SINGAPORE — For all the immense popularity of football in the region, World Cup Finals qualification remains agonisingly out of reach for all of the Southeast Asia countries.
With only four spots up for grabs among the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) countries, it would take a monumental effort for any Southeast Asia country to unseat the likes of Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia or Iran to reach the World Cup Finals. Even regional powerhouses such as Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia could not get past the tough qualifying routes.
Here's a look back at how Southeast Asia nations fared in their quests to enter the World Cup Finals.
The curiosity of the Dutch East Indies
Let's set the record straight: there had been one occasion in the World Cup's 92-year history when there was Southeast Asia representation - way back in the 1938 World Cup in France.
It was the Dutch East Indies - the Dutch colony which eventually became Indonesia - who made it to the Finals after Japan withdrew from the single-match Asian qualifier.
And so the team travelled by ship all the way to the city of Reims, where they got thrashed 0-6 by eventual runners-up Hungary and were eliminated in the single-match knockout format. That would be the only time the Dutch East Indies featured in the World Cup, as Indonesia declared independence in 1945.
Singapore: Goal 2010 brought Lions closest
It is the Holy Grail of Singapore football, one that has caused much disappointment among the football community. Since the Lions began trying to qualify for the World Cup Finals back in the 1978 edition, it has always seemed a step too far for the island nation.
And it all started so well. Singapore's first World Cup qualifying match happened on 27 February 1977, at the height of the Kallang Roar era. It was played in front of a sell-out crowd at the 55,000-seat National Stadium, the opponents were Thailand, and the Lions came out 2-0 winners.
And who scored Singapore's first-ever goal at the World Cup qualifiers? None other than that dashing winger of the era, Quah Kim Song.
Unfortunately, Singapore finished second in the five-team qualifying group behind Hong Kong, and only one team could advance to the next round. And as that golden era of Singapore footballers faded away when the 1970s turned into the 1980s, the Lions also began to slip further and further away from qualification.
Perhaps Singapore got tired of years of mediocrity, but in 1998, the government decided to launch an ambitious project to raise the country's football levels and push for World Cup qualification. That project was named "Goal 2010", in hopes of the Lions making the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
Nowadays, that project name is often used in mockery of a rare failure in Singapore's mostly-successful history, as the Lions did not make it to South Africa. But Goal 2010 did bring them closest, as the national team negotiated the first two rounds of the four-round Asian Zone qualifiers, before exiting in the penultimate round behind Saudi Arabia and Uzbekistan.
And after another decade of relative mediocrity, Singapore is starting another project in 2021, again to raise the level of football. And although the "Unleash the Roar!" project did not explicitly say it, the 2034 World Cup qualifiers would be an important milestone for them to gauge their success.
Would the nation get behind the Lions in the quest for World Cup qualification again? Hopefully, there is a bunch of likeable talents to root for in the coming decade.
Malaysia: Felling of Asian giant
Like Singapore, the "Harimau Malaya", or Malayan Tigers, could not make any inroads into reaching the World Cup Finals, ever since they began taking part in the 1974 edition.
However, along the way, Malaysia have arguably enjoyed greater heights - and endured worse lows - than their neighbours across the Causeway.
First, the exhilarating high. For the 1986 World Cup qualifiers, Malaysia were drawn together with Asian giants South Korea and Nepal. They weren't expected to come close to the Koreans.
Yet, on 10 March 1985, a Dollah Salleh goal four minutes into the second half gave Malaysia their biggest scalp in the World Cup, as they edged South Korea 1-0 at the Merdeka Stadium in Kuala Lumpur.
However, the Koreans got their revenge in the return game in Seoul, winning 2-0 and advancing to the next qualifying stage at Malaysia's expense. They would eventually reach the World Cup Finals in Mexico.
Meanwhile, Malaysia would lose their way for the better part of the next 20 years, and hit rock bottom in the 2006 World Cup qualifiers, losing all six matches that culminate in a 1-6 thrashing by Kuwait.
Things have picked up since then, but the Tigers have yet to make the big breakthrough. Perhaps a national project might do the trick?
Thailand: Regional kingpins came closest
Being the regional powerhouses in football, many would think that Thailand would be the nation to have come closest to making the World Cup Finals.
And they would be right. The Thais reach the final round of Asian Zone qualifying twice in their history - in the 2002 and 2018 editions.
In both instances, Thailand had enjoyed two outstanding crops of talents that lifted them to regional supremacy with six AFF Cup wins. In the early 2000s, it was the likes of Kiatisuk Senamuang, Therdsak Chaiman, Surachai Jaturapattarapong, Tawan Sripan and Worrawoot Srimaka that led the way as they topped their opening-round group over Lebanon, Sri Lanka and Pakistan.
In the mid-2010s, another generation of talents such as Chanathip Songkrasin, Charyl Chappuis and Teerasil Dangda emerged, sweeping past all regional rivals and topping their World Cup second-round qualifying group over Iraq, Vietnam and Taiwan.
Unfortunately, in both occasions when they made the final round, Thailand ended without a victory in their final groups against the likes of Japan, Saudi Arabia and Australia. This shows that there is still some ways to go before any Southeast Asian nation can bridge the gap to the World Cup Finals.
Indonesia: 1st campaign back in 1958
For all the curiosity of Indonesia technically being at the 1938 World Cup in its Dutch East Indies incarnation, their qualifying record since gaining nationhood in 1945 is unimpressive at best, having never reached the final round of the Asian Zone qualifiers.
For all of football's popularity and the wide talent base in the country, Indonesia somehow could never amass a national squad deep enough to carry them past the sea of Asian nations all eager to advance out of the tough qualifying route.
Nonetheless, Indonesia can still lay claim to the distinction of being the first independent Southeast Asian nation to participate in the World Cup qualifiers, as they took part in the 1958 edition.
However, that occasion was not a positive memory. as they advanced from the first round - and then withdrew as they refused to play Israel in their second-round group.
Vietnam: Rapid progress after forming association
Vietnam former their football association only in 1976, but their rate of progress in the sport has been impressive. Already two-time winners of the AFF Championship in 2008 and 2018, the nation has also improved rapidly in World Cup qualifying.
Beginning their World Cup qualifying campaign only in 1994, the Vietnamese team have emulated Thailand by reaching the final round of Asian Zone qualifiers for the first time for the 2022 World Cup.
With a strong spine of players such as Nguyen Tien Linh and Nguyen Quang Hai, as well as an astute head coach in South Korean Park Hang-seo, Vietnam surged past regional rivals Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia in their second-round group to reach the third round with United Arab Emirates.
However, just like Thailand, they found the third round tough-going, as they finished bottom of their group with only one win out of their 10 matches - a 3-1 home win over China in February this year.
Other nations: Still a long way to go
After these five Southeast Asian nations, the rest of the region's countries struggled to muster a good qualifying campaign among them. Here are their respective records:
Brunei: Began qualifying in 1986 World Cup, with two wins in 16 matches over four campaigns.
Cambodia: Began qualifying in 1998 World Cup, with four wins in 36 matches over six campaigns.
Laos: Began qualifying in 2002 World Cup, with three wins in 28 matches over five campaigns.
Myanmar: Began qualifying in 2010 World Cup, with five wins in 22 matches over four campaigns.
Philippines: Began qualifying in 1998 World Cup, with seven wins in 29 matches over five campaigns.
Timor Leste: Began qualifying in 2010 World Cup, with two wins in 16 matches over four campaigns.
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