VIENTIANE, Laos (AP) — Regional powerhouse Thailand and a greatly improved Vietnam entered the last day of the Southeast Asian Games on Friday battling neck-to-neck for the last nine golds and victory at the 11-nation event.
Thailand had 84 gold medals as morning competition began compared to Vietnam’s 81. Vietnam got golds in athletics Thursday but lost the final of the football tournament 1-0 to Malaysia. Indonesia was a distant third in the medals table, with 43 golds.
Up for grabs Friday were gold medals in tennis, petanque, sepak takraw and shooting, with Thailand expecting four golds on the final day to narrowly defend the 2007 SEA Games title in won on home turf in 2007.
Thailand won 183 gold medals in 2007 and leads in total number since the inception of the SEA Games in 1959. The Thais were expected to capture more than 100 gold medals in Vientiane, but Vietnam had demonstrated at these games the benefit of large amounts of government funding for sports and improved coaching.
“They’re very committed and they have taken the Southeast Asian games seriously. I am impressed,” said Malaysia’s Minister of Youth and Sports Ahmad Shabery Cheek, noting they had broadened the number of sports that they focus on, going into things like fin swimming and pencak silat.
“We are learning something from them. Now, we don’t have to go to the United States or Australia but nearby by Vietnam to learn how they have progressed.”
Maurice Nicholas, the secretary general of the Asian Athletics Association, said Vietnam was reaping reward from methodical training programs, starting with youngsters.
“I expected them to really move up ten years ago. When I met their minister of sports then, I told him, ‘You have a lot diamonds in the raw but you have to polish them. Now they have,” said Nicholas.
“The Thais are always good (in athletics) but they will have to work harder to stay on top.”
In the most popular event of the games, favored Vietnam suffered an unlikely defeat in the football final after an 84th minute own goal by Vietnam’s Mai Xuan Hop handed victory to Malaysia. Hop sank to the ground and wept.
Dominating the first half of the game, the Vietnamese, who had defeated the Malaysians 3-1 in an earlier game, had two late opportunities to equalize — once with the goal unguarded —but both shots missed the target.
The game, Malaysia’s first at the games in 20 years, was marked by rough play, with two players stretchered off the field while Vietnamese goalie Bui Tan Truong sustained an injury to his left shoulder, and was in obvious pain for the remainder of the game.
Thousands of Vietnamese fans packed the 20,000-seat stadium, having poured into the Lao capital aboard planes, buses, cars and jammed into the back of open-air trucks, waving Vietnam’s yellow star flag and carrying portraits of revolutionary hero Ho Chi Minh.