Saturday, December 19, 2009


There hasn’t been much for Malaysian football fans to smile about over the past few years. The older followers remember the good old days when the team was respected around Asia.

They remember lording it over their regional rivals and appearing at events around the world. Qualification for the 1972 Olympic Games, ahead of the likes of South Korea and Japan, was a high point; a bronze medal two years later at the Asian Games wasn’t bad either.

The Tigers also qualified for the 1976 and 1980 Asian Cup.

So, the 1-0 win over Vietnam in the final of the SEA Games on Thursday marks the high point of Malaysian football in the past few years though it remains to be seen if it is the start of something or just a blip.

Much has been written about the decline of Malaysian football on and elsewhere and now is not the time to go into that. Suffice to say that Malaysian as a whole has fallen behind a number of south-east Asian rivals.

The 2007 Asian Cup was a disaster and is qualification for the 2011 version and while clubs from Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore and Vietnam all have recent experience of the Asian Champions League, Malaysia’s best have some way to go.

Yet despite all the infighting, the politics, the allegations of corruption, self-interest and the incompetence (such as banning all foreign players in the league) in Kuala Lumpur and among the state associations, there had been rumours that there were some decent young players hovering around and not getting mangled by the system.

The youngsters have been playing together for some time and coming into the completion has a better reputation than the senior team. Players such as Razak Zaquan, Safiq Rahim and Ahmad Shakir Ali all have bright futures though in Malaysia, nothing is ever certain.

A gold medal was certainly far from certain in the group stage. Malaysia had some decent results in the build-up to the competition and then thrashed Timor Leste 11-0 in the group opener but then came a chastening 3-1 defeat at the hands of an impressive Vietnam team.

The movement of the victors and incisive forward play suggested that it was not going to be Malaysian necks adorned by the gold medals when the final was played on December 17.

That defeat put pressure on K. Rajagobal's charges and it was how they reacted to this situation that was impressive. Knowing that they had to win both of their remaining games to make the semi-finals, the young tigers fought like, tigers. Cambodia were dispatched efficiently and then came a dramatic, late, come-from-behind 2-1 win over Thailand.

Momentum was now Malaysia’s. A 3-1 win over hosts Laos in the semi-final set-up a rematch with Vietnam. The odds were against Malaysia but football has a habit of surprising in these situations. A solid defensive performance followed and then a late own goal broke Vietnamese hearts and sent Malaysian fans wild with delight.

For those not familiar with south-east Asian football, it may be supposed that an Under-23 tournament in a regional meet is not a big deal. It is however taken very seriously.

Thousands of fans and hundreds of reporters followed Vietnam, Thailand’s exit is rife with ramifications, Indonesian fans are depressed at an early elimination and the whole Laos nation is delighted with their performance off the pitch, in staging a successful tournament, and on it, where they reached the semi-finals.

But not all is sweetness and light for the Malaysians. The young players may have shown promise with their skills but also disappointed hugely with their antics in the first match against Vietnam.

Angered by the decisions of South Korean referee Kim Jeong-hyeok, a pack of young Tigers chased and manhandled the official. Some Vietnamese newspapers even claimed that bottles were thrown.

The scenes were ugly – the senior ASEAN competition has its fair share of ‘episodes’ – and drew condemnation from almost everyone though coach K. Rajagobal sadly tried to defend his charges.

National Sports Council (NSC) Director-General Datuk Zolkples Embong was less impressed and was quoted by local newspapers as saying the scene was “a disgrace to the country.” He added, "To me, the referee was fair and indeed a number of decisions made by him favoured the Malaysian team." Zolkples who also blamed some members of the coaching staff for provoking the players.

In the delight over the victory, and it is good to see Malaysians feeling proud of their team, those scenes should not be forgotten.

If the players that so proudly celebrated the win in Vientiane continue to develop their skills and help restore Malaysia to the ranks of regional power then football fans in the nation will be thrilled.

If they can also help to improve standards of behaviour on the pitch in south-east Asia, then everyone will be a winner.