The ASEAN Football Championship – now known as the AFF Suzuki Cup – made a debut to remember in 1996 with the free-scoring teams hitting 93 goals in 24 top-notch games in Singapore.

As inaugural tournaments go, it was superb, with Thailand emerging top of the pile with the bountifully talented Kiatisuk “Zico” Senamuang scoring the only goal in a hotly contested final against Malaysia.

A new dawn

Ten national teams – Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam – took part in the two-week festival of football.

Victories in the previous two Southeast Asian Games had seen Thailand installed as favourites but the other sides were also keen to have their name engraved on the trophy after a long wait for a standalone regional championship.

Led by the colourful Thawatchai Satjakul, who created the so-called “Dream Team” several years earlier with the aim of guiding Thailand to the FIFA World Cup finals, the War Elephants won four matches and drew just one (against Malaysia in Group B) on their way to the final.

History maker

Pride of place for scoring the first ever goal of the ASEAN Football Championship went to K. Sanbagamaran of Malaysia in their 1-1 draw with cross-Causeway rivals Singapore in the tournament’s maiden fixture.

A late strike from Singapore striker Fandi Ahmad gave the hosts a draw and the veteran added three more goals in what was his only appearance in the ASEAN Football Championship.

However, the home side failed to reach the semi-finals as they lost 1-0 to Thailand in their final Group B match to finish behind the Thais and Malaysia.

Big wins over Brunei and the Philippines and a draw with the hosts and Thailand handed the Tigers second spot and they were thankful for the contributions of talismanic skipper Zainal Abidin Hassan, who scored the equaliser in the group encounter with Thailand, and Sanbagamaran, a hat-trick hero against the Philippines.

Indonesia finished on top of Group A with 10 points after defeating Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar and drawing 1-1 with Vietnam.

The Vietnamese, meanwhile, advanced to the semi-finals in second place having won two and drawn two, with their 4-1 victory over third-placed Myanmar in their third game ultimately proving decisive.

Finalists emerge

Thailand then eased into the final with a 4-2 semi-final win over Vietnam after goals from Kiatisuk, Natipong Srithong-in and Worrawoot Srimaka put them four goals up by the 46-minute mark before Vietnam grabbed two late consolation goals.

Malaysia defeated Indonesia 3-1 in the other semi-final as Sanbagamaran, Rusdee Sulong and Shamsurin Abdul Rahman all got on the scoresheet as the Tigers booked a rematch with Thailand.

After Indonesia and Vietnam had played out a draw in their Group A clash, it was the Vietnamese who came out on top in the third place play-off as they defeated the Garuda 3-2 thanks to Vo Hoang Buu’s decisive strike.

Zico’s day

It did not take long for Kiatisuk to make his mark in the final as he found the target after just nine minutes with a cracking strike from outside the box that flew past Malaysian goalkeeper Khairul Azman.

The forward saluted the goal with a spectacular somersault – a celebration that would become the then 23-year-old’s trademark during a glittering career – as Thailand gained the early breakthrough that would prove crucial.

It was the first of three ASEAN Football Championship titles that Kiatisuk would win as a player and he went on to coach Thailand to victory in the 2014 and 2016 editions of the AFF Suzuki Cup to take his place in the pantheon of ASEAN football greats.

Even though Singapore had fallen by the wayside at the group stage, a crowd of 32,000 packed the National Stadium at Kallang for the final, underscoring the thirst that existed for high-quality football.

While Kiatisuk garnered most of the headlines for his winning goal in the final, it was teammate Natipong who emerged as the tournament’s top scorer with seven strikes, two more than his teammate.

To underline Thailand’s firepower, bustling striker Worrawoot also bagged three goals for the inaugural champions as they made history in emphatic fashion.