A poor year for Malaysian football has ended badly as many feared it would. There is no reason to list all the issues once again. Fans are surely sick of reading about the conflict between the national team and champions Johor Darul Ta’zim (JDT) and all the claims and counter-claims that have been going on off the pitch.
On it, the national team has not done much to write home to Kuala Lumpur about. Under Ong Kim Swee, the Harimau Malaysia may have stemmed the tidal wave of goals conceded in 2015 but that is about as much as can be said.
Ever since January, the AFF Suzuki Cup had been looming ominously on the horizon, not so much a tournament to look forward to or an opportunity for the coach to show what he could do, but something to get out of the way.
It, at least, ended quickly. It started with a 3-2 win over Cambodia. That victory, as unconvincing as it was, could have been seen as a typically tentative opening game performance had Malaysia gone on to improve and build on it in the following matches. Two defeats against Vietnam and Myanmar however, resulted in a first round exit.
There was no surprise. There was hope for a semi-final spot but few honestly believed it was going to happen and this is the saddest aspect of the failure. It was accepted almost before it happened.
The absence of four JDT players, who announced their international retirements in June supposedly as they were unhappy with the national team’s training methods and schedule, was obviously an issue. To lose Aidil Zafuan Abdul Radzak, S Kunalan, Amirul Hadi Zainal and, worse of all, star player and captain, Safiq Rahim would have affected any team.
Yet it could and should have been leveraged by the coach to forge his own identity. This was time for some serious and active leadership. At that time, there was a ready-made (and very reasonable) excuse for failure and there was some sympathy. It was time for a vision to be sold to the people.
Kim Swee could have sold the public and the media a vision of an aggressive Malaysia, aiming to play fast and exciting football. Missing the retired quartet and others such Brendan Gan due to injury, expectations – not high by any means – were as low as they had ever been. This provided some freedom and it should have been used.
A more attacking and aggressive team full of young players looking to get forward whenever possible would at least have engaged the nation. For Malaysia, it could have been do-or-die instead of don’t-and-still-die.
The October warm-up games acted as a warning. Against Singapore and Afghanistan, the focus was on not losing. In practical terms after plenty of bad results in recent times, it could have been argued that this was a sensible thing to do but it did lack a certain amount of imagination. And the two draws were just more indifferent results during a coaching tenure that needed a spark.
It is easy to sit here and write this and it would have been risky. The end result could not, however, have been any worse than what actually happened – just look at Indonesia.
Indonesia entered the tournament after years of negative headlines and with almost nothing to lose. Whatever happens now, they will leave with no regrets, a new and exciting football identity and something to build on and – who knows? – even the trophy.
Under Ong Kim Swee, Malaysia are still searching for an identity. Now it remains to be seen what happens and whether the coach can stay in his job. It is not clear cut. There has been plenty of talk that when Football Association of Malaysia (FAM) has a new leadership in place in March that a new coach will also be appointed.
But this is pointless. If OKS is not seen as the right man for the job, better to make the change now. The national team is in action at the end of March in qualification for the 2019 Asian Cup, a tournament that Malaysia needs to try and reach with all its might. A new man who is not on the wrong side of JDT owner Tunku Ismail Sultan Ibrahim could start (again) to try and build for a new future.
OKS could not argue too much. He had lots of issues to deal with but did not do himself any favours at the AFF Suzuki Cup. He failed to excite or show a vision for the Malaysian national team. Exiting at the first round is one thing but exiting without making any impact on the tournament or on the consciousness of the watching public quite another. Indonesia showed that it can be done but first, the will must be there.
Malaysia was searching for a new identity at the AFF Championships. It searches still.
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