Thursday, January 13, 2011


HE'S THE man credited with resurrecting the roar of the Malaysian Tigers, a tranquillised footballing animal that hadn't had a sniff of a major trophy for two decades prior to his arrival.

Eight months after he was appointed national team coach in April 2009, K Rajagopal, 54, had a SEA Games gold medal slung around his neck.

Then last month, he became the first Malaysia coach to hold the AFF Suzuki Cup aloft - his side becoming the youngest champions in the tournament's history with an average age of 22.9 years.

A few days after that, on Dec 31, he officially became his nation's most popular person after Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak declared the New Year's eve a public holiday to commemorate the historic Suzuki Cup triumph.

In his own words, just like Jose Mourinho's self-declaration seven years ago, "King Raja" is now Malaysia's Special One.

"I will always cherish our fairytale Suzuki Cup win," he told The New Paper.

"It was done in a special way and I think it took a Special One to do it, even though I'm not Mourinho."


Asked if he had indeed just dubbed himself the Special One, he responded in the affirmative, paused and joked, "Actually I'm probably better than Mourinho. Because he had better resources at his disposal than me."

That confidence and belief have typified Rajagopal's transformation of Malaysia's national team.

A side that has seen its support dwindle since the match-fixing scandal of the 1990s, a situation not helped by poor results including a group stage exit in the 2008 Suzuki Cup and humiliating thrashings on home turf in the 2007 Asian Cup.

But when Rajagopal took over the reins from B Sathianathan, he took the radical step of revamping the national team with a distinctly youthful flavour.

Gone were the established players with caps and experience by the bundle, and in their place came the young players he knew intimately from his time coaching Malaysia's youth teams.

But not everyone subscribed to Rajagopal's revolution.

Eric Samuel, 48, senior writer for The Star newspaper, explained that much of the nation's press, including himself, were sceptical about the wholesale changes and felt that there remained a need for at least some old heads in the Malaysian set-up.

"His (Rajagopal's) reply was: 'If you don't give them the chance now, when will you?'," said the journalist who has been covering the national football scene for 20 years.

"He wanted us to believe in the players like he did. He was very brave to have taken such a bold step and it's paid off. You can see now that the team has that same confidence he has.

"They might not be the most talented Malaysian team but the players have amazing belief and fighting qualities, and I think that's down to him."

Explaining his philosophy, Rajagopal, a former Malaysian striker, said: "I don't believe in old players. 

"Sure, if an older player is an icon or can set an example and impart his experience, I'll pick him.

"But I don't want players who make smoke (cause problems), I want players who make fire, and the young players have proved they can do that.

"When I took over, I told FAM (Football Association of Malaysia) we needed to focus on youth and continuity, and they backed me."

For many, his approach seemed risky, but "King Raja", as he has been dubbed by the press across the Causeway, knew he wasn't just putting blind faith in Malaysia's youth.

He was at the helm when Malaysia won the 2005 Lion City Cup and raved about the potential of the Under-19s when they beat a Manchester United academy side 4-0 in 2007.

Two years later, he unleashed Malaysia's young Tigers on the national consciousness, winning Malaysia's second-tier league competition with Harimau Muda - the national Under-19 team.

Providing the conveyor belt of talent for Rajagopal has been the Bukit Jalil Sports School (BJSS), which opened in Kuala Lumpur in 1996.

Nine of the Suzuki Cup winning squad are alumni of Malaysia's first sports school, among them tournament stars - goalkeeper Khairul Fahmi Che Mat and striker Norshahrul Idlan Talaha.

And according to the coach, the number of BJSS graduates would have been even higher had his team not been decimated by injuries ahead of the Asean region's premier football tournament.

More than silverware and the fact that the prize was won in spite of an injury crisis and over two years ahead of the coach's own stipulated target, it is the manner in which success has been achieved that has been most impressive.

Tactically disciplined and fearlessly positive in equal measure, Rajagopal's Tigers have, according to Samuel, "made heads turn for the first time since 1989 (when Malaysia won the SEA Games gold on home soil)".

It's a sentiment shared by ex-Malaysian international and ESPN Star Sports football pundit Shebby Singh.

He said: "I'd like to think I know something about football. And when I watched them at the Asian Games in Guangzhou, even though the results weren't great, I got excited about the national team for the first time in 10 to 15 years.

"I thought, hang on, I'm enjoying watching them play.

"There was no more of the long ball stuff which has been an unfortunate legacy of (ex-national coach) Allan Harris.


"They played attractive, positive football and did it with such confidence. At the same time they were tactically disciplined and flexible enough to switch from 4-4-2 to 4-4-1-1 to 4-2-3-1 with ease.

"It shows great maturity for a young side and I think Rajagopal deserves all the credit."

In fact, the Suzuki Cup champions have an illustrious fan from further afield.

After their final win, Manchester United defender Rio Ferdinand conveyed his congratulations through his twitter account @rioferdy5.

He tweeted: "Congratulations to Malaysia who beat Indonesia in the Suzuki Cup final. I played against the Malaysian under-23 team 18 months ago. Quite a good team."

The Red Devils had played Malaysia twice during their pre-season tour of Asia in July 2009 winning 3-2 and 2-0.

The matches were among the early ones of Rajagopal's tenure and the impressive displays had fans taking notice of the players.

The resurgence of Malaysian football after decades in the doldrums might be long awaited in the nation, but it's left regional rivals worried.

"They have definitely pulled away from us," remarked former Lion and ex-national youth coach R Suriamurthi.

"They look like they have a golden generation on their hands and if they can keep the team together it's an ominous sign for the region.

"With the Suzuki Cup and SEA Games gold, it's proven that they are the next dominant team in South-east Asia."

But despite the return of verve, titles, fans and momentum to Malaysian football, some feel that there is still some work to do.

"The success is not the result of some grand blueprint from the FAM which has come good," said Shebby Singh.

"It's accidental - the combination of a very good coach and a talented generation of players, many of which have come out of Bukit Jalil (Sports School).

"I have my ear to the ground and at the grassroots level it's rubbish, there is no proper organisation at all.

"How can we have just two sports schools for the whole country?

"The problem is that development is a dirty word in Malaysian football, which is run by royalty and politicians who all want short cuts and instant success.

"Hopefully, Rajagopal has shown them the importance of continuity and development and that you need to build the foundation of the house before you build the roof."

Despite his gripes, Shebby still sees cause for optimism for his country's football scene.

"The deal Astro (pay TV operator) signed with FAM for RM120 million ($50.6m) this month is the best thing to happen to Malaysian football. And it happened at the right time.

"We have a talented bunch of players who play attractive football, not the kick and rush of old, and after the Suzuki Cup, fans will want to watch them regularly.

"Personally, I would want to watch the Suzuki Cup stars live if I had the time. I expect attendances to go up by 20-30 per cent.

"The exposure and coverage can only be good for the domestic game."

With the local league receiving a shot in the arm and fans' support for the national team flooding back, it is a special time for Malaysian football.

And the catalyst for this special time is undoubtedly the nation's very own Special One.