B Sathianathan was relieved of his duties of Malaysia national team coach last month and talks to Asia Editor John Duerden about his turbulent time in charge of the Tigers…John Duerden
The 50 year-old, after success with the under-23 team, took the job after the 2007 Asian Cup when football in the once proud nation was at a low ebb. As co-hosts, Malaysia lost all three games, scoring one goal and conceding 12. Sathianathan failed to steer his team past the group stage of south-east Asia’s regional tournament (The AFF Cup) in December and was fired in February, not long after UAE won 5-0 in a 2011 Asian Cup qualifier in Kuala Lumpur.
You took the job after the 2007 Asian Cup. What was the mood like among the players and the FA at the time?
When I was offered the head coach position of the National Team I was surprised because I just wanted to concentrate on the under 23 team but I took the challenge knowing it would be a very difficult task ahead. Most of the senior players were reluctant to play for the national team because of the criticism they received after the 2007 Asian Cup. The Football Association of Malaysia (FAM) was under fire.
During your time as coach, what were the biggest problems that you identified?
Playing at the South East Asian level and against some teams in Asia, Malaysia is still OK but technically and tactically, we don’t have the players to match the giants of Asia.
What objectives did the FAM give you when they gave you the job?
What did they ask you to do? The FA top brass will always say that they need to move up FIFA’s Ranking. I told them not to expect too much from a team that was a combination of many young players from the Under 23 team and a few experienced players. Also, they wanted the team to make the finals of the AFF cup.
How disappointing was the AFF Cup? What went wrong?
Well I was really disappointed about the way the game went against us when we played Vietnam. Clearly we were the better side and we had a lot of control in that game but the goalkeeper let us down badly. I accept that inexperience will play a part. Then the game against Thailand. I knew Thailand was hard to beat at home and also had rested their best players rest against Laos so they were fresh compared to us - a team that played flat out against Vietnam. After that, I knew we would not qualify to the semi finals as Vietnam would easily beat Laos. I think the bad luck and bad fixtures lets us down.
Many expected you to be fired at that point - why do you think you weren't?
Well let me put it this way, they (FAM) knew the team had improved a lot under me, the players gave their best under me and also our results hadn’t been really bad, Malaysians should know that we have not been champions in any events outside Malaysia for a very very long time. I knew that I was heading in the right direction to improve the standard of Malaysian football slowly but surely.
What happened against the UAE?
Bad preparation is the main reason why we were humilated by UAE. I asked that the team spent a minimum of two weeks preparing. After consulting with the league, management decided that I would only have seven days. That left me with only five days of training before a big match against a UAE team that was fresh from the Gulf Cup. I could not get a game to prepare and also I had to deal with injuries to key players like Shukor Adan (Captain) and also Irwan Fadhili.The fitness of the players was poor. I had them tested independently and only three players passed the test. I knew we would be easily beaten by not only a strong technical side team like UAE but also a team who is very fit and ready for that game.
You then said the infamous phrase ''The M-league is not football" - what did you mean by that and do you still believe that? Do you regret saying it?
I have no regrets at all, because I believe it is true. Many coaches and officials are afraid to speak. Let's face it, if we don’t address the real cause of the performance of the National Team than we will never achieve improvements. The national team is the mirror for standard of the League. Look at the clubs from Japan, Korea, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE and China, Their teams are playing in the Asian Champions League and where are our club teams playing? They do not pass the quarter finals stage of the AFC cup. So unless there are clubs who are ambitious enough to challenge in the Champions League than we can’t say that we have the materials to match the big teams in Asia.
Do you think that was why you were fired?
I am not sure. Nobody told me but they say that it was because of the team’s performance against UAE
Can Malaysia ever get back to their former glories? If so, how?
To me everything is possible, but we must change the mindset , change people who don't want change and also be straightforward about the problems we have. The advantage that we have is that Malaysians love football and I believe if we are to reorganize ourselves, put a solid plan in place and build on it in short and long term plans than we can among be the top 10 teams in Asia but organization is the key.
There have been accusations of race affecting national team selection... is this true?
To me, race in the national team was not a problem because I had full responsibility in selecting players for the national team. No officials got involved in the selection. But my problem was that I couldn’t find Indians and Chinese good enough to play at that level apart from Subramaniam, Thirumurugan and Chun Keng hong. The problem is at youth level. I don’t see many non-Malay players at youth level.
Should the next coach be foreign?
Well foreign or local , it doesn’t matter, I think if you bring Guus Hiddink he will fail because the players can’t do what he wants. I think Malaysia must improve the abilities of the players before hiring a good foreign coach. Look at Claude Le Roy and Jorvan Vierra, both succeeded in becoming champions with other team but didn’t come close to winning any tournament with Malaysia.
What would your advice be to the next man?
Be realistic about our chances and keep your fingers crossed
Where does Malaysia rank in SE Asia?
We might be ranked sixth in South East Asia but personally we can beat any team if we have better luck except Thailand who I feel have far better players than any country in South East Asia.
What will you do now?
I have not been terminated officially by FAM and I am still on their payrollbut I would like to try my luck in another country. I believe in my abilities, if you can coach Malaysia than you can handle the pressure of nay team.