AFF Championship

Inside Cristiano Ronaldo-inspired Mouzinho's Suzuki Cup experience

4:00 AM WAT 18/12/2021
Mouzinho Timor Leste
They might have left the tournament empty handed, but Timor-Leste enjoyed the Suzuki Cup experience regardless

Truth be told, it has been a Suzuki Cup of mixed emotions for Timor-Leste. Having opened their campaign with a 2-0 defeat to Thailand, a significant improvement on their 7-0 drubbing last time out, they were dispatched by conflict-stricken Myanmar by the same scoreline in their next match, before eventually suffering a humiliation akin to the one against Thailand in 2018, as the Philippines put six past them in one half, running out 7-0 winners. 

Their final group game, against Singapore, was an odd one. Despite having nothing to play for, the Timorese came out all guns blazing, and despite an early Adam Swandi goal threatening to trigger another rout, they stuck to the game plan, defended stoutly and continued to dangerously counter-attack the Lions at pace. It was probably one of their best-ever showings at a Suzuki Cup, but a combination of Hassan Sunny’s remarkable reflexes, a bizarre offside decision to deny them an equaliser and a deflected Shakir Hamzah strike that gave Singapore comfort meant they ended the game empty-handed once again.

“When you are playing against big teams, experience is the most important thing for me,” said Timor Leste’s 19-year-old forward Mouzinho with a wistful smile, speaking exclusively to GOAL

“[The Suzuki Cup] is a really high-level competition, especially for a new team participating. High level, senior competition. It’s been really tough compared to our domestic league,” he continued.

Despite his young age, Mouzinho is one player who definitely knows where the goal is. Having finished as joint top scorer at the 2019 AFF U-18 Youth Championship, despite Timor Leste not making it past the group stages, he ended last season as the top scorer in Timor Leste’s domestic competition, scoring 14 goals in just seven matches.

Having named Cristiano Ronaldo as his footballing idol and Real Madrid as his favourite club, it’s no surprise the youngster has been racking up the goals in the past couple of years. Taking part in his first ever AFF Suzuki Cup with his country, adapting to the level of football was always going to be a challenge, but it’s one he’s taken in his stride.

“No, no difficulties faced so far adapting to this level. What I’m looking for is to adjust to the conditions and the level of competition,” he explained. “Most important for me is the contribution to the team. Whether I as an individual score goals is not really important. Although we need goals to win games, my team is still the most important for me.”

Having come into this year’s tournament looking to build on what was a harrowing but educational 2018 campaign, Timor Leste’s young squad were eager to show how much they had improved over the last three years. While they might not have got the results to show for it, their performances have definitely seen a marked improvement, and Mouzinho was adamant there is still more to come from him and his team-mates.

“We have a new coach this time round, and we have developed very much. We’re trying to do better in the future. We have already lost severely in the previous competitions against teams like Thailand for example, but this time we developed and tried to do better,” he explained, speaking about the respectable 2-0 reverse to the War Elephants in their opening game. When asked what needs to be done for Timorese football to continue advancing, Mouzinho was quick to highlight the importance of regular, stronger competition both at home and abroad.

“First, we have to strengthen the domestic league, and play more competitions domestically, so we can produce more players to contribute for the National Team,” he said. “For me personally, I would like to improve more and become more experienced, in all international competitions.”

There was a new experience of sorts for Mouzinho and some of his young teammates, as they took to the pitch in front of nearly 9000 fans for their clash with Singapore. With sparse crowds at most of the youth level and domestic fixtures he’s played in to date, it was a welcome change for the Timorese players, and one which Mouzinho was confident would help them raise their game. Safe to say, they duly delivered.

“As a player, I’m used to the environment of the competitions. It will give us an exciting time, playing with so many fans. I’m not feeling any pressure. It will be exciting for us. More fans, more excitement!” he laughed. There’s also the very pertinent fact that playing on such a stage, in front of so many pairs of eyes, could open doors for some of Timor-Leste’s players, particularly someone with as much raw talent as Mouzinho. He wasn’t having any of it, though.

“[Earning a move abroad] is the expectation of all the players on the field, but most important for me is the team contribution for our country. We’ll see in the future if it happens. It depends,” he reasoned.

Having only made five appearances for Timor-Leste’s senior national team so far, Mouzinho relished the chance to represent them at the regional showpiece, his love for his country apparent throughout the interview. Despite his relative youth, he has already tasted success with his country- most notably at the 2018 Hassanal Bolkiah Trophy.

“Playing for my country is an honour for me. When I play for the National Team, it’s always a very important moment in my career,” he began. “If I had to choose my best moment, it would probably be when we became champions in Brunei, in the Hassanal Bolkiah competition.”

A U-22 tournament for Southeast Asian National Teams hosted in Brunei, the Hassanal Bolkiah Trophy was won by the Timorese in 2018, when they eliminated Singapore in the semi-finals before seeing off Cambodia in the final. Mouzinho, then only 16, didn’t score, but it was clearly a competition which left a mark on the youngster.

This year’s Suzuki Cup may have passed him and Timor-Leste by, as they exit the tournament without having scored a goal, but dismiss them at your peril. A young, energetic side under the astute coaching of Fabio Magrao, this Timor Leste team has shown they have what it takes to more than trouble the big guns. With an average squad age of just over 20, the future is looking bright for Timorese football.