SINGAPORE — The biennial ASEAN Football Federation (AFF) Suzuki Cup began in 1996 as the Tiger Cup, then became the AFF Championship for the 2007 edition, before settling on its current name from 2008 on.
Throughout its incarnations, it has remained the premier Southeast Asia international football tournament, and winning the Cup would mean bragging rights as the top footballing nation in the region.
While 11 countries have played in the competition since its inauguration, only four have won the Cup in its 12 previous editions. Ahead of the 13th edition in Singapore from 5 December to 1 January, here's a recap of the tournament history, winners and controversies:
1996 (Winners: Thailand)
The inaugural AFF Championship tournament was named Tiger Cup as it was sponsored by Asia Pacific Breweries, and was held in Singapore over two weeks in September.
Thailand were regarded as the powerhouse Southeast Asia footballing nation and, led by their superb strike duo of Kiatisuk Senamuang and Netipong Srithong-in, they stormed through the group stages by scoring 13 goals in four matches. They eventually defeated Vietnam 4-2 in the semi-finals, before edging a veteran Malaysian side 1-0 to become the first official Southeast Asian football champions.
The dark spectre of match-fixing, however, reared its ugly head as two Singaporeans and a Malaysian were arrested for attempting to fix a group stage match between Singapore and the Philippines.
1998 (Winners: Singapore)
What should have been a celebration of underdogs Singapore overcoming the odds to clinch the Tiger Cup was marred by what was undoubtedly the biggest controversy in the history of the tournament.
Wanting to avoid meeting hosts Vietnam in the semi-finals, Thailand and Indonesia players tried to lose their group-stage clash, resulting in the farcical scene of Indonesian defender Mursyid Effendi scoring a last-minute own goal so that his side lost 2-3.
Mursyid was eventually banned from international football for life, while both Thailand and Indonesia were fined US$40,000 (S$55,000) by Fifa for "violating the spirit of the game". Both sides also lost in their respective semi-finals, rendering their shameful actions pointless.
Vietnam were thus huge favourites to beat Singapore in the final, but the Lions stunned the hosts when defender R. Sasikumar bundled home the lone goal with his shoulder blade.
2000 (Winners: Thailand)
Is this the greatest Thailand side ever assembled for the AFF Championship? Under pressure to regain the Cup on home ground, they fielded a potent side filled with brilliant players such as Kiatisuk, Therdsak Chaiman, Surachai Jaturapattarapong, Tawan Sripan and Worrawoot Srimaka.
And they steamrolled over their opposition, scoring nine goals in three group-stage matches, including a 4-1 win over Indonesia. The two sides would eventually meet again in the final in Bangkok, and Thailand soundly defeated the Indonesians by the same scoreline, with Worrawoot scoring a hat-trick. A truly dominant Cup triumph.
2002 (Winners: Thailand)
Could Thailand re-assert their dominance by becoming the first country to retain the Tiger Cup? The answer: yes, but not before they were pushed to the limit.
They suffered a surprise 1-3 defeat by Malaysia in the group stage, but regrouped to battle their way to the final. Despite leading 2-0 at half-time against co-hosts Indonesia in the final, they let the lead slip away as the Indonesians equalised 2-2. This led to the first penalty shootout of the tournament, as the Thais finally emerged 4-2 winners.
The competition was also notable for lopsided results (Vietnam routing Cambodia 9-2, Indonesia thrashing the Philippines 13-1), as well as co-hosts Singapore suffering a humiliating 0-4 loss to arch-rivals Malaysia at their old National Stadium.
2004 (Winners: Singapore)
With Thailand in transition following the retirements of many of their veteran stars, the 2004 Tiger Cup looked to be a wide-open competition with Vietnam, Indonesia and Singapore capable of wresting the title away from the Thais.
While Vietnam and Indonesia notched up high-scoring wins in the group stage, it was Singapore who were rock solid under the steady guidance of head coach Raddy Avramovic. They overcame a muddy pitch, crowd trouble and an ill-disciplined Myanmar in the two-legged semi-finals, before facing a confident Indonesia in the final.
Despite the hostile crowd in Jakarta, the Lions stunned them with a 3-1 first-leg victory, and followed it up with a 2-1 second-leg win to clinch their second Tiger Cup triumph in front of their delirious home crowd.
2007 (Winners: Singapore)
They were the only winners of the past five Tiger Cup editions, but Thailand and Singapore had yet to meet in the final. With both countries named as co-hosts for this edition, the chances looked good that they would finally do so.
And they did, with Thailand being favourites to beat Singapore in the two-legged final, even after the Lions took a 2-1 lead after the first leg at home, courtesy of a hotly-disputed Fahrudin Mustafic penalty which saw the enraged Thais walking off the pitch before being persuaded back.
In the second leg in Bangkok, the Thais took the lead in the first half and looked on their way to claiming an away-goals aggregate win. But just like the 2004 final, Singapore stunned the away crowd when Khairul Amri netted an 81st-minute goal for the Lions to land their third AFF Championship title.
2008 (Winners: Vietnam)
Now renamed the Suzuki Cup, the tournament was held under turbulent times. First Myanmar withdrew as host nation due to security reasons, then co-host Thailand had to move its group-stage matches to Phuket due to political riots in Bangkok.
Defending champions Singapore looked strong in the group stage, winning all three matches including a 2-0 win over co-hosts Indonesia. But in the semi-finals, they found a resolute wall in Vietnam, who eked out a 1-0 aggregate victory to eliminate the Lions.
Despite being underdogs in the final against Thailand, the Vietnam side grabbed a surprise 2-1 first-leg in Bangkok. Just like the 2007 final, the Thais scored in the second leg and were seconds away from getting an away-goals aggregate win, but Vietnam's star striker Le Cong Vinh scored a 94th-minute equaliser to clinch the shock triumph, his nation's first AFF Championship title.
2010 (Winners: Malaysia)
Despite being football-mad nations, Malaysia and Indonesia were perennial underachievers in the AFF Championship, coming close but failing to find that extra spark to push them to Cup triumphs.
So when both nations reached the 2010 final – Malaysia eliminating defending champions Vietnam and Indonesia edging out tournament surprises Philippines in their respective semi-finals – the scene was set for one of them to finally break their title duck.
And it was Malaysia – under the astute guidance of head coach K. Rajagopal and the goal-poaching prowess of Safee Sali – who grabbed a decisive 3-0 first-leg win in Kuala Lumpur and withstood a 1-2 second-leg defeat. They became the first side to win the AFF Championship despite losing twice in the competition (they had also lost 1-5 to Indonesia in the group stage).
2012 (Winners: Singapore)
Without a title win since 2002, Thailand were desperate to reassert their dominance in Southeast Asia, and looked to have found a new generation of exciting talents such as Teerasil Dangda, Theerathon Bunmathan and 19-year-old playmaker Chanathip Songkrasin.
As they swept into the final in style, beating defending champions Malaysia in the semi-finals, the other three-time winners Singapore struggled through the group stage (losing to Indonesia and barely beating minnows Laos) and barely sneaked a 1-0 aggregate win over the Philippines in the final four.
Yet, just like what happened in 2007, the Lions showed they are made of far sterner stuff than critics gave them credit for. They sprang a surprisingly enterprising performance to grab a 3-1 first-leg win at home, but the Thais remained confident that they can overturn the deficit in the second leg in Bangkok.
They couldn't, as Singapore defended doggedly after conceding a first-half goal to emerge 3-2 aggregate winners and break Thai hearts again. They became the first nation to win the AFF Championship four times – not bad for a side often dismissed as not being among the regional powerhouses of football.
2014 (Winners: Thailand)
Stung by yet another Suzuki Cup failure, Thailand enlisted the help of former star striker Kiatisuk Senamuang as head coach, while continuing to bring in young upstarts such as Charyl Chappuis and Adisak Kraisorn. Meanwhile, Singapore decided not to retain the services of three-time winner Raddy Avramovic, preferring to sign Germany's Bernd Stange for a more possession-based game.
The two rivals were drawn in the same opening group, but while Thailand comfortably negotiated all three group games, Singapore were sensationally knocked out in the opening stage after losing to both Thailand and a rejuvenated Malaysia.
The final saw Thailand meeting Malaysia again in what turned out to be a two-legged thriller. Holding a 2-0 advantage after the first leg in Bangkok, the Thais were staring at the abyss of another final collapse as Malaysia stormed to a 3-0 lead after 58 minutes. But the youth brigade rescued them as Chappuis and Chanathip scored twice in the final eight minutes to seal their fourth title.
2016 (Winners: Thailand)
Buoyed after finally breaking their 12-year lean spell, Thailand continued to thrive under head coach Kiatisuk and captain Teerasil as they looked to retain their Suzuki Cup title.
The tournament saw first-time hosts Myanmar in fine fettle despite losing their opening match to Vietnam. They bounced back to advance to the semi-finals amid raucous crowds in Yangon, but were no match for the rampant Thailand, who easily eliminated them 6-0 on aggregate.
In the final, the Thais faced an Indonesian side desperate to break their hoodoo in this competition, and they duly stunned the defending champions by coming back from a goal to take a 2-1 first-leg lead in Jakarta. In the second leg, however, Thailand kept their composure to pull out a 2-0 win and become the first five-time winners of the Cup.
2018 (Winners: Vietnam)
Could anyone stop Thailand from winning their third straight title? With contenders like Singapore and Indonesia fading, all eyes were on Vietnam, who have steadily rebuilt their national team into a formidable unit that were resolute in defence and scintillating in attack as they topped their opening group without conceding a goal.
The Thais scored plenty of goals but looked shaky in defence, and they were duly punished by Malaysia in the semi-finals, conceding twice at home to lose on away goals after a 2-2 aggregate score. Vietnam were also stretched by a fast-improving Philippines side in the final four, but advanced with 2-1 wins in both legs.
In the first leg of the final, Vietnam stormed to a 2-0 lead within 25 minutes, but Malaysia roared back to equalise and give themselves a fighting chance in the away second leg. However, Vietnam dug in after striker Nguyen Anh Duc scored in the sixth minute, repeatedly frustrating Malaysia to land their second Suzuki Cup title 3-2 on aggregate.
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