With Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam all in Group of Death, Indonesia could mount a genuine challenge for Southeast Asian Games gold

Familar foes Vietnam and Thailand -- who contested the gold medal match at the previous edition -- will renew their rivalry early on in the 32nd Southeast Asian Games after both were drawn in Group B. LUONG THAI LINH/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Regional bragging rights will once again be up for grabs at this year's Southeast Asian (SEA) Games -- and all eyes will be on the men's football tournament when it gets underway in Phnom Penh on Saturday.

Vietnam head into the competition as the gold medallists from the previous edition, while record 16-time champions Thailand will be expected to challenge as always.

But given Vietnam and Thailand, along with six-time winners Malaysia, have all found themselves in Group B, the luck of the draw could just pave the way for Indonesia to mount a genuine challenge.

Not since 1991 -- when the tournament was still contended by senior national teams -- has the Indonesians managed to take the top step of the men's football podium at a SEA Games.

Yet, as was the case last year before they ultimately fell in the semifinals, Indonesia have every reason to believe they have what it takes to end their gold-medal drought.

After all, this is a talented Indonesia outfit that has shown glimpses of potential since the reins were handed to the well-respected Shin Tae-yong, who famously masterminded a 2-0 win over then-champions Germany while in charge of South Korea at the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

Shin's arrival in 2020 has coincided with a promising generation of prospects all breaking through at the same time.

They first made waves at the delayed 2020 AFF Championship, that was held a year later, when a youthful outfit reached the final before falling short against Thailand.

From that senior side, prominent players such as Witan Sulaeman, Pratama Arhan and Alfeandra Dewangga will all be present at the SEA Games, along with 18-year-old wonderkid Marselino Ferdinan -- whose raw talent has already seen him earn a move to Belgian second-tier outfit Deinze.

While Cambodia will have home advantage, it is difficult to see Indonesia finishing outside Group A's top two and missing out on a place in the last four.

Instead, it could be the Cambodians vying with Myanmar and Philippines for the second semifinal berth, unless minnows Timor-Leste can pull off a major surprise.

The situation is far more uncertain in Group B with only a couple of last-four spots up available to three teams that have combined to win the past 15 gold medals -- dating all the way back to 1993.

On paper, Vietnam would still be the team to beat given their status as two-time defending champions but this will be their first SEA Games without legendary coach Park Hang-seo following his departure at the end of last year's AFF Championship.

Thailand may not boast as star-studded a squad as they previously have -- most notably in 2015 when they fielded the likes of Chanathip Songkrasin, Sarach Yooyen and Narubadin Weerawatnodom -- but there is still quality in the ranks in Airfan Doloh, Teerasak Poeiphimai and Jonathan Khemdee.

Likewise, Malaysia also have plenty of talented prospects, headlined by senior team star Mukhairi Ajmal, to also believe reaching the semis is not beyond them.

And that is even without mentioning Singapore, who are no slouches themselves in Southeast Asian football but who have struggled to make an impact at the SEA Games in recent years, with underdogs Laos rounding off Group B.

There are no shortage of contenders for the men's football tournament at the upcoming SEA Games but, given the fact that many of them will doing battle early on in the group stage, it could just play in Indonesia's favour.

And given how much Indonesian football has suffered recently, from last year's Kanjuruhan Stadium tragedy to their recent removal as hosts of the FIFA U-20 World Cup, there should be no shortage of motivation for the team to give their passionate supporters some much-needed joy in the form of a SEA Games gold medal.