Malaysia and Vietnam ready for fitting AFF Suzuki Cup finale
Those Vietnam fans who think that the comfortable 2-0 win over Malaysia in the group stage of the 2018 AFF Cup means that the two-legged final against the same opposition will yield a similar result should be careful. Malaysia lost the opening game of the 2010 tournament 5-1 to Indonesia yet beat the same opposition 4-2 on aggregate to lift the trophy for the first, and to date only, time.
There are always warnings to be found in history. This week, with the first leg in Kuala Lumpur on Tuesday and the second in Hanoi on Saturday, is about history. It is about the chance for two passionate football nations to rule Southeast Asia for a second time and for two sets of players to put themselves into the history books.
The two coaches certainly can. Vietnam coach Park Hang-seo can earn himself legendary status. Never mind books, the boss of the Golden Stars is going to be a star of the silver screen.
So popular is Park, known in some quarters as "the Korean Hiddink" due to the effect he has had on a foreign country and the popularity he enjoys. In the coming days, a documentary about his life will hit cinemas all over Vietnam. Titled "Park Hang-seo -- The Inspirer," winning a second-ever AFF title would be the perfect promotional campaign.
The Golden Stars have long had plenty of technique and ability but under Park the team has become harder to beat and more pragmatic. It is not always as easy on the eye, but injecting a winning mentality does have side-effects and as Park has said on more than one occasion: "My philosophy in football is to win."
Malaysia coach Tan Cheng Hoe, assistant when Malaysia won in 2010, has the same philosophy -- he has been around long enough to know that a coach won't be around long without it in Southeast Asia -- but he has injected new life into the Malaysian team.
When he took over last year, the Harimau Malaya were low on confidence, energy and popularity and even from that group loss to Vietnam, the team have improved. Now he is 180 minutes away from producing what would be the best result in the modern history of Malaysian football. The boss has a young team playing with aggression and ambitions and it has been a welcome sight. There is Syahmi Safari, just 20, marauding forward a to send long-range rockets into top corners, there is Safawi Rasid twisting down the wings and the relatively ancient Norshahrul Idlan in attack.
The semifinal triumph over Thailand was as encouraging as it was tight. The Thais were going for a third successive title and a sixth overall. Few expected the War Elephants' path to the final to be stopped by the Tigers. It almost didn't happen of course. The line between a final and a semifinal exit is a fine one -- or in the case of Adisak Kraisorn's last minute penalty that was last seen entering the Bangkok night sky -- not that fine.
The surprise stars of the 2018 AFF Suzuki Cup can't be found in the ranks of the two finalists or in the losing semifinalists of Thailand and the Philippines. The best performers are the fans of Malaysia and Vietnam and it is these who guarantee the final will be something special.
The streets of Hanoi and Saigon have once again been a sea of red as they were in January when Park led the under-23 team to the final of the Asian Championships. Should Vietnam lift the trophy in Hanoi on Saturday then the whole nation will rejoice and football will once again show its power to bring people together. The party will be one to remember.
It will be the same in Malaysia. The desperation for some success in the country and the love that the fans have for the national team has been there for all to see in the past week or so. 40,000 tickets were snapped up online within minutes of being available, then tens of thousands camped out all night outside the Bukit Jalil Stadium to buy more. That massive arena had over 80,000 fans for a group game with Myanmar. There were almost 90,000 for the semifinal with Thailand.
What will happen when the two teams meet is anyone's guess, but iconic backdrops and images are guaranteed as two nations hold their breath to watch the biggest game in Southeast Asia.
Both Malaysia and Vietnam are ready to explode with joy, pride and excitement.