In a bitterly fought final marred by frayed tempers, war of words, violent pushing and shoving among players, Timor Leste created history by winning the country’s first major football title after beating Cambodia 1-0 to take home the U21 Hassanal Bolkiah Trophy at the HB National Stadium on Saturday night.
A crowd of well over 20,000 watched in disgust an unwarranted act of aggression just past the half-hour mark on the part of Cambodian defender Chheng Meng turn into a fracas.
Meng reportedly kicked the ball at Lucas Baptista as he lay on the turf after a tackle and within moments players on both sides were seen hurling insults at each other.
Referee Ahmad Yaquob Ibrahim of Jordan had a hard time bringing the situation to order and once sanity on the pitch was restored he had no hesitation in sending off Meng, reducing Cambodia to 10 men for the rest of the match.
With the sides going hammer and tongs, there was plenty of action at both ends and Sos Suhana missed out on two very close calls just before those ugly scenes unfolded on the pitch, adding to the pressure of the side having to cope with reduced manpower.
For their part, Timor Leste were equally aggressive in their approach and their relentless search for a goal was finally rewarded six minutes into the second half when Henrique Cruz overcame three Cambodian defenders to beat goaltender Keo Soksela for what turned out to be a golden goal for a country who began competing in Asean competitions in 2004.
Cambodia were also on the cusp of a major football success having been knocked around in early stages in most of the regional challenges and the loss clearly left coach Prak Sovannara, who had done a splendid job in taking the team this far, frustrated.
While the Cambodian camp took the referee’s decision to red card Meng as too harsh while overlooking Timor Leste goal-keeper violently pushing the Cambodian player, the Timor Leste coach Eduardo Pereira refused to be drawn into the controversy. The Timor Leste coach said his players’ perseverance paid off and it was an achievement the country was proud of, as local media reports indicated that celebrations in the capital Dili and other major towns went on well into the night.
The victory in Brunei will go
a long way in polishing the image of Timor Leste football and raise its profile in the region, following a naturalised players controversy which hit the country in 2012 when several Brazilians were drafted into the national team.
Following complaints from the local population about these overseas players to the country’s prime minister, prosecutor general and the justice minister, the federation put an end to recruiting overseas players to represent the country.
However, in December 2016, the Timore Leste Football Federation was charged with using forged documents, fielding ineligible players and bringing the game into disrepute. In January 2017, it was announced that Timor Leste had been barred from participating in the qualification tournament for the 2023 AFC Asian Cup after being found to have played 12 ineligible players during the 2019 cycle.