Thai talents rock the region
© AFP

Midfielder Sarawut Masuk struck the only goal as Thailand edged Indonesia in Saturday's final at the Men's Football Tournament of the 2013 SEA Games in Yangon, Myanmar. The triumph, which marked the Thais’ 14th football gold in the regional showpiece, further cemented their place as the competition’s most successful side.

Thailand began as the overwhelming favourites having claimed the title eight times in succession from 1993-2007. Adding to that, coach Kiatisuk Senamuang's charges ran out 4-1 winners over the same opponents in their group meeting.

Taking heart from the aforementioned victory, Thailand pressed forward hard from the outset. The expected opener came midway through the first half, when winger Masuk sublimely lobbed Indonesia goalkeeper Kurnia Hermansyah. The Indonesians did cause a couple of scares for the rivals but lacked the necessary accuracy in finishing, with the Thais hanging on to the narrow lead for win.

"I am feeling very proud of our boys and of our country," said an excited Senamuang, who netted 70 times in 131 appearances for Thailand. “We seleected the right players for our team and we have been training hard for nearly a year."

Having helped Thailand win four football golds between 1993 and 1999, the former striker, appointed as U-23 manager this year, was happy to add a fifth to his SEA Games honours. He said: "I had won my previous four champions as a player, so I was very happy to win it again, this time as a head coach."

Thailand's success came as a testament to the coaching ability of Senamuang, who was renowned for his goal-scoring prowess which earned him the nickname of ‘The Thai Zico’ throughout his illustrious 18-year playing career. After achieving initial managerial achievements with a series of clubs from Vietnam and Thailand, he took up the reigns of the national U-23 side tasked with recapturing the Sea Games gold.

Under him, the Thai youth team had gone 11 matches undefeated in the build-up, including beating Uganda by 3-0 and Faroe Islands by 2-0. Most notably, Senamuang's side, with only two overage players, thrashed a full-strength hosts China by 5-1 in June-a miserable result for the Chinese which cost their then coach Jose Camacho his job.

Prepared and ambitious, the Thai youngsters understandably opened their SEA Games campaign brightly with victories over Timor-Leste (3-1) and Indonesia. Despite being held to draws by hosts Myanmar (1-1) and Cambodia (0-0) respectively, they progressed to the last four as section winners.

The semi-final clash against Singapore proved their first real test, with only a Praweenwat Boonyong penalty separating the two sides. Madhu Mohana brought down Charyl Chappuis in the area and Boonyong made no mistake from the spot to hand his side the victory and see him finish the tournament joint top-scorers with three goals.

Emerging stars
With the competition featuring exclusively U-23 teams, it undoubtedly provided the participants with a rare chance to take stock of their youth talents. While the Thai youngsters excelled throughout, other teams also saw fresh gems unearthed.

Singapore reaped the bronze award largely courtesy of the goal-scoring form by Hariss Harun and Sahil Suhaimi, both of whom were on target for three times. The former, plying his trade with Malaysian side Johor Darul Takzim, struck the match-winners against both Vietnam and Brunei during the group phase, while the latter netted a brace as the Lions scraped past Malaysia by 2-1 in the third-place playoff.

Defending champions Malaysia's Ahmad Hazwan Bakri scored the competition's only hat-trick in their 4-1 demolition of Brunei, but his striking partner Thamil Arasu Ambumamee shone during the knockout stage by scoring each against Indonesia and Singapore. Despite their failure to progress beyond the group stage, Vietnam emerged the best scorers with 13 goals, with Mac Hong Quan among the leading marksmen.

Hosts Myanmar opened up with victories over Cambodia and Timore Leste, with striking ace Kyaw Ko Ko notching three goals. Although they failed to progress to the last four after losing the decider against Indonesia by 1-0, they have showed they boast a side capable of competing against any sides of the region.

Elsewhere, Cambodia stunned Thailand with a goalless draw and even raising more eyebrows were a fast progressing Laos, who drew 1-1 with Singapore before overcoming Brunei 3-2.