The 29th Southeast (SEA) Asian Games men’s football tournament kicks off on Monday, with 11 nations vying for the gold medal.
With Thailand defending champions, and Vietnam plus host nation Malaysia considered their strongest challengers, here are five players to watch over the next two weeks:
Ikhsan Fandi (Singapore, forward)
Being born into the biggest sporting family in Singapore comes with big responsibilities, but young Ikhsan Fandi seems to be taking it all in his stride. The second son to Fandi Ahmad has already had tastes of football in Spain and South America and is ready to make an impact, even at the age of just 18. He converted the penalty that gave Singapore a 1-0 friendly win over India last month. He was also one of Singapore’s strongest performers at last month’s disastrous AFC U23 qualifiers in Thailand, with a brace against Brunei. If Singapore are to win their maiden gold medal, Ikhsan will need to score plenty of goals.
Syafiq Ahmad (Malaysia, forward)
Malaysia’s dearth of strikers at every level has been a big problem over the last decade, due to influx of attacking imports to domestic football. But young Kedah forward Syafiq is not intimidated by the foreign stars around him, instead using their skills as motivation to enhance his own talent. Always lively and quick to catch a lapse in the opponent’s defence, Syafiq’s aerial strength and potency in front of goal could help the Malaysians win the SEA Games for the third time in eight years.
Kevin Deeromram (Thailand, defender)
One of the latest faces to War Elephants development squad, this defender of Swedish-Thai descent was given the all-clear to don Thailand colours in June after spells at Djurgardens IF and Werder Bremen II. Standing at 1.83m, the 19-year-old left-back already has the physical advantage over most of his ASEAN counterparts in aerial duels. Versatile in providing the additional depth in the final third, the Ratchaburi Mitr Phol full-back can also add cover to his central defenders when under pressure. Deeromram could help Thailand win SEA Games’ gold for a record 16th time.
Nguyen Cong Phuong (Vietnam, forward)
One of the brightest talents to emerge from Vietnam, Nguyen’s prowess has enjoyed a rapid rise since making his international debut with the under-19 side in 2013. A product of the Hoang Anh Gia Lai-Arsenal JMG Academy, the diminutive striker scored an impressive 61 goals for both the U19 and U23 sides. At the recent AFC U23 qualifiers, he scored four goals, including a double in the 8-1 mauling of Macau. Once an underweight player which threatened to stifle his progress, Nguyen has grown into a key man for his country who seem destined to make the SEA Games final.
Aung Thu (Myanmar, forward)
Having already etched his name in Myanmar football folklore by helping them qualify for the U20 World Cup in 2015, this powerful forward has all the attributes to be a class above his contemporaries. To supplement his knack of rising to big occasions, Aung Thu is deadly in one-on-one situations, even with his back to goal. His exceptional hold up play and creative craft are integral to a Myanmar side who are dark horses after winning the silver medal at the 2015 SEA Games. Their zippy, counter-attacking style are expected to bring out the best in Aung Thu as Myanmar aim to eclipse the achievements of 2015.
Nicolas Anil is a former Malay Mail and Goal.com Malaysia editor/writer who appears on BFM Radio as a football analyst. Twitter: @nicolas_anil.