Myanmar's month of milestones on international soccer stage
For Myanmar's fledgling soccer squad, it doesn't get much better than this.
The next month will be the biggest in Myanmar's football history. The national team starts qualification for the 2018 World Cup on June 11, but what's really getting the country's fans excited is the under-20 team's first appearance in that tournament on Saturday against the United States in New Zealand.
''People have been waiting to play at a World Cup for a long time,'' Myanmar national team coach Radojko Avramovic told The Associated Press. ''It's all over the media.''
So important is the youth tournament that Avramovic, a Serbian, is unable to pick some talented young players for the senior team's World Cup qualifiers against Laos on June 11 and South Korea five days later.
''It's made it difficult as there are some good players that I want to select for the qualifiers to give us a good start but they have gone to New Zealand for the Under-20 World Cup. ''
Myanmar's biggest previous success was a gold medal at the 1966 and the 1970 Asian Games and then qualification for the 1972 Olympic Games. That was until last October when the team booked its berth by reaching the semifinals of the Asian under-19 championships, held on home soil.
The 1-0 quarterfinal win over United Arab Emirates sparked excited celebrations among the 30,000 fans in the stadium and all over the country. The team lost the semifinal 3-2 to eventual winner Qatar after extra time.
Helped by funds from five different FIFA Goal development projects, there has been an investment in facilities and youth development. League clubs such as Yangon United have benefited from the injection of funds from local businesses.
Myanmar has been grouped with the hosts, the United States and Ukraine. The top two from each of the six groups will progress to the knockout stage along with the four best-performing third-place teams.
''The United States should not underestimate Myanmar, there are some good players in the team who are good enough to play overseas and the World Cup will be their chance to show what they can do,'' Avramovic said. ''It will be difficult for Myanmar to get to the next round but it can be done. If there is a good start against the United States then it is possible. Myanmar has nothing to lose.''
After friendlies in Asia and Oceania at the start of the year, the Myanmar team had a training camp in Germany in March and April and then in Australia before arriving in New Zealand on May 24.
Myanmar is sweating on the fitness of star midfielder Nyein Chan Aung. The 18-year-old midfielder is regarded as one of the best young prospects in Asia but picked up an injury on the European tour.
''I'm back from my injury but I'm yet to reach 100 percent. But I hope to be available for the opening game,'' he said. Than Paing and Aung Thu, who scored four goals as Myanmar won the 2014 Hassanal Bolkiah Trophy - a southeast Asian youth tournament - are the stars in attack.
Gerd Zeise is coach of the under-20 squad. He was appointed in 2013 and described last October's quarterfinal against UAE as Myanmar's biggest game for a century. The 62-year-old German is now preparing for an even bigger occasion in Whangerei - the tournament's northernmost venue.
''Every match will be a tough one for us,'' Zeise told domestic media. ''The United States are stronger than us but I am not afraid of this challenge. They are taller and stronger and possess greater individual skill than our players, but I have also identified their weaknesses which we will look to exploit.''