The Burma men’s football team crashed out of Southeast Asian Games this week, with a group stage loss that saw angry fans riot in the aftermath, while a confused coach claimed he didn’t know the rules of qualification for the tournament’s knock-out round.
With Burma’s South Korean coach Park Sung Hwa under the impression that his side needed only to hold a deficit to no more than one goal for the country to advance, star striker Kyaw Ko Ko started on the bench in what was in fact the most important game of the group stage. The 1-0 loss to Indonesia, which tied Burma at second in the group stage but advanced on a head-to-head rule, was a blow for fans, players and the Myanmar Football Federation (MFF).
With the sting of defeat still fresh, The Irrawaddy sat down with Zaw Zaw, chairman of the MFF, to talk about the coaching debacle, fans’ reaction to the loss and the way forward for the country’s football program.
Question: Park Sung Hwa told reporters after the match that he did not know about the head-to-head stipulation. Did MFF ever discuss it with him?
Answer: That’s not true. The Asian Football Confederation has spoken about the head-to-head stipulation and we told everyone on the team, including the Burmese person in charge and the Korean interpreter, about this rule. About 30,000 football fans at the match on Monday even knew it, so it is not possible that he didn’t know.
Q: Didn’t any of the assistant coaches say anything about Park’s starting lineup that day?
A: Park Sung Hwa is one of those people who is like, ‘I will do it my way, so don’t interfere with my plan.’ The more we say, the more he will act in defiance. So we, the MFF, decided that we would be patient with him until his two-year contract ends. He has argued with Burmese coaches many times because the latter criticized his lineups.
I asked him, before the Myanmar-Indonesia match, to prepare his best for it and play as if we were in the final because anything can happen. He responded, through the interpreter, ‘Rest assured! Nothing will happen.’
When I met him again on Monday morning, I said, ‘The Indonesian team will use whatever means they can to win the game and something unexpected can happen, so make sure we get the upper hand in the first half. You will do what you want to do only after we have reached a 2-0 position and are certain of winning.’ He responded the same.
He didn’t include striker Kyaw Ko Ko in his lineup and left him on the substitutes bench. So I asked the striker to apologize [Kyaw Ko Ko was reportedly benched for criticizing Park’s coaching] and pay respect to his head coach. I also asked the latter to let the former play. Even still, Kyaw Ko Ko was on the pitch only for the second half.
Q: We heard you sacked Park after the match. What’s next for Burmese football?
A: Yes, we have fired him already. We will have to take many steps to improve our teams and the skill of our players. We will have to develop basic infrastructure for football. At the same time, we will have to improve playing techniques and host international competitions in the country. To do so, we can’t just focus on reform of the national team; we have to pay attention to club teams as well.
At the end of the match Monday, I felt as though I was kicked in the chest because we were in a position to win the gold medal. I can understand the reaction of football fans.
Q: As MFF chairman, what do you want to tell Burmese football fans about this match?
A: As a responsible person for the MFF, I’d like to convey my humble apologies for this unexpected result to those who invested their time, energy and money in support of their national team.