SINGAPORE - Singapore's Cubs may have floundered in recent qualification matches for the 2020 AFC Under-19 Championship, but at least one Singaporean will be headed for the finals in Uzbekistan - former Lions head coach V. Sundram Moorthy.
The 54-year-old led unfancied Laos to an improbable place at the biennial tournament, after guiding the team through their qualification group undefeated.
Laos were seeded 33rd in the qualifiers, and only 15 slots were available. Drawn in Group H, they held Australia 2-2 and beat Chinese Taipei 2-1, before beating Macau 6-0.
The Laotians finished second in the group, equal on points with Australia but with an inferior goal difference of four. However, they still earned passage to the finals by virtue of being one of the four best second-placed teams from the 11 groups.
In a phone interview on Monday (Nov 11), Sundram told The Straits Times: "To qualify for the AFC Under-19 Championship, given the group we were in, is a great achievement. The team has done great for the nation."
In contrast to Laos' successful campaign, Singapore's U-19s ended at the bottom of Group I, with three defeats from three, shipping 21 goals and scoring zero. The Cubs lost to South Korea (11-0), Myanmar (8-0) and China (2-0).
Sundram was appointed head coach of the Laos senior national team in October last year, six months after he stepped down from leading the Lions, whom he had trained for almost two years.
But after the 188th-ranked Laotians lost to Bangladesh in the first round of World Cup qualifiers in June, he shifted his focus to Laos' age-group teams.
He credited the surprise draw against seventh seeds Australia to his youngsters' belief that they could progress, but the coach added he always had belief in his young charges.
Sundram had personally scouted for players from all 17 provinces in Laos, and found 10 players that had not been a part of previous national age-group teams.
"We started our preparations (for the qualifiers) in late April, and when I looked at the players I had, I saw something in them that made me believe we had a chance," he said.
"We have some individual players who can change the game, and a lot of hard-running players. Most importantly, we also have a good 'keeper, who is also my captain."
The shot-stopper Sundram was referring to is 16-year-old Solasak Thilavong, who has been called up to the senior team but has yet to earn his senior cap.
In Laos' successful qualifying campaign, Sundram was assisted by former Singapore international V. Selvaraj, 50, who joined him in Vientiane in July in a full-time post.
Sundram also relied on the support of another Singaporean coach, 37-year-old Neo Chee Seong, who served on an ad hoc basis for the qualifiers, and credited the "influence" of another former Singapore international, Kadir Yahaya.
Said Neo: "They key to this Laos team's qualification is Sundram's philosophy and approach - he was very detailed in everything we did.
"The turning point was a 2-0 loss to Myanmar U-19s in a friendly match (on Oct 27), after which (Sundram's) focus on getting everything right doubled."
Even after guiding Laos to only their sixth appearance in 41 editions of the AFC U-19 Championship - and their first since 2004 - Sundram has no time to savour the achievement.
He is scheduled to arrive in Qatar on Tuesday to join the Under-22 team - of whom he is also head coach - at their training camp as they prepare for the Nov 30-Dec 11 SEA Games in the Philippines. There, Laos have been drawn in Group B with Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, Singapore and Brunei.
Sundram noted Thailand and Vietnam are heavy favourites to claim the top two spots in the group and progress to the semi-finals, but added his Laos side would "give it our best shot".
Regardless of whether the team manage to pull off another unlikely feat, he is pleased with the work he has done with the youth footballers in Laos.
He said: "In terms of lifestyle, Laos is a very nice place to live, and I would love to stay longer (when back in Singapore) to catch up with friends or family, but work commitments means I am not able to.
"In terms of my job, I'm given the freedom to do a lot of work with the different teams (in Laos), and as a result I know every player in every team from the U-16s all the way up to the senior team and this is a good advantage to have.
"Basically right now, Selva and I aim to strengthen youth development in Laos, build the pool of young players, and get talent up to the senior team in due time."