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Myanmar, Laos top regional quintet

Laos's player Khonesavanh Sihavong (C) celebrates a goal with teammates

Myanmar has rarely witnessed a week like it in football. Their U-20 side created history by qualifying for the nation’s first FIFA tournament last Friday, and will now feature at New Zealand 2015. While on Monday the senior side capped an eventful few days by topping the AFF Suzuki Cup qualifying competition. A final-day win in Vientiane over hosts Laos, left Myanmar top of the five-team competition to book their place in Group B at next month’s south-east Asian championship alongside defending champions Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia.

They will be joined by Laos who, along with local rivals Myanmar, had already ensured their progression into the competition proper. The Laotians will face Vietnam, Indonesia and Philippines in Group A. The opening match of the AFF Suzuki Cup final round will be on 22 November, with the final to be played over two legs on 17 and 20 December. The tenth edition of the tournament will be co-hosted by Vietnam and Singapore.

Aspirants push hard
Myanmar and Laos survived a tough nine-day four-match competition, ahead of Cambodia, Timor-Leste and Brunei Darussalam. For the latter trio it was a rare chance to play competition matches outside FIFA World Cup™ qualifying. Cambodia have qualified for the regional tournament on several occasions, but Timor-Leste and Brunei Darussalam have featured on just one occasion each.

Timor-Leste, one of FIFA’s newest Member Associations, looked on target to break their ten-year absence from the Suzuki Cup after their first two matches. The Portuguese-speaking Timorese opened with a 4-2 win over Brunei, with Brazilian-born forward Murilo de Almeida nabbing a hat-trick, before a tough scoreless draw against eventual table-toppers Myanmar. However, one goal defeats against Cambodia and Laos ultimately ended their brave campaign.

It was a similar tale for Cambodia, who were edged by one goal margins against both Myanmar and Laos, but collected narrow wins from their other matches. A highlight was a treble for Sok Chanrasmey in the 3-2 win over Timor-Leste.

Ambitious duo achieve goal
Myanmar’s table-topping effort continues a dramatic upward spiral in recent times for the country formerly known as Burma. Success is the fruits of significant resources that have been put into the game in Myanmar in recent years, both at the top level and at the grassroots. A sign of their ambition is the appointment of highly-regarded veteran of Asian football; evergreen coach Raddy Avramovic. The Serbian-born mentor will now have the opportunity to tackle former side Singapore, for whom he won three Suzuki Cup crowns.

Despite their relatively modest status, Myanmar were once a genuine force throughout Asia. They won the Asian Games gold twice in 1966 and 1970, as well as earning a runners-up finish at the 1968 AFC Asian Cup. Avramovic says that latent passion for the game is ready to be tapped. “The Myanmar Football Federation (MFF) are aiming to improve the team and develop youth football,” he said. “I can see their passion for football is second to none.”

Laos, too, are steadily building for a bright future. Though they face a tough task next month, their aim will be to try and reach the last-four for the first time. "We have (gained) a lot of optimism from this qualifying round,” said Laos’ English coach David Booth. “Now it is a question of building on that.”

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