals. This feat, coupled with their bronze-medal performance in the 2011 SEA Games, saw the former Asian giants rise from the ashes, having spent the past four decades in the wilderness.
"Frankly, I think this success is a big achievement for us," Mr Tin Aung, General Secretary of the Myanmar Football Federation, proudly told FIFA.com recently. "Notably, it rekindles footballing passion across the country and brings back the support from our fans."
Having missed out on the previous edition at Nepal 2012, Myanmar entered the recent AFC Challenge Cup qualifying determined to book their continental return as hosts of their qualifying group. Cheered on by the home crowd, they opened brightly by routing Guam 5-0.
Despite throwing away an early lead to draw 1-1 against Chinese Taipei, the hosts rallied to overcome India, with striking-ace Soe Min Oo scoring the only goal as they clinched the group's qualifying spot at the expense of their strongly-favoured neighbours.
"I am pleased with the result as we grabbed a ticket to the tournament finals," remarked Park, who was appointed by Myanmar FA in 2011 tasked with taking care of both senior and junior national teams. "Our players worked hard and the support by our fans was great."
And the former Korea Republic manager didn't forget to pay tribute to Soe Min Oo, who also opened the scoring against Guam. "He entered the campaign with an injury and he had not fully recovered heading into the game against India. But he managed to score the group winning-goal. He is a great player."
Road to rebuilding
Park's views were shared by Tin Aung, who pointed out that the 25-year-old Kanbawza marksman is among a series of emerging stars produced by the Myanmar National League. "Soe is known as his club's goal-machine for his goal-scoring ability. He has been excelling in his attacking role for years so he is an experienced player," he said.
In fact, the entire squad at Park’s disposal hail from the local competition. For Tin Aung, the league, which turned professional in 2009, has become a major setting for the youngsters to emerge and develop. "In a way our success should be attributed to our league. We will introduce a full relegation system from 2014 to raise the competition level," continued the General Secretary.
And the make-up of the team is promising, with the majority of players being under 23 years old, a testament to the FA's wisdom of focusing on youth development. "We began our rebuilding with a focus on youth competitions, launching a country-wide U-12 football campaign with the aim of nurturing a team capable of qualifying for the FIFA U-17 World Cup by 2021," he said.
For now though, and having seen the nation’s AFC Challenge Cup qualifying mission completed in style, the FA chief is naturally switching focus to the finals. “Our next goal is to continue our good form in the Challenge Cup next year, and to be exact, to reach the tournament final.”