Zeise's Myanmar playing their way into fans’ hearts

Playing with a ball does not necessarily mean you want to win at any cost, as every child in Myanmar knows. The south-east Asian country is home to a sport called Chinlone, in which a team of six players pass a ball woven from rattan around with their feet and knees while walking around a circle.

One player stands in the centre to perform a solo, creating a dance consisting of intertwined moves. It is a tradition dating back more than 1,500 years and is considered a national sport by the country’s approximately 52 million inhabitants. The longer the ball circulates, the more attractive it looks – and the better the players are.

The parallels with football are unmistakable. After all, there is no doubt that ball skills, collective effort and attractive play are also key attributes in the modern version of the world’s most popular sport. And it is in football, after a long time in the doldrums, that Myanmar have been causing a sensation in recent times. As if from nowhere, The Golden Land’s young hopefuls have grabbed the attention of the footballing world – and are now eager to make even more of a name for themselves.

New Zealand boundTo the surprise of many, Myanmar will be one of the 24 teams vying for honours at the FIFA U-20 World Cup 2015. A 1-0 win against the United Arab Emirates ensured the underdogs reached the semi-finals of the 2014 AFC U-19 Championship and secured their ticket to the global finals, which begin in New Zealand on 30 May.

“We did what nobody expected,” said Gerd Zeise in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com. Although the German coach of Myanmar’s U-20 team can still barely contain his excitement at qualifying, he is adamant that this chapter in the nation’s footballing history has not been fully written.

“My team can make history and make their fellow countrymen happy,” he explained in anticipation of the May-June tournament. “Now we have to represent this nation at the World Cup by delivering strong performances. The whole world knows about little Myanmar now. People are proud to have such a side in their country. Football is becoming more and more popular here and has become the number one sport – everyone here wants to play the game now.

People are proud to have such a side in their country. Football is becoming more and more popular here.

New Zealand 2015 will be Myanmar's first ever U-20 World Cup. Hopes are high that the team will be able to recapture the magic of the 1960s and 70s, when the country’s senior side – then playing under the name Burma – won two gold medals at the Asian Games in 1966 and 1970 before qualifying for the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. Zeise’s young charges are being prepared as meticulously as possible for the task ahead. “I’ve now been with this team for the past 18 months,” the 62-year-old said. “We’re together everyday and train like a club side.”

Although Ukraine, the USA and hosts New Zealand lie in wait in Group A of the World Cup draw, Zeise’s squad will not fear their seemingly superior opponents, having already made significant progress over the past few months. “The key to our success was a four-week training camp in Berlin,” the coach explained. “We played eight matches against decent sides there. All our opponents were bigger and stronger, which meant my players had to learn to solve that problem through their play and technical skills – and gained valuable experience in the process.” The team then returned home before promptly winning the region’s prestigious Hassanal Bolkiah Trophy for U-21 sides in Brunei.

Enchanted with Myanmar For Zeise, it is a genuine joy to see the way his team are improving from one week to the next. Daily training sessions enable this sports teacher and football coach to work on every last detail to ensure that his players know exactly what is expected of them, both in attack and defence, to get the best out of their dynamism and technical ability. The team have also worked hard on their strength and stability. “They need that to ensure that they’re not just brushed aside in one-on-one situations,” the German explained. The only aspect of play with which the former Hertha Berlin and Energie Cottbus scout is not yet satisfied is his side’s ability to switch from defence to attack and back again, although as he acknowledged: “You cannot turn a cyclist into a Ferrari driver overnight."

Time and patience are central tenets of life in Myanmar, even when it comes to football. “The sledgehammer approach doesn’t work at all here,” Zeise said unequivocally, and it is for exactly this reason that his adopted homeland fascinates him. “My training as a teacher is exceptionally useful for my job here. When I’m put in charge of a team, I give 100 per cent even if organisational shortcomings sometimes provide a few stumbling blocks. I’m the 12th player of my side from top to toe,” he explained.

It was a tip-off from a friend and fellow coach that originally brought Zeise to this corner of south-east Asia after previous stints spent coaching in Japan, Korea Republic, China PR, Vietnam and the Maldives, teaching at Gremio in Brazil and a spell in charge of now-defunct Belgian top-flight side KRC Harelbeke. He is already in his fifth year in Myanmar. “There have been plenty of positive changes and football is booming,” he said with pride.

The country also looks on course for a promising future when it comes to its footballing infrastructure. Over the past 11 years, five FIFA Goal projects have enabled Myanmar to not only build a new football association headquarters and academy but also renovate several training pitches and the national stadium in Yangon. This progress has helped to significantly increase the potential of the country’s players. “We’re a collective unit, with every member of our squad working extremely hard to achieve their goals,” Zeise stressed. The nation’s hopes rest primarily on the prodigious talent of Aung Thu. “Every move he makes is an intelligent one,” his coach explained. “Before he even receives the ball, he already knows what he’ll do next and again after that, but he does it all for the team, not for himself.”

Although this attitude could make Myanmar a popular side with crowds at this summer’s U-20 World Cup in New Zealand, Zeise is keeping his feet on the ground, telling FIFA.com: “We can’t demand too much. Above all we want to gain experience. But I can promise that my team will give everything for their country and then some.”

In any event, it has already been proven that playing with a ball at your feet does not have to be all about winning, and that attractive play and collective effort may win many more hearts than the pursuit of glory. The spirit of Chinlone is alive and well in Myanmar.