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Thailand and Vietnam lead the way for Southeast Asia's rise in world football

Thai football has seen an upturn in fortunes since Kiatisuk Senamuang came into the fold four years ago.


Thailand and Vietnam's youngsters face some of the continent's footballing heavyweights as they attempt to make an impression in the AFC U23 championship which kicks off in Qatar this week.

And the two Southeast Asian nations are taking two of their biggest names with them as Chanathip 'Messi J' Songkrasin captains Thailand and 20-year-old Luong Xuan Truong -- a recent loan signing for K-League side Incheon United -- will be the man to watch for Vietnam.

It will certainly not be easy as Thailand are up against Japan, Saudi Arabia and North Korea, while Vietnam face Australia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). But both countries' U23 sides showed promise in the 2014 Asian Games in South Korea, with Thailand finishing in a very impressive fourth place, while Vietnam pulled off one of the shocks of the tournament when they defeated Iran 4-1 in the group stage before exiting in the first knockout round at the hands of the UAE.

Since 2013, Thailand have been particularly successful at this level, winning two SEA Games gold medals, in addition to that fourth place at the Asian Games. Their youth sides also formed the core of the senior team that won the AFF Suzuki Cup in thrilling style two years ago, with Chanathip scoring a memorable clinching goal against Malaysia in the final and Tanaboon Kesarat a standout performer in defence.

The Thai national side that is now on the brink of going through to the final stage of 2018 AFC World Cup qualifying has benefitted from this commitment to developing youth. Eight of the Thailand senior side that started in October's 3-0 victory over Vietnam were 25 years old or younger, and six of them were in the SEA Games winning squad in 2013.

The Vietnam U23s are eager to make an impression at the AFC U23 championships to show their progress.

Thailand's head coach Kiatisuk 'Zico' Senamuang has overseen a significant upturn in the fortunes of his country's national sides at all levels since he became coach of the U23 squad in 2013. A repeat of Thailand's performance at the Asian Games would be considered another success. Anything better, and a place in the 2016 Rio Olympics, would be an outstanding achievement for the man widely regarded to be Thailand's best player of all time.

Some have speculated that the Thais could be dark horses for the tournament but Kiatisuk played down expectations when he told the Bangkok Post, "I think it is because our team had some good results in the World Cup qualifying round and the AFF Suzuki Cup. Many of the players who played in those two tournaments are in this team and that's why the foreign media think we are capable of pulling off some surprises. But, personally, I think it will be a very tough job for us."

Asian football has long been dominated by teams from the Far East and the Middle East, with sides like South Korea, Japan, Iran and Saudi Arabia making regular appearances at World Cups and winning AFC Asian Cup titles.

For South East Asia, it has been a different story as its countries have consistently struggled to make an impact on world football. This can be illustrated by the fact that Thailand are the top South East Asian team in the FIFA rankings at 121, while the previously mentioned Far Eastern and Middle Eastern countries are all in the top 75.

But the AFC U23 championship offers an opportunity for the War Elephants and the Golden Stars to demonstrate that their upcoming generations may be ready to compete with the region's traditional giants.

If the likes of Chanathip, Tanaboon and Luong rise to the challenge in Qatar, South East Asia may just start to look capable of challenging the established powers in the years to come.

Paul Murphy has lived in Thailand for seven years. He contributes to the Thai League Football website and is a former Daily Express (UK) sub-editor.


Source: ESPN

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