South East Asia has a women’s football problem. Thailand – the most successful team in the region – was the only nation from the region to qualify for the 2015 World Cup, and that required both the expansion of the tournament to 24 teams and a freak lightning-related musk deer gland incident which disqualified North Korea. Thailand went out in the group stages after having won one game against Cote d’Ivoire. Beyond the 2015 World Cup, which generated a lot of excited buzz about Thailand’s chances, very little attention is paid to teams from South East Asia. Thailand’s biggest victories in recent years have been against their neighbours1 who, for the most part, struggle to get regular training or have regular match schedules.
Following their appearance in the World Cup, the Football Association of Thailand began to make promises to revive the Thai Women’s Premier League but, as of September 2016, still hasn’t managed to do so. Most national team members currently play for university clubs, or go abroad when they can. Without a revival of a competitive league, with regular matches and a schedule that allows for national team training, it’s unlikely that Thailand will get to compete in any more World Cups in the near future.2
Investment in, and regular attention to, women’s football is a mixed bag throughout the world, but particularly in South East Asia. Most countries in the region – with the notable exception of Vietnam3 – have seen women’s leagues created and fizzle out and then revived again as government priorities shift from year to year. With a lack of competitive play outside of national team games and ad hoc leagues – and a serious lack of attention paid to team games and player development – it’s no wonder that most of these teams rank incredibly low internationally.
There are some examples of changes slowly being put into place, though. Singapore, who are ranked 103rd internationally and 9th (out of 9) in the AFF, are in a revival period. The Singapore women’s national team draws its talent almost exclusively from the local Women’s Premier League (WPL), which was founded in 2004 and seems to have run relatively consistently since then (although consistency is about the only thing the league has going for it)4. It is almost completely an amateur or semi-professional league, and players practice in the evenings and play on the weekends.5 While the league is growing fast – it was revived with
While the league is growing fast – it was revived with only five clubs in 2015 and has added 6 more as of 2016 – the WPL barely generates the kind of media or fan attention as the men’s S. League. On top of that, players have to worry more about the volatility of the national team than they do the league itself… . The Singaporean national team was disbanded twice in the last six years alone and, until recently, consisted of “one or two ad hoc teams” that didn’t actively participate in regional tournaments. The powers-that-be also decided to remove women’s football from the 2015 South East Asian (SEA) Games because the final selection reflected sports that Singapore was strong at, and that had “popularity and following.”6 Just to really rub in how little women’s sport is prioritized: the 2015 SEA Games was supposed to be the tournament where the Singapore national women’s team returned to competitive action.
The women’s football revival in Singapore may last slightly longer this time than it has in the past, however, chiefly due to the Football Association of Singapore (FAS) beginning to take a much more targeted approach to developing women’s soccer, and launching two all-girls centers for grassroot development as part of a larger push to get children below 12 involved in the sport. The FAS also just launched an under-14 girls’ league with the aim of increasing access for younger players, and will be holding two festivals to increase the profile of the game and its players and highlight opportunities to get involved.
It’s a far cry away from a professional women’s league in the country, but it’s something.
Women’s football is still little more than a buzzword for governments in the region. Attention and (some) funds get diverted to the national team when there’s a big competition7, but there’s very little interest in long-term sustainable growth. If South East Asia is to see another team compete in the 2019 World Cup, there needs to be a serious investment in developing strong local leagues, building solid infrastructure, and giving players the opportunity to compete in regular matches.
1 Their recent win against Vietnam in the final of the ASEAN Football Federation (AFF) Women’s Championship had a spectacular controversy involving the head referee reversing a decision in the middle of penalty shootouts. The controversy itself is worth watching, but some of the penalties are absolutely stunning and shouldn’t be missed: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Eoem4NU2rA (That was a great pun, don’t pretend you didn’t laugh)
2 I hope I’m wrong, and not just because of the healing properties of musk deer.
3 Who have a had a consistent league since 1998. Hanoi 1 FC is set to win the 2016 season.
4 I’ve tried to figure out how many years the WPL was inactive for based on the official website, and I’ve got nothing. If anyone from the FAS is reading this, please get someone to update the WPL page more consistently. A history of the league and a couple of player profiles wouldn’t go amiss, either.
5 I saw something about players fundraising for their teams by selling team jerseys, so I’m not sure how much either teams or players get from the government in terms of subsidies or salaries.
6 I’m not even touching this one.
7 Or when Thailand and Vietnam play each other.