Yangon (AFP) – Myanmar’s football coach Antoine Hey said he hasn’t given up hope of ending a 55-year absence from the Asian Cup despite a withdrawal by players in protest at the country’s military coup.
Hey will take a weakened squad to the joint 2022 World Cup and 2023 Asian Cup qualifiers in Japan after several players pulled out following the February coup that ousted civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
An estimated 780 people have been killed by security forces in the Southeast Asian country during protests against the takeover.
An official at the Myanmar Football Federation told AFP that as many as half of the usual squad may be absent from the qualifiers, starting on May 28 against Japan.
Some returned to their home provinces during the protests, while others have publicly refused to play.
“We will only play football on the street until we get democracy,” Myanmar goalkeeper Kyaw Zin Htet told German broadcaster DW World during a protest by footballers in Yangon, the country’s biggest city.
“We won’t play for the national team under the military dictatorship and we are protesting to send that message.”
Hey, the German who returned to Myanmar for a second spell in charge in 2019, is determined to go ahead regardless.
“We accept the personal feelings of our players but do also have a responsibility towards the game and the generations to follow,” he told AFP.
Myanmar are virtually out of the running for the World Cup, but regardless of the result against Japan, Asia’s highest-ranked team, they could qualify automatically for the Asian Cup for the first time since 1968 if they defeat Kyrgyzstan in Osaka on June 11 and Tajikistan four days later.
“Our main objective is to qualify for the Asian Cup 2023 in China,” Hey added. “For over 50 years Myanmar is waiting and we are hopeful that this time we can do it.”
It is not just footballers who are refusing to compete for Myanmar. Melbourne-based Win Htet Oo, one of the country’s top swimmers, said he would not represent “a flag steeped in my people’s blood”.
As turmoil grips the country, mixed martial arts fighter Phoe Thaw was injured an explosion at a Yangon gym, according to state media which blamed him for the blast and said he had been arrested.