Thailand are kings of Asean football once again, after they were held 2-2 by Indonesia in the second leg of the AFF Suzuki Cup final but lifted the trophy at the National Stadium on Saturday (Jan 1) thanks to a 6-2 aggregate victory.
As Alexandre Polking's side extended their record to a sixth Asean Football Federation Championship and picked up a winners' cheque of US$300,000 (S$405,000), the Garuda suffered the ignominy of being bridesmaids for a sixth time.
The second leg was expected to be a mere procession in front of 7,428 fans after Thailand won the first leg 4-0 on Wednesday.
Furthermore, Indonesia suffered another blow before Saturday with defenders — Rizky Ridho Ramadhani, Elkan Baggott, Victor Igbonefo and Rizky Dwi Febrianto — banned from the second leg after breaching Covid-19 safe management measures.
However, through sheer grit and hunger, they scored the opener in the seventh minute when Ricky Kambuaya's speculative effort sneaked through the legs of a defender and the hands of goalkeeper Siwarak Tedsungnoen.
Indonesia were proactive in their search of a second goal to give them a way back into the tie, but failed to test Siwarak.
Instead, Nadeo Argawinata had to be alert to prevent Thanawat Suengchitthawon from scoring from a snap shot, while Supachok Sarachat also saw his effort skim off the bar in the first half.
Thailand then showed their ability to step up a gear at will on this level, when they scored two quickfire goals after the break.
Bordin Phala's shot was saved in the 54th minute, but substitute Adisak Kraisorn fired in the loose ball. Two minutes later, the Indonesians failed to clear their lines again, allowing Sarach Yooyen to pounce from the edge of the box.
Shin Tae-yong's men grabbed a consolation 10 minutes from time when Egy Maulana netted from an angled drive, but Thailand held on to remain unbeaten in eight games this campaign, having scored 18 times and conceded just thrice.
Thailand have well and truly re-established themselves as top dogs of South-east Asia, mostly in style and at a canter during this tournament, notwithstanding their ultimately inconsequential second-leg draws against Vietnam and Indonesia.
The War Elephants also look set to stamp their authority on regional football for at least the near future, with an average age of 27.4 years and a good balance of youth and experience where their second stringers can also give their first team a good run for their money. Every player in their squad enjoyed playing time in Singapore.
The Thais have always had good players, and now they have a coach who knows Thai football intimately from his stint as national assistant coach (2012-2013) and in the Thai league (2013-2020), as well as a billionaire manager who has good diplomatic relationships with foreign clubs to facilitate the release of their top players for international duty.
Meanwhile, Vietnam are short a proven striker, Indonesia lack discipline, Singapore have a limited talent pool, while the rest of the region are still not quite up to speed.
Thailand, whose top tier is also recognised as the region's best, will quite rightly set their sights on moving up the ranks in Asia, beginning with the Asian Cup qualifiers in June.
This article was first published in The New Paper. Permission required for reproduction.