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AFF Cup's importance to world football is growing with each edition

It is entirely possible that both legs of the final of the 2018 AFF Suzuki Cup in December will be the biggest game in the world that week in terms of attendance.

There's likely to be 90,000 fans packed into the stadium in Jakarta, and something similar in Kuala Lumpur. When Vietnam won it in 2008, the entire country partied into the night and beyond.

Make no mistake about it -- Southeast Asia's biennial tournament means a great deal.

South, West and East Asia all have their own regional competitions but none provoke the passion, elicit the excitement or feed the frustration as much as the AFF version. The likes of Korea, Japan, Saudi Arabia and Iraq have bigger fishes to grill than the ones on offer in their backyard barbecues. For countries that expect to qualify for World Cups and challenge for continental titles, the regional meets are useful rather than essential.

The East Asian tournament has skipped a year or two in the past and few noticed. With a number of players in Europe and unable to make the trip, the Taeguk Warriors and Samurai Blue see it as a chance to run the rule over domestic talent in a fairly low-key environment. West Asian bragging rights are welcomed but winning or losing doesn't often make or break careers. South Asia just does not have the profile or the general love of the game just yet.

Southeast Asia is perfectly placed then. Here is the continent's most passionate football region. Here a number of teams are around the middle of the continent's rankings which means that means they have rarely qualified for the Asian Cup (though that is starting to change given the expansion from 16 to 24 teams in 2019) and the World Cup is still a distant dream, though, once again, this will become a little closer with a 48-team tournament in 2026 that doubles Asia's automatic allocation.

So, with players not venturing overseas -- until now -- teams have always been able to field their strongest elevens in a bid to win what is their only realistic chance of international silverware. There are plenty of fierce rivalries in the region to feed that fire too. Most games have special feelings: Singapore vs. Malaysia needs no explanation but then there is Indonesia vs. Malaysia and Thailand. Add Vietnam and the Philippines and there is even more colour. The improvements of Myanmar and Cambodia -- and hopefully Laos in the near future -- are bringing an extra level.

The history is there. Even from the beginning of the Tiger Cup, as it was called, in 1996, the tournament was significant and that helped the games become embedded in the region's football psyche. There have been the near misses of Indonesia with final appearances five times but no wins. There have been the scandals such as that game between Thailand and Indonesia in 1998 when both wanted to lose and avoid hosts Vietnam in the next round. It ended with Indonesia's Mursyid Effendi scoring a late and blatant own goal to give Thailand a 3-2 win. Then there have been the epic stories: Vietnam's victory in 2008, the rise of the Philippines in 2010 and the recent dominance of Thailand.

The threat to the competition is that in the long-term as teams improve, it will become a warm-up for the bigger tournaments as happens elsewhere. Thailand are approaching this situation. The War Elephants will be without a number of their biggest stars as they have league commitments overseas, but it gives other players a chance to show their worth. In the short-term is beneficial for the tournament. A full strength Thailand would be clear favourites to take the title for the third successive time but the champions will be weaker than before and this gives other nations a shot at the title.

Vietnam, fresh after success at the under-23 level, will be licking their lips at the prospect of repeating the heroics of 2008. The Philippines would love to reach the final for the first time and unpredictable Indonesia could go all the way or fall at the first hurdle. Malaysia and Singapore are not expected to do much, but have shown in the past that when expectations are low, performances can be high.

Throw in the new format, where teams play two group games at home and two away, then 2018's edition should be the biggest ever AFF Cup ever in terms of attendances, excitement and profile. It is also more open than in the recent past.

There may come a time when a majority of Southeast Asian teams not only qualify for the Asian Cup, but have a chance of success on the international stage and will use the AFF competition as useful preparation. That time has not yet come and for the foreseeable future, the AFF Cup will be by far Asia's biggest local showdown.

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