Regional football powerhouses Thailand and Vietnam drew their opening SEA Games football match 1-1 Wednesday night in Laos
Thailand’s Teerasil Dangda (centre) gets tugged back by Vietnam’s Nguyen Thanh Long Giang (left) during their opening SEA Games match Wednesday in Vientiane. AFP
THE pundits’ favourites to reach the final of the Southeast Asian Games football tournament, Vietnam and Thailand, have been given an added financial incentive to do well in the region’s top competition. Sponsors AVG have offered Vietnam’s squad prize money of US$200,000 if they win the gold medal, and half that if they pick up silver. Thailand have also been offered a big cash incentive of $170,000 to repeat their SEA Games successes of previous years.
The two teams met in the opening round of matches Wednesday night at the brand new National Stadium, just outside Vientiane. A tense match saw Thailand take the lead in the 70th minute through Kirati Keawsombut, only for Vietnam to grab a last minute equaliser by Nguyen Quy Suu.
Thailand have won the gold medal on the last eight occasions and are on course to repeat that feat, according to their coach, Englishman Steve Darby. “I have selected the team myself,” he stated. “I know Thailand take the SEA Games seriously, and we have a good squad. We will try to do our best to bring the gold medal back to Thailand.
“Our players are excellent and their attitude is excellent. Obviously, Vietnam are strong too. We will play them first and hopefully we play them last. We will go out and try to win every game. That is a magic formula in football. You have to be self-confident and confidence is very important. We want to be confident without arrogance.”
Thailand beat Sri Lanka 2-0 in their final warm-up match before arriving in Laos. “The shape of the team now is very good,” affirmed Darby. “We had some useful warm-up matches and showed good form against Sri Lanka. The team has great potential and have garnered some good experience after playing in the Thai Premier League [TPL].
“Only the goalkeeper didn’t play in the Thai Premier League last season. But he is a U19 international player. He is a great athlete, a great goalkeeper,” Darby said of Ukrit Wongmeena, who is on the books of Thai champions Muang Thong United.
Darby also commented on his squad selection. “Everybody will pick a different team – that is football. Everyone will pick 20 different players. I have to make the decision based on what I think is best, I get paid for that. I listened to leading Thai coaches and international coaches and basically, they are very happy with the squad.”
The Thai side is captained by defender Kiatprawut Saiwaew, one of the players who is also in the full national team along with striker Teerasil Dangda. Seven of the squad played in the successful SEA Games team that captured the gold medal in Khorat, Thailand, in 2007, with seven players coming from TPL club Chonburi and four from champions Muang Thong.
Vietnam had arrived at the SEA Games Village a day before everyone else, in order to get themselves settled in and into the right mindset. Their Portuguese coach Henrique Calisto has chosen his squad with this and the next SEA Games in mind, giving a preference to players young enough to compete in both. That has meant a handful of star names will be missing including defender Cao Cuong, a cornerstone in Danang’s V-League success year, as well as talented midfielder Van Khai, who plays for Calisto’s club side, Dong Tam Long An. “In football, there is no place for sentimentality,” said the national coach. “It is very difficult for me to choose and cut players … I wanted to ensure that our younger players have a chance to play and improve at the next SEA Games in two years.…Five of the seven cut players are good enough to join the U23 national team,” he continued. “I feel sorry for them, but we have to obey the rules. They are as good as the chosen players but the youngsters must be given a chance to advance because they are the future of the national team.” In the current Vietnam squad, only three players have previous SEA Games experience.
The match up between Thailand and Vietnam was preceded by two other teams from Group A, Malaysia against the minnows of Timor Leste. Indeed, the Timorese were made to feel very small by a rampant Malaysia that knocked in six in the first half, and five more in the second, to end the game 11-0. No less than eight different names made it on the scoresheet for Malaysia, with Ahmad Fakri Saarani netting a hat trick.