Dateline Irrawaddy: ‘When Will Burmese Football Reach Its Golden Age?’

By The Irrawaddy 11 July 2015

On this week’s edition of Dateline Irrawaddy, Burmese Editor Aye Chan Myae discusses where Burmese football is headed following the under-23 team’s strong showing at the Southeast Asia Games in Singapore. Aye Chan Myae is joined by The Irrawaddy’s Thalun Zaung Htet and Win Thu Moe, technical director with Yangon United FC.

Aye Chan Myae: Welcome to this week’s Dateline Irrawaddy. This week, we’ll discuss when Burma’s football team will be able to reach its golden age, identify challenges and assess the role of governmental support. Ko Win Thu Moe, a technical director with Yangon United FC who also held the same position with the Mandalay Football Academy and The Irrawaddy’s Burmese editor Thalun Zaung Htet will join me for the discussion. I am The Irrawaddy’s Burmese Editor Aye Chan Myae.

Ko Win Thu Moe and Ko Thalun, as everyone knows, Burma’s under-23 men’s football team [which competed in the SEA Games in Singapore in June] brought high hopes to Burmese people across the world. Even though the team did not win gold, Burmese people were very satisfied with the under-23 team. Ko Win Thu Moe, what is your assessment of Burma’s under-23 football team?

Win Thu Moe: People, including football fans, didn’t know much about the under-23 team before the SEA Games. And even in football circles, they did not expect the team to have performed that well. The team was a dark horse. Everyone was paying attention to the under-20 football team which would be competing in the U-20 World Cup. Since U Kyi Lwin [under-23 football team coach] is the head coach of Magway FC in the Myanmar National League (MNL), he has played against every team and knows which players are good. So, he could choose the right players. He did not get enough time, but he prepared the best he could. This is the main reason why the team notched up victories. Had a foreign coach, or someone who didn’t know the players, been assigned to coach the team, it would have been quite difficult for the team to perform like that. It is fair to say that the team had a nice blend.

ACM: Watching the under-23 team’s matches, we hoped as fans that Burma’s football would have a bright future, because of their teamwork and the fact that there was greater support from the people than expected. Ko Thalun, what do you think?

Thalun Zaung Htet: I supported the team. All the fans have constantly given strong support for football. But this time, there were more supporters as well as new supporters, because of the internet. When there was a football match featuring the Burma under-23 team, Facebook users wrote “let’s support our team” on their pages. The competition was held in Singapore, but Burmese people in both Singapore and Burma gave ardent support to the team. The support of people is encouraging. I think this kind of support will serve as a driving force for the future of Burmese football.

ACM: All Burmese football fans witnessed the performance of the players of the under-23 team. They heartily welcomed the team at the airport as they arrived back from Singapore. Ko Win Thu Moe, do you know any plans for the future of Burmese football as you are a technical director now and you also used to be a technical director at Mandalay Football Academy?

WTM: This year is a tough year for the Myanmar Football Federation (MFF). They have to select three teams—the national team to compete in World Cup qualifiers, another one for SEA Games and also for the under-20. Previously, we were only able to field two teams at most, but this time had to field three teams at the same time. Players such as Kyaw Ko Ko, Kyi Linn and Yan Aung Kyaw were selected for the national team. Some of them are still young enough to play in the SEA Games, but were selected for the national team. The under-20 squad was made based on the under-19 team which won their under-20 qualifier with only one or two players changed. The under-23 squad was comprised of unknown but talented players in the MNL. The national football team is not very good. Everyone knows that. But the generation has changed. When the national team retires, the under-23 team will take its place and the under-20s will take the place of the under-23s. It is about how many football teams of younger generations there are. As far as I know, the under-18 football team is formed and coached by Ko Than Htike. That team competed in under-16 international and local competitions for around two years. It is playing in MNL-2 now. One more team should be formed with players from MNL-2. At present the under-15 team is competing in the Mekong Cup in Japan. There are two younger teams—under-14 and under-13—being trained at Mandalay Football Academy. The MFF is nurturing these players to ensure a constant supply of footballers. Likewise, football clubs have formed football teams of younger players. It is necessary to turn out footballers constantly. Considering the population of our country, the number of football teams is small.

ACM: When we were young, football was greatly supported at schools. There were football competitions at ward and township levels. But now, there are no such competitions. And again, as you know Ko Thalun, football pitches are seized and used for commercial purposes. Would you tell me about this, Ko Thalun?

TZH: In fact, [success in] sports depends largely on the country’s leaders. They offered words of encouragement only when the team reached the final in the SEA Games. Beyond that, if they had constantly turned out [footballers], it would have developed a lot. Burmese football fans ask this question—when will Burmese football reach its golden age? This is the question they always ask. And sports commentators say football is largely related to politics. The leaders of the country should have nurtured [footballers] with a clear aim. But now, we see football pitches with signboards reading “playing football prohibited” everywhere. Football pitches are exploited for commercial purposes; one of the most significant examples: a garden in South Okkalapa Township was confiscated by the Union Solidarity and Development Party and measures are underway to turn it into a condominium. To turn out strong footballers, bodies and parties that are leading the country should have thought about building football pitches for every ward and school. The things that they have done without considering [the consequences] have had impacts on sports. As Ko Win Thu Moe said, we need to do long-term planning. The under-23 team deserves our due credit for it could do that much with little support. All the leaders of the country including the president and the army chief need to change their mindset, I think.

WTM: It is fair to say that it is the fault of concerned ministries that gardens and pitches are grabbed. The Yangon City Development Committee should have plans about gardens and playgrounds. Likewise, in case of erecting new buildings in schools, if concerned school principals, education officers and ministries had sports awareness, they would not allow new buildings to be built on playgrounds. Instead, for example, they could have a two-storey building built into a three-storey one, avoiding encroaching on the playground. If policymakers had sports awareness, we would not have to lose playgrounds. But we have lost many now as they do not have sports awareness. As far as I am concerned, the Sports Ministry has more than 400 pitches nationwide including more than 200 pitches with 400-meter running tracks. Those pitches should be maintained regularly. Respective township [authorities] should maintain their pitches. And they should also set out timetables for children, selected teams and clubs to use the pitch. Football will thrive when the entire country plays it. But now, policymakers themselves do not have sports awareness and there have been resultant consequences, I think.

ACM: Sports should be given proper support because only when it develops will the health, education and the morality of the children, who are the future of our country, also develop. As the football federation is nurturing football teams of different ages for a continuous supply of footballers, there is hope for the country, I think. Probably Ko Win Thu Moe will be able to answer the question of when Burmese football will reach its golden age.

WTM: To answer this question, we need to draw a comparison with other countries. For example, we are not in a position to beat Thailand. Why? Because there are so many football pitches and trainers in Thailand. Schools there encourage and create chances for students to play football. If we want to beat Thailand, we need to take a look into what it is doing and amend our weak points. Likewise, if we want to win against Japan, we need to take at look at what it is doing and do better than that. We need to go level by level—ASEAN level, Asia level and the international level. Even in ASEAN, it is quite difficult for us to beat Vietnam and Thailand. In the SEA Games, we won [against Vietnam], but it would be difficult to beat the national team. Likewise, we are not sure we can definitely beat Malaysia and Indonesia. At present, we are weak without pitches, support and the recognition of the government. We need to check what our football giant neighbors are doing and we need to do better than that. If we want to reach Asia’s level, we need to take cues from Asian football giants. The Myanmar Football Federation or Yangon United FC alone is not enough. The government must grant funds and reclaim pitches. It is very easy to reclaim pitches now. In Japan, almost all the pitches in the entire country are turf. Here, if only the government is willing, it can create turf pitches which can be used in any weather and at any time. If only it is willing to allocate the budget for this… Given existing players and existing teams, Burmese football can’t reach its golden age. Only when [policymakers] adopt a clear long-term plan and do better than football-developed countries, will Burmese football be able to reach its golden age.

ACM: Setting aside the question of when Burmese football can reach its golden age, and drawing conclusions from our discussion, we have promising players, but then in principle, the support of policymakers plays an important part, I would say. Thank you.