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From recruiting ex-Ligue 1 star to fielding Messi admirer - Inside Laos' hunt for AFF Suzuki Cup victory

04:20 EAT 15/12/2021
Laos full squad
Laos have not had it easy at the AFF Suzuki Cup 2021, but the minnows remain in good spirits as they chase victory

The AFF Suzuki Cup has not always been a happy hunting ground for Laos. Participating in the regional showpiece for the 12th time in their history, the Laotians have so far yet to make it out of the group stage at any edition and pitted against the likes of Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and Cambodia this time round, it was always going to be unlikely they would be snapping that streak in 2021.

However, as a relatively underpopulated country (Laos is home to just over seven million people) and with a scarcity of footballing infrastructure, their regional ambitions are a little more tempered than the likes of Southeast Asia’s big hitters, Thailand and Vietnam.

“We are going to try to win and score goals,” revealed striker Billy Ketkeophomphone in an exclusive interview with GOAL. “It is important for us to leave this tournament having scored a goal, it is important for our mentality.”

Having finished the 2018 tournament bottom of their group and without a point to their name, the Laos boys are keen to put up an improved showing this time round, even if it is only a step in their long-term building process.

“Yeah, we have improved a little bit from the last time. But this time, we have many young players, so we try to improve more for the next tournament,” revealed midfielder Bounphachan Bounkong.

“In the near future, Laos football must develop more. Especially for the next tournament.”

And what better way to kick start that development than by welcoming a high-profile addition into the team.

Having received his Laos passport in late November, just days ahead of the tournament’s opening game, Dunkerque striker Billy Ketkeo was a late reinforcement to the Laos squad, and a massive boost at that.

Born to Laotian refugee parents who fled to France in the 1980s, Billy has lived virtually his whole life in Europe. Having played for a host of top French clubs, most notably Strasbourg, Angers and Auxerre, the 31-year-old was desperate to link up with Laos’ national side, and lend his experience to the otherwise youthful squad they’ve taken to this year’s Suzuki Cup.

“It is the first time, and I am very happy to participate,” he smiled. “The level is very good, there are very good teams, admittedly more complete teams than Laos.” 

“Laos has very young players without experience, so there are teams which are more complete than us. We have to take time and work hard,” he continued.

It has been a tough start to the campaign for the Laotian boys. They have suffered three defeats from their opening three games, which included 2-0 and 4-0 reverses to Vietnam and Malaysia respectively. However, the scoreline did flatter Malaysia to an extent, and they displayed immense defensive resilience to restrict defending champions Vietnam to just two goals. 

“Vietnam and Malaysia were very good. Vietnam was pretty good, good possession. Malaysia was more physical,” Billy revealed, comparing the first two sides they had come up against so far.

“Vietnam were a very strong team,” concurred Bounphachan. “We did our best. We did have some chances to score though, which we did not take.”

There is certainly no shame in losing to the two finalists from the last edition, however, and Laos are deserving of some praise for the gameplan they adopted against Harimau Malaya, even if it did not lead to a result. Having sat back and soaked up the pressure against Vietnam, Singaporean coach V. Selvaraj set his side up differently against Malaysia, looking to play more openly while pressing higher up the pitch.

“It was the coach’s plan. Against Vietnam, we wanted to stay compact, but against Malaysia he wanted to play up and press more. It was the plan. Our performances have been okay, but it is not enough. It is difficult to play against a good team like Malaysia,” admitted Billy.

With a match against Cambodia still to come, Laos will definitely fancy themselves to score another, if not pick up a result.

With Cambodia also having struggled to impose themselves in Group B, the clash with Laos will be one the Laotian players should see as a chance to secure three points.

“We have a chance against Cambodia. It is difficult to play against them, but we will try to win,” said Billy. “I want to play well for Laos, it is my only hope. I want to give my best for the team.”

“The first two games we had the chances to score, but we missed,” Bounphachan added.

For a player that holds the mercurial Lionel Messi as his idol, we could yet be treated to some Bounphachan magic in the next couple of games.

“My idol in football? I would say-”

“Me!” interjected a mischievous Billy Ketkeo, drawing a glare from his teammate.

“My idol is Messi,” Bounphachan continued. “Very clever, intelligent player.” 

With the Covid-19 protocols in place meaning the team has been in a strict bubble since arriving, there has been plenty of free time for the players in between training and matches, which means lots of time for Billy to acquaint himself with his new teammates.

“Due to Covid, there is not much going on, so we are not very busy,” chuckled Bounphachan. “For Billy, he only joined training three or four days ago, so we are a bit unfamiliar with each other. He can understand Lao though, so when the Laos players talk, he can listen and understand. But he cannot speak it. Some players can speak English, and Billy talks to them.”

When asked if he had any struggles settling into the team, Billy was quick to express his delight at linking up with his country of origin, and revealed he was enjoying his time with the national team thus far.

“Very good experience for me, this is the first time I have played with the national team. We have to work a lot and progress with young players, so it is good,” he said.

“The biggest moment for me was when I received my passport,” Billy continued. “My family was very happy for me, and proud I was part of this team. The first game was very important for me, I felt good emotions.”

Taking on Cambodia at the Bishan Stadium tonight, the Laos players and fans will look for a positive result as they seek to end their Suzuki Cup campaign on a high.

Qualification to the semi-finals was always going to be a step too far for this young side, but make no mistake, they possess the tenacity and skill to trouble any opponent on their day.