Amid COVID chaos, AFF U-23 Championship has delivered as one for the underdogs

Despite being the lowest-ranked Southeast Asian side, Timor-Leste overcame the odds to qualify for the semifinals of the 2022 AFF U-23 Championship as Group A winners. SPORTFIVE

Following the excitement of the eagerly-anticipated AFF Suzuki Cup 2020, which was delayed for a year due to the coronavirus pandemic and culminated with Thailand winning a record 6th title at the start of January, the 2022 AFF U-23 Championship -- following on just a month after -- was expected to deliver another big battle for bragging rights in the Southeast Asian football arena.

Yet initially, it seemed as though all the drama would be coming off the field.

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After defending champions Indonesia pulled out on the eve of the competition due to a host of positive COVID cases, Myanmar followed suit for the same reason -- on the very day they were scheduled to begin their Group B campaign.

Already an uneven 11-team competition, the abrupt withdrawals left the tournament looking strangely imbalanced with the three groups consisting of four, two and three sides respectively.

It was immediately a nightmare for the ASEAN Football Federation to ensure qualification for the semifinals remained fair for all, but also threatened to further devalue the competition that was already being used by some as an experiment to blood even younger players from a lower age category.

But as the last four lineup was finalised on Tuesday evening, the tournament has lived up to expectations in a way that Southeast Asian football knows best. Which is that, despite all the off-field complications, the best drama has still come on the pitch.

When the semifinals begin on Thursday, they will be contested by Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and Timor-Leste.

At first glance, the presence of Thailand and Vietnam would hardly raise eyebrows even their status as traditional heavyweights of the region.

Their progress to the knockout round however is all the more commendable considering both have opted against bringing their strongest squads to Cambodia.

The Vietnamese, have shown their future remains bright despite some recent disappointments at the Suzuki Cup and final round of Asian qualifiers for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, finishing top of Group C despite only boasting one player over the age of 21.

From the same group, Thailand have taken it one step further by competing with an entirely under-19 team, and still did enough to advance as the best-placed runners-up.

Nonetheless, the biggest story to emerge from the tournament so far has come from the underdogs.

Despite being the lowest-ranked team in all of Southeast Asia, Timor-Leste did remarkably well to win Group A, going unbeaten in three games to finish ahead of hosts Cambodia -- who were expected to feature in the semis having done so in the previous edition.

The Timorese may be the newest kids on the block, having only made their bow in 2003, but have benefitted from a clear focus on youth, with the majority of this team having been exposed to senior tournaments against bigger, stronger and more-experienced opposition such as the most recent Suzuki Cup.

Likewise, Laos are also more used to being the whipping boys of the region. Their path to the semis from Group B was made more straightforward in the absence of Indonesia and Myanmar, yet they were still not expected to cause much problems for Malaysia.

Instead, in what was essentially an outright duel for a last-four berth, the Laotians impressively pulled off back-to-back victories over the Malaysians to follow Timor-Leste in pulling off a historic achievement.

Two more matches stand in the way of these four teams and the honour of being Southeast Asia's newest under-23 champions of.

And while Vietnam and Thailand remain the favourites, the 2022 AFF U-23 Championship could yet prove to truly be one for the underdogs.