Asian Football

All Fired Up: Timorese Stalwarts Raring to Go for SEA Games After Missing Out on AFF

When the final whistle blew at the Padang Dan Belapan on November 8, 2022, players from Timor-Leste fell to the ground in despair. They had clinched a 1-0 victory against Brunei in the second leg of the ASEAN Football Federation (AFF) Qualification Playoff. However, the win was not enough to turn over the 4-goal deficit after a 6-2 mauling in the first leg some 3 days prior. As a result, the Timorese contingent was forced to remain at home and watch on as the rest of Southeast Asia took to the field.

Image Credits: SoccerKakis

“It’s really difficult for me to watch the AFF,” explains midfield maestro Jhon Frith, who converted a long-range effort in the first-leg qualifier. “We came in with the mindset and belief that we can overcome the challenge posed by the Bruneians. Unfortunately, due to various factors, we lost heavily in the first-leg and that was enough to deny us a place in the 2022 AFF Cup.”

Given that Brunei have failed to feature in the group stages of the competition since 1996, it was a shocker in some regards.

Last year, Timor-Leste qualified for the competition after Brunei withdrew and squared up against Thailand, Singapore, the Philippines, and Myanmar. Most of the squad were players selected from the 2023 AFC U-22 Qualifiers who had remained and continued to train in Singapore to prepare for the Suzuki Cup. Unsurprisingly, the Lafaek did not win a single group game nor did they score a goal. Yet, the experience left the young and promising squad hungry for more.

However, events (or a lack of them) in 2022 have failed to facilitate Timor-Leste building from the momentum of their 2020 AFF Suzuki Cup experience. The past year has indeed been tough for Timor Leste’s finest. The Timor-Leste topflight was slated to begin in the second half of 2022 but to date, there have been no updates on the resumption of regular competitive football. Eventually, nothing materialised and the only action that Timorese footballers experienced was international fixtures that occurred once every few months. Even then, due to its irregularity, international fixtures are not true substitutes for weekly competitive football – something that the bulk of the squad, barring Mouzinho, failed to experience for the entire year. 

In September, National team head coach Fabio Maciel’s resignation hit the Timorese footballers hard and it was a difficult pill to swallow for the bulk of the Timor-Leste squad.

“Coach Fabio’s departure certainly hit us hard,” shares central defender Filomeno. “On a personal note, I really felt like I was missing the best coach I’ve ever known. He was very aware of the conditions we faced and he resonated well with us because he had a similar backstory. He taught us what true football is. I can say that most of us, including myself, firmly believe that he is the best coach Timor Leste has ever had. I do hope he can come back and once again manage the Timor Leste national team.”

Image Credits: SoccerKakis

Timor-Leste national team goalkeeping coach Juliao Monteiro echoes a similar view, “Our team underwent drastic changes after the departure of coach Fabio, which required time to adjust. However, most importantly, most players had no training and coupled with some financial issues within the federation, many players did not want to play for the national team. Consequently, the team’s preparation was not the best, with only 1 just month of preparation for the qualifiers.”

Timor-Leste U-19 head coach Gopalkrishnan Ramasamy stepped into the hot seat and while they did not qualify, he did achieve an important milestone for the current crop of young stalwarts who had won their first senior international fixture in two years. After tasting victory at the senior level, the Timorese stalwarts want to ensure a bright future for Timorese football.

To do so, they need to step out of their comfort zone and venture abroad. One person who knows this all too well is Left winger João Pedro who turned out for Malaysian outfit UiTM and Thai side Ubon United.

“More Timorese footballers need to go overseas but to do so, they need to be giving it their all,” mentions the 24-year-old. “Many players have the skill but they are not putting the time and effort to do extra training. Many players do not believe in their dreams because of the lack of development of Timorese football. Football becomes a glorified hobby for them. This is changing of course and right now, we have a team with immense potential.”

Image Credits: Football Federation of Cambodia

João Pedro has seemingly passed the torch to Mouzinho Barreto de Lima, who is also helping to pave the way forward for a new generation of local, non-naturalised, Timor-Leste internationals in Cambodia with his recent mega acquisition with Cambodian titans Visakha (arguably the richest team in the league). His signing certainly offers a silver lining in what many can describe being a dull year for Timorese football at the senior level.

“There is so much talent in Timor-Leste,” claims Mouzinho. He adds, “I know that if you give Timorese footballers a chance, they will do their best because they truly know the worth of the opportunity presented to them. We all want to succeed and see each other reach bigger stages. That is how we all get better. This is why the upcoming SEA Games are important. It was the platform that helped me make the move to Angkor Tiger and I know that if my teammates perform during this competition, there will be clubs taking note.”

Image Credits: Visakha FC

Players like Mouzinho, Jhon Frith, Filomeno, and João Pedro are all still relatively young but have had to step up as lockerroom leaders with many of their older compatriots calling time on their careers due to the bleak outlook of playing in Timor. All of them have them have one thing on their mind and that’s finishing as strongly as possible at the SEA Games, in Cambodia this year.

Who knows? We might very well see at least one more Timorese international in the Cambodia Premier League alongside Mouzinho.

[Featured Image Credits: FFTL. SoccerKakis]

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