Interesting contrasts as Thailand take on Singapore
Sell people a vision, be seen to work as hard as possible to achieve it and then the fans will forgive a hiccup or three along the way. At the moment, it is difficult to see what Singapore are selling
The last moments of Singapore national team in 2014 may have been dramatic but they were far from happy. That game against Malaysia will go down in history or at least the last few minutes will. They will be remembered and debated for years to come in articles whenever the two neighbours meet and whenever the tournament comes around.
Singapore's exit at the hands of Malaysia was thrilling for the neutral, heavenly for fans in Kuala Lumpur and simply horrible for those in the Lion City. Perhaps there was some consolation as the bitter rivals Malaysia went on to have late dramas of their own in the final, losing in the final moments to Thailand.
It is perhaps fitting then that Thailand provide the first opposition in 2015. Singapore football likes to look to Malaysia but perhaps it should be looking to Bangkok instead. On Thursday, the visitors should parade the AFF Suzuki Cup around the Nakhon Ratchasima Stadium. It would probably not be well-received by the visiting fans but would drive home a serious point about why one country won the regional tournament while another went out at the group stage.
Yet you have to be careful when writing in south-east Asia. As soon as one team wins a title and shows promise, journalists are quick to talk of how the region finally has a representative who can mix it with the big boys. It is, though, a temptation hard to avoid and Thailand actually does have the look of a team that could break free from its regional shackles to challenge those from further afield, even if the subsequent King's Cup performances were a little disappointing.
Charyl Chappuis and Chanathip Songkrasin were the stars of the tournament and while the duo are absent from the squad this week, which really shouldn't be to the Lions' relief as they need to play the best in the region, there is still plenty of talent.
Finding the right formula
For years, the Thais bounced around from coach to coach while the federation seemingly did its best to arrange cup competitions instead of tests for the national team. In short, it was a run of the mill Southeast Asian nation, capable of producing talented players from time to time, capable of promise but never quite able to find consistency.
The league has been improving. Much of this improvement is limited to a handful of clubs, but then it has to start somewhere and this vanguard has major part to play. Visiting some of these in February, what was striking was not only the increasingly smooth off-the-pitch operations that the top clubs are coming up with, but the message they are spreading about the national team. Coaches and officials talked of shared goals between clubs and the Elephants and how it was in their interests to help Thailand achieve good results. A strong national team is good for the clubs. Nobody anywhere would disagree with this but trying to put it into practice is not always easy.
Giving youth a chance, a real chance, not just the talk and appearance of one, was key. In came fresh faces, without the burden or cynicism of past campaigns, talented players with a desire to impress and a coach who had the belief and desire to help them do so. Thailand's coach, Kiatisuk Senamuang, could be the key. The fact that he seemed initially reluctant to accept the job may just be his biggest strength – if he was going to take it, it would be on his terms. Here is a young coach given a relatively free rein, freer than most of his predecessors, to mould a team. Not all is rosy in the Thai garden; the team needs to be a little tougher and the defence is an obvious weak point that will be punished by stronger opposition, but progress is undoubtedly being made.
On a simplistic level, what this new version of Thailand offers is a philosophy. The War Elephants are developing an identity and have a rough idea of where they want to go. Can the same be said of Singapore? Sell people a vision, be seen to work as hard as possible to achieve it and then the fans will forgive a hiccup or three along the way. At the moment, it is difficult to see what Singapore are selling.
It is not difficult to agree with the reaction of some fans in Singapore at the familiarity of the latest squad. Nobody is suggesting crazy experiments but for the first two friendlies against Thailand and Guam (another team with a young and ambitious coach in Gary White) – and it should be remembered that these are friendlies – there should have been more fresh blood. These are the first games since the AFF Suzuki Cup and the comments of Balestier Khalsa coach Marko Kraljevic that goalkeeper Zaiful Nizam deserves a try make complete sense. If there are not going to be changes made after a disappointing tournament with World Cup qualification a few weeks away you have to wonder if it will ever happen.
Perhaps it is also asking a little too much for a 67-year-old foreign journeyman of a coach to start experimenting now. With Bernd Stange, you know what you are going to get. The same can't be said of Thailand's Zico but you do know what he is trying to do. It's a big difference.
John Duerden has lived in Asia for more than ten years and is an expert on all things to do with Asian football.