Singapore's football cubs may have floundered in the AFC Under-19 Championship qualifiers, but at least one Singaporean will be headed for the Finals in Uzbekistan next year - former Lions coach V. Sundram Moorthy.
He led unfancied Laos to an improbable place at the biennial tournament by going undefeated in three Group H games. They held Australia 2-2 and beat Chinese Taipei 2-1 and Macau 6-0.
Laos, seeded 33rd with only 15 slots available, finished second in the group, equal on points with Australia but with an inferior goal difference of four. However, they still advanced by virtue of being one of the four best second-placed teams from the 11 groups.
In a phone interview yesterday, 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 have done great for the nation."
In contrast to Laos' success, Singapore ended bottom of Group I after shipping 21 goals and scoring none in three defeats.
They lost to South Korea (11-0), Myanmar (8-0) and China (2-0).
To qualify for the AFC Under-19 Championship, given the group we were in, is a great achievement. The team have done great for the nation.
V. SUNDRAM MOORTHY, Laos head coach, on his team's feat.
I know every player from the U-16s all the way up to the senior team and this is a good advantage to have. Selva and I aim to strengthen youth development in Laos, build the pool of young players, and get talent up to the senior team.
SUNDRAM, leveraging on his experience from working with all the Laotian age-group teams.
Sundram, 54, was appointed head coach of the Laos senior national team in October last year, six months after an almost two-year stint with the Lions.
But after the 188th-ranked Laotians lost to Bangladesh in the first round of the 2022 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 added he had always believed in his charges.
He had scouted players from all 17 provinces in the country, and found 10 who had not been a part of previous national age-group teams.
"We started our preparations (for the qualifiers) in late April. 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."
That shot-stopper is Solasak Thilavong, an uncapped 16-year-old who has already been called up to the senior team.
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.
He 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.
This will be Laos' sixth appearance in 41 editions of the U-19 Championship and their first since 2004 but Sundram has no time to savour the achievement.
He is scheduled to be in Qatar today to join the U-22 team, whom he also coaches, at their training camp for the Nov 30-Dec 11 SEA Games in the Philippines. They have been drawn in Group B with Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, Singapore and Brunei.
The Singaporean noted Thailand and Vietnam are heavy favourites to claim the top two spots and progress to the semi-finals, but added his men 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: "I'm given the freedom to do a lot of work with the different teams.
"As a result I know every player from the U-16s all the way up to the senior team and this is a good advantage to have.
"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."