Following the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, the sporting scene in Brunei Darussalam experienced a major setback, and football, the mostly followed sport, is no exception.
There is little to cheer for when it comes to hearing the progress of athletes overseas as countries imposed travel restrictions and border closures while a raft of event cancellations worldwide highlighted the true impact of the limitations and uncertainty surrounding sports.
In the past few months, the Tokyo Olympics and the 15th FINA World Swimming Championships (25m) in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates have represented a beacon of hope for the resumption of participation in major international meets.
Newly-proclaimed Olympians Muhammad Isa bin Ahmad and Muhammad Nur Firdaus Ar-Rasyid bin Haji Md Idris and swimming athlete Christian Nikles were the representatives that had the rare opportunity to represent the country amid the continuing battle with the virus.
Other emerging sports widely practiced in the country such as wushu and pencak silat also harbour similar ambitions of partaking in major meets such as the World Championships.
However, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought disruptions into the preparations of organisers to assemble athletes from across the world.
Following the successes of sending athletes in individual sports such as swimming and athletics, Brunei Darussalam recently sent a 26-member strong under-23 football team to take part in the ASEAN Football Federation (AFF) Under-23 Championship in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
This marks the first time that the Sultanate will be taking part in a team competition internationally since the start of the pandemic in March 2020.
The country’s much-anticipated participation will undoubtedly rekindle hopes of seeing football continue its path towards excellence and usher confidence of reviving the football scene having been met with a series of disappointments in recent times.
The effects of the pandemic have consequently led to the withdrawal of DPMM FC from the Singapore Premier League (SPL), multiple cancellations of the country’s top football league Brunei Super League (BSL), as well as withdrawals of the national team from the AFF Suzuki Cup and the under-23 national team in the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) qualifiers.
It had also seen the untimely departure of national head coaches Paul Smalley and his successor Datuk K Rajagobal, both of whom left without overseeing an international football match.
As the country moved on to the Endemic Phase, the resumption of football activities slowly gathered pace following the news that the under-23 national team had shifted from virtual to physical or field training in January.
Brunei’s participation in the AFF Championship was confirmed with two separate cohorts leaving for Phnom Penh, Cambodia, ending a long wait for the return of international football.
Preparations had been in full swing before the team was due to play their opening group match against hosts Cambodia at the newly-established Morodok Techo National Stadium.
The under-23 team underwent training focussed on maintaining their stamina led by fitness coach Matus Bozik along the surrounding areas of Garden City Hotel before stepping up their preparations at the National Institute of Physical Education and Sports (NIPES) for field training.
With their first group game fast approaching, the Young Wasps held a training session at the Smart RSN Stadium as they put their finishing touches before taking to the field.
As the world is currently battling from the highly transmissible Omicron variant, the team’s officials have taken the initiative to impose several procedures such as sanitising areas to enable the players to train safely.
Precautionary measures such as temperature checks and sanitisation of equipment were also implemented.
Meanwhile, the chosen individuals were assessed through a selection process based on the observation of coaches and were identified in view of exposing the players and producing quality young players as part of long-term planning.
The under-23 team comprises players from various clubs in the BSL and the Under-19 Youth League.
The AFF Under-23 Championship is an international football competition organised by the AFF for the under-23 national teams of the member nations in Southeast Asia.