Laos youngsters flying high

With little movement among the world's top teams in November's FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, little Laos stole the show by soaring up 28 places to 162nd in the global pecking order.

In doing so, the tiny South-East Asian nation became the second-best movers after Jamaica, who made an incredible 33-place leap to 83rd courtesy of their solitary-goal victories over Mexico and Honduras in qualifying for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. Laos, for their part, made the best climb in their history due to a streak of brilliant displays in qualifying for December's AFF Suzuki Cup, previously known as the Tiger Cup.

Although qualifying for a major international or continental competition remains merely a dream for Laos, they are by no means strangers on the regional stage, having figured in each of the past six editions of the Tiger Cup, starting in 1996. Under Russian boss Valeri Vdovin, they took October's qualifying campaign by storm to book their seventh consecutive appearance at the regional showpiece.

A narrow 3-2 loss to hosts Cambodia was not what Vdovin's young charges had hoped for in their opening qualifying game on 17 October, but they staged a major comeback four days later, pulling off a 2-1 win over the Philippines to set their campaign back on track. From there, they went on to dispatch Brunei 3-2 before rounding off with a 2-1 victory over Timor Leste, a result which earned them the first qualifying spot.

Laos' impressive run didn't go unnoticed by Cambodia coach Prak Sovannara, who was full of praise for Vdovin's dynamic outfit. "Laos are a very strong team, perhaps the best team in this tournament," said the hosts' manager.

One team, two tasks
The qualifying success was a testament to the nation's recent development program, which has included the signing of Vdovin in July and the launching of a training camp based in Hong Anh Gia Lai, a hotbed of football in neighbouring Vietnam. And the Suzuki Cup qualifying achievement is even more impressive when one considers that Vdovin's troops in Cambodia were an U-23 side, who are currently preparing intensely for next year's South-East Asian (SEA) Games.

In a long run, the major task for Vdovin and his team is to break new ground at the 2009 SEA Games, of which they are hosts for the first time. But with their AFF Suzuki Cup campaign kicking off on 5 December in Thailand's Phuket, the Russian tactician is aware that they have some urgent expectations to live up to.

Laos have been drawn in Group B, which also features Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam, strong teams who are all capable of mounting a serious challenge for the tournament. As if this were not daunting enough, Vdovin's major concern is that he will have to stick with the same U-23 side against opponents who will all field senior national teams.

"The boys have been working very hard, it's worth considering how much progress we have made," Vdovin said to the media prior to their first game against Malaysia this weekend.

Laos have rarely been considered more than whipping boys at this level, and they had a forgettable campaign in the last edition of the tournament two years ago, when they conceded 23 goals in three group games to crash out. Vdovin, however, has higher ambitions this time around.

"It is crucial that we tighten up the defense and sharpen the finishing," he explained. "We are a young team, so we need to concentrate on keeping our shape and minimizing mistakes, now that we are competing at a higher level."