By Khidhir Kassim
The Malaysian National Under-23 head coach celebrates his 43rd birthday on 11th December, fittingly at the opening ceremony of the 27th Southeast Asian Games where he is tasked with winning his country's third consecutive football crown.
Minted in Malacca
Kim Swee began his career as a no-nonsense midfielder in 1989 with his hometown team in Malacca where he flourished and was drafted into Chow Kwai Lam's legendary national squad that competed in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics after a successful season.
"I remember those days when the living was tough and the tackles were even harder." said the effervescent coach to FOX Sports.
"When they say that the tackles flew in left and right, it wasn't just a figure of speech." he added, recounting the heyday of football’s glory days in Malaysia.
The budding footballer then moved on to play for Sarawak FA and Sabah FA before a recurring knee injury cut his career short at the age of 28.
"It was heart-breaking to be forced to quit doing what I love but I chose to look on the brighter side of life. I helped my family out at the restaurant while I sought out options with a coaching role in football.
Recently awarded the Darjah Pangkuan Seri Melaka (DPSM) award that carries the title Datuk, Kim Swee has not forgotten his humble beginnings.
“Helping my family while furthering my career was tough. I woke up at 3 or 4 in the morning so that I could buy the freshest ingredients from the local market, before bringing them back to prepare. The peeling, slicing and dicing took about two hours and my hands were always swollen, but that was only the beginning.
“I helped cooked, which was fast but the clean-up was a killer. I had about two hours of rest before I went to football training, then the cycle repeats itself the next day.” said Kim Swee, a proud Malaccan.
After about four years of hard labour, he got his big break with the team that he started his football journey with, Melaka FA.
“The experience was an eye-opener. I already knew the life of a player well. Now, I’m finding out how it’s like behind the scenes. I cut my teeth as a coach with Melaka FA and am thankful for those who gave me the chance.
“I remember one incident when we were travelling on the team bus on match day, and the driver got into an accident half-way. I had to pull all my resources together to keep my players happy and eventually got everyone to the match on time.
“There are many unforeseen circumstances such as these but the most insightful one for me was how to manage, and improve the performance of the players.” he added.
Beginnings of a Revolution
Kim Swee became a trainer with the Football Association of Malaysia at the end of 2004 and worked his way up, Malacca-style through grit and determination, eventually taking over Datuk K. Rajagobal as head coach of Harimau Muda before 2009. His team of Under-19 players won the Malaysian Premier League, the country’s second tier competition, that year.
This first major milestone afforded Kim Swee more influence in moulding Malaysia’s youth set-up and he consulted and coaxed the powers that be to allow him the ability to merge sports science and his experiences together. What started off as a mechanical and rigid set-up for athletes centered around the Bukit Jalil Sports School (BJSS) eventually spawned into a tiered development program specifically catered for footballers at the different stages of their skill and age level.
Each team of coaches and support staff for each of the national age group, Harimau Muda A through D, are primed for the grooming of their own teams – Kim Swee’s core team of players have been with him for more than half a decade, trekking everywhere from Slovakia to Australia in the search for greater experience and exposure.
Consisting of coach Hassan Sazali Waras, Kim Swee’s trusted advisor and tactician, one of the region’s best goalkeeping coach Yong Wai Hwang, specialist physiotherapist Nasrul Ahmad Tajuddin and physicial trainer Rasto Bozik, the team work closely with support staff from the National Sports Institute of Malaysia like Sports Medical Officer Dr Jass Khuzairi. Armed with a formidable arsenal of athlete monitoring systems, Kim Swee’s squad of coaches, trainers and support staff is the largest of any sport in Malaysia.
“The importance of developing Malaysia’s future talents is bigger than the impact of a successful campaign. We know the importance of having a strong foundation and want to groom athletes who are able to be successful their whole career.” noted Kim Swee.
“A special video session with our psychiatrist and video team is set before every match to educate the boys about their mistakes, remind them about the strategy, and inspire them to focus and work harder.”
“Food intake, urine, everything is tested and monitored.” added the coach whose squad members will be slapped with a hefty fine and punishment if caught with any contraband from carbonated drinks to candy. The standards aren’t as harsh as they seem though as the boys are afforded the occasional Malaysian-cooked dish regardless of the country they travel to, chocolate bars are also passed around before and after games on the team bus as an energy booster.
“I know how it feels like as a player so the rules are strictly followed when our training camps begin for their own good. The boys are allowed to binge on their favourite dishes during the festive periods when we’re on a break – but they know what’s in store when they come back.” said the coach menacingly.
SEA Games 2013
This current Harimau Muda squad have already won the Malaysian Premier League in 2009, the Pestabola Merdeka (against Myanmar,Thailand select, Singapore) in 2007 and 2013, SCTV Cup joint champions (against Indonesia, Indonesia Under-22 and North Korea) as well as the 2011 SEA Games gold medal – they now have the preassure of building on their success to complete a hat trick of SEA Games gold first won in 2009.
The odds have already been stacked against Kim Swee and his charges even before the SEA Games began. An anterior cruciate ligament injury prevented Kim Swee's star Winger Wan Zack Haikal Wan Nor from joining the team. The winger is first Malaysian to ply his trade in Japan's Football League with FC Ryukyu and is also the first of three Malaysians who had a stint in Slovak Super Liga with FC ViOn Zlaté Moravce.
Midfield general Gary Steven Robbat, praised by Arsene Wenger himself during Arsenal's tour last year is out with a back injury along with Wan Zaharulnizam (groin),Junior Eldstal (back), Syahrul Azwari Ibrahim (knee), and Nik Mohd Shahrul Azim Abdul Halim (knee ligament tear).
Injuries, and the small matter of alleged age manipulation by the football federation of the SEA Games host nation Myanmar, first detected by FOXSports.my during the Asian Under-22 Qualifiers in Yangon. A striking resemblance between Yangon United’s Kaung Si Thu and a player the coaches and team have seen playing in the same age group a couple of years before sparked off a series of investigations which was ultimately halted by the brick wall of bureaucracy.
Records were altered and the only reference left is Myanmar Times’ Aung Si Hein’s expose which begins with “The Myanmar Football Federation (MFF) is permitting an unofficial policy of age manipulation”.
“Sure, manipulation is harmful to the football future of not just a country, but the entire region. However we refuse to let anything distract us. That’s just how my team has been trained.
“Our team needed to be escorted our by security forces after every game during the SEA Games in Indonesia (2011). After we won Indonesia, the crowd turned hostile and we could only go out with the military escort on the Barracuda (Armoured military vehicle).
“My boys are tough, we’ve played against bigger, older players from all over the world before and will give our all as usual. We just need to focus on our own game.”
The Swansong Sacrifice
The highly respected coach is into his last weeks of the contract with FAM and there has been constant rumours linking him to positions in other clubs and countries.
“Yes it’s true that I have been offered alot of things by alot of generous people but I always tell them the same thing. They must respect the commitment that I have to my country now – my priority is the SEA Games. I can only afford to think about other things after” said Kim Swee.
“I spend more time with the boys and staff than I do with my own family.” said the father of two daughters.
“Everybody in my team makes the same sacrifice as I do for our country. But we are a family here and we make sure that everybody goes through important points in their lives together, as a team.”
When queried about the possibility of Harimau Muda playing in Australia, Kim Swee said: “Yes it’s true. We are in talks with the National Premier League (NPL) of Australia and are working out the details for the Queensland conference. This time we are planning to bring about 30 officials, our largest contingent ever and with nine Harimau Muda players maturing and leaving the team next year, it’s a good opportunity for me to gauge existing and new players in preparation for the next SEA Games.”
Embodying the spirit of his team's mascot, Datuk Ong Kim Swee has guided Malaysia's football future into the right direction with the infrastructure that focuses on long-term success. The only question now is where will he choose to venture next.
What immortal hand or eye, Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?