The new-look Asean Football Championship opens in Thailand on Friday amid tightened security and an unstable political atmosphere.
After New Year's eve bombings in the Thai capital that killed three people and which the government has linked to its political opponents the Asean Football Federation reportedly expressed concerns about safety at the biennial tournament, formerly known as the Tiger Cup.
On Thursday, the Football Association of Thailand confirmed that the games will go ahead, with heightened security for the matches, to be held at Supachalasai Stadium.
"There will be tight security not only at the stadium but at the hotel and media center," said FAT president Vijitr Getkaew. "However I don't expect any problem."
The tournament will open in Bangkok with Malaysia facing the Philippines, followed by Thailand vs. Myanmar in Group A.
Defending champion Singapore hosts Group B, which kicks off Saturday with Indonesia taking on Laos and Singapore against Vietnam. The top two teams from each group advance to the semifinals.
Thailand, which will co-host July's Asian Cup with fellow Asean nations Malaysia, Vietnam and Indonesia, wants to maintain its momentum after a strong Asian Games performance in December, when it reached the quarterfinals before losing to eventual winner Qatar.
A three time Tiger Cup winner, Thailand gave up the most recent title when it failed to advance from the preliminary round at Malaysia.
Thai striker Kiartisak "Zico" Senamuang is more worried about his team's dangers on the field than security threats, describing his team's first opponent, Myanmar, as the toughest challenger his team will face in the preliminary stage.
"The strongest opponents are the Burmese as they won the Merdeka Cup last year Malaysia and the Philippines can be managed," said Kiartisak, who played briefly for English League One club Huddersfield Town.
Fourteen of Singapore's 22-man squad are veterans of the 2004/2005 Tiger Cup winning side, which beat Indonesia 5-2 on aggregate over a two-leg finals series, reports AP.
Included in the side are captain Aide Iskandar and goalkeeper Lionel Lewis, the linchpin of Singapore's defense, who was named the 2004/2005 tournament's MVP.
Radojko Avramovic, Singapore's Croatian-born coach, said the team was focused on defending its title in the finals starting Jan. 31 .
"Our group is a good group. Vietnam, Indonesia, all of them want to win and they've been preparing for a long time. Our target as the last champion is to get to the final," Avramovic said.
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