For the Burmese underdogs, the under-23 Southeast Asian Games football final against Thailand on Monday night is about more than just 90 minutes of match play; it’s also about earning international recognition. The team’s surprise run to the gold medal game has been a lift to the collective conscience of Burma’s people, who are said to have an “unconsciously inferior” complex for which the disastrous governance of successive military regimes is to thank.
Eight years after losing to host Thailand in the gold medal clash at the 2007 Southeast Asian Games, Burma again faces its neighbor to the east, this time in Singapore.
An undefeated run through the group stage of the competition, followed by a semifinal win over Vietnam on Saturday, has brought a frenzied atmosphere to the streets of Rangoon. In Singapore, huge crowds of the Burmese diaspora have turned out to cheer on the team every step of the way. Even the firebrand monk U Wirathu is apparently stoked, with images circulating on social media reportedly showing the radical cleric on a flight to Singapore to attend the game.
But unlike U Wirathu, who specializes in divisive rhetoric, the Burmese footballers’ unexpected SEA Games campaign has been a unifying affair. On Monday night, monks and imams will come together to share in the sporting spectacle. Majority Bamar will sit side by side with their ethnic minority countrymen.
Rangoon’s perennially congested streets will get a reprieve as millions of people sit down in front of their televisions, cram into beer stations or gather at the large screens erected by the city for the occasion.
In the run up to the final, Rangoon residents didn’t even need to watch the games to know how they were trending, such was the cacophony that each goal from Burma induced.
Offices are sending out memos telling employees that they need not worry: There will be no overtime work tonight.
There is a real 2008 Obama feel this week; a “yes we can” vibe. Burma’s football program and supporters have waited 42 years for this moment, a chance to shake off the unconscious inferiority, at least for a night.
It won’t be easy, with Thailand the heavy favorites. If nothing else, the U-23 squad can do no worse than silver.
And Rangoon residents are sure to know it if they manage to pull off the upset, as exhortations of pride in country will no doubt echo through the night.