Famous for its rich forest and mineral resources, Laos are among the globe’s lesser-known footballing nations. The south-east Asians did, however, earn themselves a considerable amount of recognition by impressing in March's 2014 AFC Challenge Cup qualification campaign and booking their first-ever place in an Asian competition finals.
The Laotians, under Japanese Kokichi Kimura, put in a series of brilliant performances in the campaign during which they remained undefeated. Playing in front of their own supporters at Vientiane's New Laos National Stadium, the hosts were dominant against Mongolia in the opener only to be held to a 1-1 draw. Spurred on by the home crowd, Kimura's young charges ran riot against Sri Lanka as they registered a comfortable 4-2 victory.
The concluding match saw the Laotians again concede a first-half lead to draw 1-1 against Afghanistan, a result which cost them the group's automatic qualifying spot. Their showings, however, did not go unrewarded as they booked qualification as the best second-finishers alongside Turkmenistan.
Building for sustained progress
"This achievement is giant step forward for our football," Xaybandith Rasphone, General Secretary of the Laos Football Federation, told FIFA.com. "The game is still fledging in our country and we only started a semi-professional league this year. The qualifying success, of course, will boost football development - particularly at youth level - by attracting more sponsorship and support from the local business communities."
The ground-breaking feat, in a sense, came naturally considering the Laos football authorities' continuous efforts over the past decade. Aided by strong financial support from FIFA, their infrastructure has improved markedly over recent years.
"FIFA has been helping us for a long period," stated President of the LFF, Viphet Sihachakr, when he presented FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter with a Friendship Medal in September 2011. "We have already benefited from four Goal projects, and now we possess a fully operational technical centre, a headquarters that includes a Futsal gym and another technical centre dedicated to women’s football.”
The only landlocked country in south-east Asia, the Laotians have, nonetheless, displayed an open vision by hiring several foreign coaches. Austrian Alfred Riedl was first hired to take care of the national team’s fortunes in 2009, before Englishman David Booth took over the following year. And after Hans-Peter Schaller's brief tenure in charge of the side in 2011, Kimura was given the reins last July tasked with guiding the team to the 2012 Suzuki Cup.
The former Yokohama Marinos manager got his spell off to a good start in last October's qualifying, during which his side edged the likes of Timor Leste, Brunei and Cambodia to progress to the regional showpiece alongside hosts Myanmar.
And they stunned even their own supporters in the ensuing tournament opener against Indonesia, twice taking the lead only for the four-time runners-up to battle from behind to draw 2-2. Although they fell 4-1 at the hands of hosts and defending champions Malaysia, they made Singapore sweat throughout, with the eventual winners only managing a narrow 4-3 triumph.
"The foreign coaches have brought not only international experiences but also modern training methods," Rasphone continued. "These include discipline, medical science, food, good planning, all of which our players need in order to gain good improvements. To gain consistent progress, we have also hired foreign technical directors to oversee our youth teams and our grassroots development."
A series of young talents have come up through the ranks, with 20-year-old Keoviengphet Liththideth the most notable. The Ezra FC midfielder scored twice in last year's Suzuki Cup to earn the 2012 AFF (ASEAN Football Federation) Player of the Year awards. In-form striker Khampheng Sayavutthi shoulders the goal-scoring tasks, while captaining the side is none other than Visay Phaphouvanin, the long-heralded talisman with 18 goals from 51 international appearances.
Boasting such a side, it is no surprise Rasphone is optimistic for the future. He said: "We have plenty of reasons for being enthusiastic, as well as ambitious. In the long run, we aim to reach the top four in our region, but as for next March's Challenge Cup in Maldives, we want to break new ground by progressing to the second round for the first time."