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Post Mortem: Was Thailand Really Superior to the Philippine Azkals?

Image captured from video on the
AFF Suzuki Cup YouTube channel.
I thought I was done writing about the Suzuki Cup, but it has been a lazy Saturday and I had been reading the reactions, the counter-reactions and the counter-counter-reactions many times over to the humbling 0-3 loss to Thailand in the semi-finals of the AFF Suzuki Cup last Wednesday.

Some of the commentaries were valid; others somewhat valid; and still many others add credence to a friend’s claim that Filipinos post first then think later – if at all – when on the Internet.

Others say that the result merely illustrated the gulf in class between the Philippines and Thailand as footballing nations. Aye to this one! Only those with short term memory loss will not recall that Thailand has traditionally been one of Southeast Asia’s footballing giants; and that the Philippines used to be the region’s whipping boys pre-2010.

But the gulf in class between the two teams over the two legs? Not really half as big as others make it to be after the Bangkok debacle. We were outplayed, yes! We were outscored, yes! But in Bangkok!

But if we are to meet Thailand on a neutral field with equal support if at all that is possible, and with both teams well-rested, I say we have as much chance of beating them as much as they have of us.
In Manila, incidentally just four days earlier, we out-hustled them; we out-muscled them; and we had more meaningful chances. We failed to score, yes; but that we had issues, if we are all being honest, was apparent to all but the deluded even before the Suzuki Cup started.

The Thais had the more technical players: check! The Thais had the quicker players: check! But did the Thais have a vastly superior team? Again, in Bangkok, yes!

So what happened there? I do not really know; but I was in the game long enough to be able to risk a few guesses.

First, the field. The pitch at the Rajamangala, at least on television, looked bigger than the one we have at the Rizal Memorial. If it is, then it was already advantage Thailand even before a ball was kicked in Bangkok.

Quicker players can be quick only if there are spaces to run onto in the first place. Therefore, a wider pitch favours quicker players. This is point number one relevant to the argument about the size of the pitch at the Rajamangala.

Point number two is that the Thais passed the ball with more accuracy and fluency than they did at the Rizal Memorial. A wider pitch is actually kinder to the passer because the receiver will have space to compensate for a not so accurate pass.

Flip over the argument to the defending side and it is actually easier to block passing lanes and prevent opposing players from receiving the ball on a narrower pitch. Thus, the Azkals were able to use their physicality more against the Thais at the Rizal Memorial where neither team actually played with any fluency in what was generally a scrappy match.

We have a fit team, did we not? So why could we not have worked twice as hard at the Rajamangala to keep the Thais from playing?

Picture your mother – or your father, if you wish – screaming her tonsils out at you when you were a teenager and you failed to come home at the time she said you had to. Now multiply your mother by fifty thousand more mothers screaming their tonsils out at you while you played a game of football.

Annoying, at the very least; intimidating at the very best. Now sports psychologists will say that intimidation is an external factor that, nevertheless, has to be handled internally by each individual athlete.

Easier said than done; and although fear resides inside the head, the crowd and their shrieks and curses are nonetheless very physical auditory and visual matters than an athlete needs to deal with. There are those who are born almost with a natural ability to deal with intimidation; and that ability is called mental toughness.

For others, the ability only comes with experience. And yes, that is also how teenagers eventually get inured to their mothers screaming at them. I ought to know. Wink.

None of our Azkals are exactly used to playing in front of near sell-out crowds in fifty thousand capacity stadiums, are they? How did we rip Indonesia apart? In an empty stadium.

So what happens when an athlete succumbs to intimidating factors inside a stadium? The feet seem as though leaden weights are attached to them and the player feels tired even if he really is not. That is what anxiety does on the physical side alone. The mind also fails to function as well as it normally would.

And that was why it looked to some, in the first half, as though the Azkals were not trying as hard as they should have done to close down the Thais and prevent them from playing. We had a fit team; but in Bangkok, we also had an anxious team.

This can happen to the best of them, actually. Yes, even seasoned World Cup campaigners can still become anxious and intimidated by hostile crowds even if they are highly-paid professionals who do nothing but play football all week long.

It is not just a hostile away crowd that can cause a team to become anxious. My high school teams in the past were obligated to play most of their league games away so that I dreaded the few occasions when we had to play at home.

There was always bound to be an idiot or two who would overdo things because a girlfriend or a favourite teacher was watching; and a couple more that were nervous because Mom and Dad came to watch. At the Rizal Memorial, I thought one or two of our players did not settle down. My lips are sealed.

Let us all face it! The very same people who were quick to call for heads to roll after the defeat to Thailand were the very same people who could have come out to UFL matches to give our players at least a fraction of the atmosphere that they were bound to encounter when we progressed in the Suzuki Cup.

Finally, just a point or two about the way we played. Do not anyone get me wrong; and all I am doing here is hypothesizing. I am just as much a fan of the open expansive game as everyone else; and, indeed, I grew up watching the great Liverpool FC passing teams of the seventies.

That sort of football, however, takes a lot out of every player. I do not know that it is suitable for tournament football; especially one when a team is required to play three matches in seven days. Then two more matches in four days after a mere week’s rest. In tropical conditions, if I may add.

As a study in contrast, Malaysia overturned Vietnam’s away win with basically kick and rush in the Hanoi leg; but with resolute defending and exquisite long balls. Not pretty, but pragmatic and effective. Personally, I do not care about how we get to the finals. Let us just get there first any way we can. Then we can start thinking about the pretty stuff.

To sum, I do not subscribe to the suggestion in some quarters that Thailand has become vastly superior to our team on account of that defeat in Bangkok.

Thailand is still the superior football country; but I am not prepared to concede that they have the superior football team at the moment. Instead, I think conditions were rife for them to totally outclass us on the night in that semi-final second leg.

We probably expended so much energy in that emotional victory over Indonesia that we had difficulty regaining peak form. In that Bangkok leg, the twelfth man did what it had to do; and that our players were not accustomed to near sell-out crowds made the twelfth man particularly effective.

When I was actively coaching, I would as much as possible avoid playing against a team that I could potentially meet in a tournament. Well and good if it went our way; but a defeat could potentially leave psychological scars. I also liked to keep my cards close to me. Personally, I did not think the November friendly in Bangkok was a great idea at all.

But if we are to meet Thailand on a neutral field with equal support if at all that is possible, and with both teams well-rested, I say we have as much chance of beating them as they have of us.

That is my vote of confidence! Now the Suzuki Cup of 2014 is laid to rest. November 2016 is just two years away.