Ahead of the start of the AFC U-23 Championship, Paul Williams speaks to Matthew Davies about his thoughts on Malaysia’s tournament debut.
The AFC U22 Championships kick off this week in China with the continents best young players ready to put their talent on display for all to see.
Across its first two editions in 2013 and 2016, the tournament has proven to be a solid springboard for Asian talent to show their wares to an audience that includes scouts from across the globe.
Iranian youngster Kaveh Rezaei was the leading scorer with five goals in 2013 and now plies his trade in Belgium, where he has scored 10 goals in 20 matches for Charleroi and looks set for a spot in Carlos Quieroz’s side for this year’s FIFA World Cup in Russia.
Korea’s Kwon Chang-hoon, now impressing in Ligue 1 with Dijon, and Japan’s Takuma Asano, playing with Stuttgart in Germany on loan from Arsenal, both scored in the final in 2016 in which Japan won 3-2, while Asano’s teammate Shoya Nakajima was named the tournament’s MVP in 2016 and earlier this year earned a move to Portuguese side Portimonense, where he has scored six goals in his first 12 matches.
While some nations in Asia debate the merits of the competition, others take the tournament incredibly seriously, one of those being Malaysia, who will appear for the first time in 2018.
This week FOX Sports Asia caught up with Malaysian defender Matthew Davies to talk about the tournament and how Malaysia has been preparing.
FOX Sports Asia (FSA): The team has been in camp for a little while now, how is everyone feeling ahead of the start of the tournament in a few days?
Matthew Davies (MD): Yeah [we’re] really excited and enthusiastic. We’ve had a good long preparation. We had two weeks in Malaysia, two weeks in [South] Korea to adapt to the climate and then two weeks in China before the competition. So we’ve had a really thorough and good preparation and I think now everyone’s really excited and ready to get going.
NATIONAL U-23 SQUAD TRAINING SESSION IN CHANGSHU, CHINA | 7TH JANUARY 2018
National U-23 squad under Datuk Ong Kim Swee's supervision have their training session at the Changshu High School Training Field in Changshu, China.
— FA Malaysia (@FAM_Malaysia) January 7, 2018
FSA: The last time the team was together for a tournament was the Southeast Asian (SEA) Games back in August, and of course on that occasion you made it all the way to the final. How much confidence do you take from that?
MD: We’ll definitely take some confidence from that tournament. Our last games we played together were really good. I think we’ve grown as a team and at the same time we’ve got some good additions to the team. So I think the core of that team will still be from the SEA Games and we take confidence from those games and how well we were able to compete. I think we’ll be really strong group.
FSA: Safawi Rasid was a standout for Malaysia at the SEA Games and is in this squad again, how good can he be and what other players do you think are set for a big tournament?
MD: He’s a brilliant player. He’s in with JDT [Johor Darul Ta’zim], he had a really strong finish to the year as well, he scored a couple of goals against DPR Korea at [senior] international level at the end of the season. So he’s a really exciting player, really good to watch. I think he’ll have a really strong tournament. We’ve got a couple more players, Irfan [Zakaria] is our centre back who plays for KL [Kuala Lumpur], who’s really sound technically and really strong and I really like our midfielder Nor Azam [Azih] who was also in the SEA Games squad. So there’s a few quality players floating around the team for sure.
FSA: It’s been somewhat of a rocky last 12 months for Malaysian football, how important is it the team does well in China to restore some pride for Malaysia?
MD: Yeah that’s definitely true, there’s a lot of hope for this team in particular, not only because we’re such a strong group but because this team will go on to senior national team level and continue to have success. And I think it’s really important right now that we put in a good tournament, get some good results and I think the fans are certainly expecting that from us.
FSA: You’re in a tough group, with Iraq, Saudi and Jordan – firstly, how much do you know about those teams and have you been able to do any analysis of them?
MD: We haven’t done any analysis just yet, but I’m sure approaching the games we will start to dig into it. The Arab nations are always quite difficult to come up against. I feel like personally I’ve got good experience because I’ve already played Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates at full international level, so I’ll be able to use that experience coming into these games. We know they’re quite physically strong and they’re always tough to come up against. There’s a lot of good teams in this competition so it was going to be difficult to matter what group we were drawn in.
FSA: What are the goals for the tournament? Is making it to the quarter-finals a realistic goal for you?
MD: That’s the goal first and foremost, to make it to that final eight and go through to the quarter-final and anything beyond that would be excellent. There’s a real sense of belief in this group and we come into this tournament without a lot of expectation from other countries. But I think we’ve got it within us to have a good crack at this competition and have a good chance of qualifying for the quarter finals.
FSA: I’m not sure if you’ve followed the debate in Australia at all about clubs objecting to players going to what they’ve called a “meaningless tournament”. As someone born-and-raised in Australia but who plays outside of Australia in Southeast Asia you have a difference perspective, how important is this tournament to a country like Malaysia?
MD: It’s an AFC tournament, and you can see by the depth of the preparation that’s been afforded to different teams (how important it is) and if Australia was to send a second rate team it would be slightly disrespectful to the competition I think. You just look at the way the other teams are preparing within the region and you can see how important and what it means to other countries to be there.
I think the days are over when Australia could waltz into these competitions and walk through and batter a lot of these teams. There’s a lot of teams throughout Asia investing a lot of money and playing catch up big time with Australia. So I think that’s beginning to show at youth level and will work its way through to senior level as well.