Suzuki Cup: Coach the trump card, but beware Ko Ko

Myanmar's player Kyaw Ko Ko.

The task facing Myanmar's star striker Kyaw Ko Ko may seem insurmountable but if his country's football history is to be rewritten, the moment to seize it is now.

Powerfully built while possessing a fine first touch and a goal threat with either foot, Kyaw's four goals in the ASEAN Football Federation (AFF) Suzuki Cup qualifiers were largely responsible for driving his nation to the region's biennial competition.

The 21-year-old Yangon United forward has plundered eight SEA Games goals from two tournaments but has yet to open his AFF Cup account and is aware it is time to deliver.

He said: "I know it is my job to score the goals but I don't feel any extra pressure because I have a lot of good support from my teammates."

But with a largely inexperienced squad - the average age is 23 - and few marquee names, his partnership with the team's chief playmaker Kyi Lin, 22, will be vital if Myanmar are to flourish in a tough Group B.

Besides defending AFF Cup champions and hosts Singapore, the team nicknamed the White Angels will also face Malaysia and Thailand - three countries who have combined to win eight of the past nine editions.

Only once, in 2004, has Myanmar made it past the group stages of the AFF Cup and it will be a challenge to repeat that feat at the Suzuki Cup a decade on.

But captain Khin Maung Lwin, 25, is relishing the assignment. The left-back, also the squad's most experienced member with 58 caps, said: "On paper, the other three teams are stronger than us but we do not fear any of them.

"Our coach has prepared us very well and we will have the right strategy for each game."

Therein lies Myanmar's other trump card - the familiar figure of former Singapore coach Radojko Avramovic in their dugout.

Team manager Tin Aung, who is also the Myanmar Football Federation's general secretary, said: "We could not be happier with Raddy. He's only been with us for a short time but he's adapted quickly to the Myanmar style of football and has made changes when necessary."

A reliance on Avramovic's tactical nous is understandable. He is the most successful coach in this competition with three victories (2004, 2007 and 2012) during his nine-and-a-half year spell with the Lions. Since his appointment in February, Myanmar has shot up 36 places in Fifa's world rankings to 137th place.

"In the beginning they played too many passes and the play was not fast enough. Now we've gotten them to play two touches and no more," Avramovic, 64, said after last night's training session at the Serangoon Stadium.

"The team is young but there's potential. It's about finding the right position for each player. I might want to play someone on the wing but if he does well in the middle then I will change. It's a case of compromise."

His man-management skills have also been praised as the talented but temperamental winger Kyi no longer shirks his defensive duties.

Set up as a well-drilled compact and counter-attacking unit, Myanmar were unbeaten as they topped last month's AFF Cup qualifiers. That same month also saw its Under-20 squad qualify for the 2015 Fifa Under-20 World Cup finals for the first time.

On Myanmar's mission in Singapore, Avramovic said: "We have a tough group but I believe our players will compete very well against the other teams."

His presence galvanises the players, including Kyaw. He said: "Raddy has been one of the best coaches I've ever had. He is very warm to the players and his guidance has been very good for me.

"We have watched videos on Malaysia (who they meet in their Group B opener on Sunday) and we are ready for them."

This article was first published on Nov 21, 2014. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to for more stories.