Looking to reclaim past glory

Fadhil Yunus

With the recently-announced postponement of the ASEAN Football Federation (AFF) Suzuki Cup until next year, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to pose uncertainty, national teams in Southeast Asia face an extended wait to return to the big stage.

Interestingly, Brunei Darussalam is one of the founding members of the tournament, having made the debut appearance in the first edition in 1996.

Brunei is one of the six original members of the AFF, a sub-regional organisation affiliated with the Asian Football Federation (AFC) with the other countries being Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand.

During the inaugural edition, the quartet of Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam were invited to participate in the tournament as they were not yet a part of the AFF.

The Brunei team that performed that year remain the only side to feature in the tournament proper, given their series of disappointments in the qualifying stage.

The Wasps’ solitary victory in the main competition came in the 1-0 victory against the Philippines, courtesy of Irwan Mohammad’s goal.

The second edition of the AFF Suzuki Cup in 1998 marked the first time that a qualifying process was implemented before teams were able to earn the right to the main competition.

With the four teams that reached the knockout phase in 1996 guaranteed a berth in the main competition, the remaining six were left to battle it out for the final four spots as group winners or runners-up.

Brunei did not make the cut as a three-game winless run relegated them to third place in the group stage.

The tournament saw a nine-year absence until 2007 when Brunei earned their first victory in the qualifying round by a narrow 3-2 win over Timor-Leste in the opening group fixture.

Brunei midfielder Hardi Bujang’s late leveller against Cambodia in the 1-1 draw had kept their unbeaten run intact but they bowed out of the competition after subsequent back-to-back defeat.

In the 2008 edition of qualifying round, Brunei repeated an unbeaten start having drawn with the Philippines 1-1 and beat Timor-Leste 4-1.

However, they suffered a similar fate after succumbing to consecutive losses against Laos and Cambodia, though both matches were closely contested.

The 2008 edition also marked the first time that Brunei came close to qualifying for the main draw and realising a second appearance since their debut in 1996.

With the Philippines already completing their campaign and having a superior goal difference, Brunei needed a win in the final group match against Cambodia to guarantee a spot in the main draw in Indonesia.

The Wasps looked on course for the finals as group runners-up when Hardi Bujang struck a minute before the break.

When Sam El Nasa drew Cambodia level, the complexion of the group turned on its head as the Azkals were headed for the finals at the expense of both Brunei and Cambodia.

However, there would be another late twist in a dramatic affair as Khim Borey grabbed the winner to send the Angkor Warriors through to the finals.

Despite the early exit, Brunei were still represented in the main competition with Mohammad Hadimin confirmed as part of the refereeing line-up.

He officiated the Group ‘B’ match between Thailand and Laos and the semi-final second leg between Thailand and Indonesia.

With Brunei suspended from the competition in 2010 due to a FIFA ban, they made a return in the 2012 edition with most of their star players reaching their peak years.

Brunei had an early setback after a 1-0 win against eventual winners Myanmar but their campaign revived after a thrilling 3-2 win over Cambodia. However, a 1-0 loss to Laos meant they faced a tall order to qualify, coupled with the need for results elsewhere to go their way. They eventually fell short by a single point.

The 2012 edition also represented the first time in which the Wasps had managed two group stage victories in a single competition. The next edition, in 2014, ended with Brunei at the bottom of their group before starting the next edition two years later with a victory over Timor-Leste.

However, they missed out on an appearance in the main competition two decades since their debut after an all-too-familiar sight of losing two matches in a row in the business end of the campaign.

The organisers revised the format for the qualification process in 2018 in accordance with the latest rankings following the 2016 AFF Suzuki Cup, after it was agreed during the 12th AFF Council Meeting in Bali, Indonesia in September 2017.

That decision prompted a winner-take-all match between Brunei and Timor-Leste to battle it out for the remaining spot in the main finals.

A year later, a two-legged match between Brunei and Timor-Leste took place with the first leg at a neutral ground in Kuala Lumpur and Brunei hosting the second leg.

Timor-Leste won the first leg 3-1 and although Brunei won 1-0 in the second leg, it was not enough for the latter to advance to the next round.