South-east Asian football has a lot of catching up to do
Experts say more can be done to narrow the gulf between South-east Asia and the rest of Asia
South-east Asia 0 Rest of Asia 38.
This was what the scorecard read for South-east Asian (SEA) teams during a lop-sided round of World Cup qualifiers last Thursday.
A black day for the region indeed, as Malaysia (above, lost to United Arab Emirates 10-0), Myanmar (9-0 to Kuwait), Laos (8-0 to South Korea), East Timor (7-0 to Saudi Arabia) and Cambodia (3-0 to Japan) all received a spanking from their opponents.
Singapore were the only South-east Asian country to gain some respectability in their narrow 1-0 loss to Syria in Muscat, Oman, in Group E.
Instead of catching up with the rest on the continent, the gulf appeared to have widened between the SEA nations and the traditional powerhouses in Asia.
Was this a one-off, or an accurate reflection of the state of affairs?
Scott O'Donnell, the 2003 S.League Coach of the Year, said that while it was a coincidence that all the SEA countries played away, it was "no excuse" for the appalling results.
The Australian listed some areas in which the region must improve on: Coaches' education, quality of domestic leagues, and youth and grassroots development.
Now the technical director of the All India Football Federation, O'Donnell was the national coach of Cambodia from 2005 to 2008.
He said: "A lack of professionalism is another factor.
"I am not sure how many of the players know what it means to be a professional footballer, whether they are willing to make the sacrifices.
"And I don't blame the players for that. It comes from the top down, from the clubs, from the coaching staff.
"If the clubs or coaches are not professional, how can we expect the players to act professionally?
"That is why I think the foreign players in the leagues in South-east Asia have a big role to play.
"They should not only be far better than the local players, they should also be prepared to be role models for the local players.
"Ask Bahaikki (Khaizan) about the influence foreign players like Peter Bennett and PJ Roberts had on him when he first started playing in the S.League."
Former S.League Coach of the Year Richard Bok thinks that the standard of the national teams mirrors that of their domestic leagues.
Citing the Thai Premier League as an example for the rest of SEA countries to follow, he said that the best way for a national team to shine is to have a constant pool of players to choose from.
Bok, the only coach to have led an S.League team (SAFFC, now known as Warriors) into the AFC Champions League group stage, said: "You need a production line for the national team, so where is that going to come from? It has to be your own league.
"You look at how fast Thailand are moving ahead of the pack after their league turned professional.
"They spent a lot of money and signed good foreign players, who in turn improve the locals.
"Countries in this region must realise that it's a matter of how dedicated they are in putting in resources to improve their domestic leagues."
Former national assistant coach and National Football Academy coach Robert Lim believes that money talks in football, although there must be long-term planning to go with it.
Said Lim, who previously coached in Vietnam and is now a coaching instructor for the Football Association of Thailand: "The associations can put in place a long-term plan, but they must also follow it through.
"You can't just decide to change course halfway."
Not all thought that the heavy defeats last week did justice to the SEA teams though.
Former Home United coach Steve Darby, who also used to coach in countries such as Malaysia, Thailand and India, feels that there was "a bit of a fluke in those scores".
However, the current coach of Laos agreed that South-east Asia needs more financial investment and foresight in football.
But he also pointed out one big problem in this region - interference.
He said in an e-mail interview: "Interference by administrators, officials and politicians doesn't help at all.
"Employ good professionals and let them do their job without interference. There is far too much of it at club level in South-east Asia."
RESULTS (SEA TEAMS ONLY)
● Group A: Saudi Arabia 7 Timor Leste 0, United Arab Emirates 10 Malaysia 0
● Group E: Syria 1 Singapore 0, Japan 3 Cambodia 0
● Group G: Kuwait 9 Myanmar 0, South Korea 8 Laos 0
● Group A: Malaysia v Saudi Arabia (match abandoned in 88th minute with Saudi Arabia leading 2-1, due to crowd trouble)
● Group E: Cambodia 0 Syria 6
● Group F: Thailand 2 Iraq 2, Taiwan 1 Vietnam 2
● Group G: Laos 0 Kuwait 2
● Group H: Philippines 1 Uzbekistan 5