Exploring Malaysian Football

Exploring Malaysian Football

By Keeshaanan Sundaresan - AFF Malaysian correspondent

Out of all the delicate and intriguing things in life, a punching bag is the one thing that fascinates me the most. I can’t remember the last time I had one of those, but the inner message behind it still remains crystal clear in my mind till today. A message that pretty much relates to the state of football from where I belong, Malaysia.

Malaysian fans celebrate the 2012 AFF Suzuki Cup success

After six matches without a win, the Malaysian national team is back under the microscope again. They had been enjoying rave reviews for the past two years, but things are back to square one again. Some say we have hit an obstacle while some remain unsurprised, citing the nation’s struggle to replicate their predecessors of the 1980s.

But one solitary question arises, is Malaysian football back on the decline after two heartening years of success?

Rewinding back to the Asian Cup in 2007, no ardent Malayan Tiger fanatic would have any good memories from that event, regardless of the fact that Malaysia was the co-host with Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia. A 1-5 defeat to China was followed by another 0-5 thumping at the hands of Uzbekistan, before Malaysia duly bowed out of the tournament with a 0-2 defeat to Iran.

Now this was definitely a turning point in Malaysian football because despite numerous claims and abuse over the standard and quality, there was never a chance for a clear-cut comparison with Asians’ best. We were absolutely torn apart in just three group stage games and as predictably, fans were already clamoring for the scalp of Norizan Bakar.

We humans always tend to find an excuse for everything. Likewise, Malaysia’s poor performance was being blamed on the capabilities of Norizan as the head coach and as expected, he was replaced with B. Sathianathan soon after the Asian Cup catastrophe.

The success story of Manchester United is often accredited to the longevity of Sir Alex Ferguson, but how often do we fail to notice that had Sir Alex got the sack back in 1993, the history of Manchester United would be at a stark contrast to where it is today. Meanwhile in London, Chelsea continue to produce dramatic moments of madness.

Likewise, the appointment of B. Sathianathan was greeted with optimism and hope, that he would finally bring back the good old days of Malaysian football. Now the effect was even more dramatic especially after the disastrous Asian Cup campaign. Even the least of devoted Malaysia fans evolved into a Malayan Tiger fanatic, criticizing Norizan while embracing Sathia.

Nonetheless, Sathianathan guided Malaysia to the Merdeka Tournament final in 2008, only to lose on penalties to Vietnam. A bright start to his tenure, just like Norizan Bakar when he led Malaysia into the semi finals of the ASEAN Cup back in 2007. Now let’s fast forward through B. Sathianathan’s stint with the Harimau Malaya and yet again, he was sacked altogether after the shambolic 0-5 drubbing at the hands of UAE in 2009.

K. Rajagopal was hired to supposedly revive the fortune of Malaysian football, just like every other coach was appointed to do and as anticipated, there was a good feeling with his appointment. An easy victory over Zimbabwe as well as two convincing performances against Manchester United in their Asia Tour opened the eyes of many. We triumphed in the 2009 South East Asian Games by winning the gold medal and were crowned as the Kings of South East Asian football a year later by winning the AFF Suzuki Cup.

One basic thing about Malaysians is that we’re all typically glory-hunters. That perfectly explains the hype surrounding the national team after their success in recent years and last November, our U-23 team retained the SEA Games gold medal by beating Indonesia in a pulsating encounter. But no one realized the slight drop in form of the senior team at this point of time.

If losing to arch rivals Singapore in the World Cup qualifiers wasn’t enough, two consecutive defeats to lowly-ranked India must have been grueling. Yet, the final straw came last month when Malaysia were held to a disappointing 1-1 draw with Philippines.

Even though the U-23 team has been doing relatively well in recent times, Malaysians are back to the square one excuse of us not being able to match our predecessors. Like it or not, there is some truth in that. But what we fail to fathom is that there is more to the state of football here than meets the eye.

For all the optimism every time the head coach is changed, even K. Rajagopal is being criticized now. While it’s easy to put the blame on coaches every single time we get embarrassed on the international scene, we fail to apprehend the core of our issues.

Do we have a solid pool of talent? Three years ago, I would blatantly say no. But Harimau Muda’s success has been panning out positively for the past two years, that I am compelled to suggest that we are on the rise in terms of quality. Grassroot development is also picking up essentially. We have Kumaahran Sathasivam playing for the Cruzeiro U-17 in Brazil while Ariff Zulkifly is with Ole Academy in New Zealand. Well of course they do have their fair share of haters as well, to suggest. But the basic idea here is that, Malaysian football might not be on a decline as many claim after all.

Norizan Bakar did his best with the players available back in 2007, and K. Rajagopal is doing exactly the same with the players that we have now. The difference is only the quality of talent, not performance of head coach.

Leave our Supermokhs and Soh Chin Auns aside. Malaysian football is where it is today. While we continue to struggle internationally, there is a pool of talent coming through. All we have to do now is continue to increase the quantity and work on quality, while also establishing a route for those talents to develop into world beaters.

So winless in six friendly matches does not necessarily show that we are on the decline. It basically points out that we have reached a roadblock.

When I was a kid, I used to smash into the punching bag but it would bounce right back at me with the same material and content inside. No matter how many times I whacked, it would politely regain stability and bounce back.

Similarly, let’s keep K. Rajagopal at helm and focus on building a strategy to get past the plateau because ladies and gentlemen, the Malaysian national team has just been punched again and all we need to do is bounce back!

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