By Marcus Chhan
It's 8.30am on Tuesday and I am on a bus with Malaysia's next ‘Super Mokh'. Ok, that may be a gross exaggeration but certainly I am on a bus with 24 of Malaysia's brightest young amateur footballers and there's plenty of inspiration around for these hopefuls to draw from.
For one, as the bus turns the corner and heads towards Padang Majlis Sukan Negara we roll past the magnificent Bukit Jalil National Stadium - home to the Malaysian national football team and a terrain which has hosted players from Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea in recent years.
I wonder if the boys on the bus have allowed themselves to dream that far ahead, about one day playing in front of 87,000 screaming fans in that famous ground.
The bus ride comes to an abrupt stop. We've reached our destination - it's the finals of Nike's The Chance Malaysia and 24 youngsters will find out if they have taken themselves one step closer to Barcelona.
Time for a reality check. We all step out from the safety of the bus knowing that the hard yards start now. For me it's lugging camera equipment and laptop bags up the steps to Padang Majlis Sukan Negara; for the players they know they are about to embark on their final session before an afternoon game with a Malaysian Under-16 side.
It will be their final chance to impress the very serious looking Ong Kim Swee who is coach of Malaysia's Under-23 side and the man who also holds five invitations to the regional finals of Nike's global talent competition which is being held in Jakarta.
With the sun still burning bright on what was a long hot day on Tuesday, the air of youthful enthusiasm quickly turns to tension. At around 5.30pm Harimau Muda coach Ong is standing before the assembled media to announce which five players he will pick to represent Malaysia in Indonesia - and possibly go on to compete at the global finals in Barcelona.
The 24 players - ranging from 16 to 24-years-old - have just spent the last hour playing and then beating Malaysia's U-16 squad 1-0 in front of coach Ong and trainer Martin Stano, who has played an important role in helping the group realise their potential.
There's an American Idol-esque twist to proceedings just as Ong is about to reveal the winners. The group of boys are divided into two groups before Ong confirms that Mohamed Rafef B. Raya (21), Yuhedry Rosli (21), N. Thanabalan (17), Mohd. Raphi (16) and Carlos Goonting (19) are the winners of The Chance Malaysia.
The five players will also spend some time training with the Harimau Muda B Team before heading off to Indonesia for the regional finals.
"The Chance has allowed us to look for some of the best undiscovered footballers in Malaysia. It has given us extra eyes to keep a lookout for some of the talents that are out there," Ong said.
Ong has been involved in the process from the beginning (The Chance Malaysia officially launched back in March) and the Harimau Muda coach admits the experience has added value to how he approaches youth recruitment.
"Yes [it has added value]. You know that in Malaysia we have a lot of talent and there are two boys [from the five selected] who I believe have the potential to go further not only with Nike but probably I will call them for our Harimau Muda," Ong said.
The boys in question are 17-year-old N. Thanabalan and 16-year-old Mohd. Raphi. Both were superb in Tuesday's friendly game against a Malaysian U-16 team. Thanabalan and Raphi are listed as midfielders but they have incredible athleticism for their age - especially considering their amateur status - and they excelled in central defence during the game.
Another player from the five who stood out was 19-year-old Carlos Goonting. A representative from Nike told me that Goonting performed the best during the SPARQ test, a training and conditioning system used by the sports apparel giant. His ability was obvious to this writer too during the morning training sessions on Tuesday and we actually caught up with the flamboyant Goonting before he was confirmed as one of the five winners from Malaysia.
"Neymar is my favourite player," Goonting admits after we point out he shares a similar haircut to the Brazilian starlet.
"He is very good. He is young and one of the best players in the world.
"He's quick and agile and that's what you need in today's football."
However, Goonting insists he did not get the unique looking hairstyle to catch the attention of scouts from The Chance. Not that it would have mattered if he did. There's a lot of goodwill surrounding the event and you just get the feeling that the people involved want the boys to go as far as they can.
It was not an uncommon sight on Tuesday to see event crewmembers kicking the ball around with the 24 hopefuls in between drills. In fact there were plenty of high-fives and words of encouragement from the staff at the event to the contestants even when things were starting to get tense with a final verdict looming.
In the end only five were chosen - although I am told a sixth player was under consideration - from 24 but it was an achievement for them all to make it so far. Over 6,000 youths between the ages of 16 and 24 in Malaysia tried out for The Chance.
"I am very proud of the boys," said Martin Stano, a key figure in The Chance Malaysia.
"These players are actually amateur players and so they do not play for any professional club and we have seen it in testing. The results are not so good but every level can be improved in terms of speed, endurance and power.
"These elements must be improved to get them to a higher level."
The Chance regional finals will include players from Thailand, Indonesia and Singapore and only four will be selected to compete at the global finals in Barcelona.