Football didn’t just go home to England this year. It also came home to Malaysia. After three years of struggle and suffering on the international front, Malaysian football battled through the odds and ended 2018 on a real high.
Here, FOX Sports Malaysia Editor Keeshaanan Sundaresan takes a detailed look at the different set of challenges Malaysian football faced and its accomplishments throughout the year.
The National Team
In the cruel, unpredictable, capitalistic, merry-go-round that is football, hope is more often than not the biggest silverware for a vast majority of football fans across the globe. The same can be said for the Malaysian national football team, whose biggest success this year involved the restoration of hope. Tan Cheng Hoe played a starring role in the film, guiding the Harimau Malaya to the final of the AFF Suzuki Cup, with a brand of football that left fans on the edge of their seat. And he accomplished it despite a topsy-turvy 2018, which included a 7-1 win over Bhutan, but also a disappointing 0-2 defeat at the hands of Chinese Taipei.
Remnants of that was visible in the build up to the AFF Suzuki Cup. Cheng Hoe’s boys weren’t exactly convincing despite smashing four past Sri Lanka, before losing at home to Kyrgyzstan, less than a month before their Suzuki Cup opener against Cambodia. Even when the tournament did get underway, Malaysia’s 1-0 win over Cambodia was accompanied by groans and sighs across the country. It was anything but comfortable.
But it also proved to be the turning point, as Cheng Hoe’s men kicked into fifth gear and started firing on all cylinders, which culminated in them playing some of the most beautiful football en route to qualifying for the final. They end up losing the final 3-2 on aggregate, but their newly developed style of play under the former Kedah head coach, lifted spirits across the country. Most importantly, it also pumped life back into the Bukit Jalil Stadium, which witnessed crowds of close to 300,000 across four games. Harimau Malaya are back in business.
While the senior team had a difficult start to the year, Malaysia’s U-23 team got 2018 off to a blistering start by making unprecedented history at the AFC U-23 Championship. Under the tutelage of Datuk Ong Kim Swee, the Young Tigers marched into the quarterfinals of the prestigious tournament for the first time in their history, claiming the scalp of Asian heavyweights Saudi Arabia in the process of doing so.
Their strong run came to a crushing end in the quarters, with Han Seung-gyu nicking a late 85th minute winner to send South Korea into the semis. The same team also topped Group E at the Asian Games later in the year – famously beating Son Heung-min’s South Korea 2-1 in the group stages. But once again, their run came to an end in the knockout stages, losing 0-1 to Japan.
Elsewhere, Malaysia’s U-19 team were crowned champions of the AFF U-19 Championships, but a lot was left to be desired, when the same team struggled immensely at the AFC U-19 Championship. The same can be said for the U-16 boys, under the National Football Development Program (NFDP), who were sent packing from the group stages of AFC U-16 Championships.
Malaysia Super League
Another piece of Malaysian football history was made this year as live telecasts of all Malaysia Super League games were made available for local football fans, via collaboration and partnerships with paid TV (unifiTV), free-to-air channels (TV3 & RTM) and ‘over-the-top’ (OTT) platforms (iflix). At the same time, all Malaysia Cup games and a vast majority of FA Cup games were also shown live across the aforementioned platforms.
This was also the year Malaysia Football League (MFL) introduced a brand new ASEAN foreign player quota, specifically for players from the Southeast Asia region. This undoubtedly boosted the profile of the league in countries like Cambodia, with Chan Vathanaka and Thierry Chantha Bin plying their trades in the Super League. Similarly, Indonesia and Singapore were also well represented, with the likes of Safuwan Baharuddin, Faris Ramli and Evan Dimas constantly drawing attention.
With coverage reaching unprecedented levels for the first time, three different teams reigned supreme throughout 2018. Johor Darul Ta’zim won the Malaysia Super League for the fifth consecutive season – effectively booking a slot in the group stages of the 2019 Asian Champions League. Meanwhile, Pahang outclassed Selangor to clinch the Malaysia FA Cup final. The season was brought to an end by a thrilling Malaysia Cup final featuring Perak and Terengganu FC. The former produced a stunning comeback to win the tie on penalties, with scores tied 3-3 at the end of 120 minutes.
What’s new in 2019?
2019 will be a groundbreaking year for Malaysian football, particularly with Johor Darul Ta’zim set to become the first Malaysian team to compete in the group stages of the AFC Champions League. Perak will also be involved in the ACL, with a play-off tie against Hong Kong’s Kitchee SC awaiting them in February.
The Malaysian Super League is set to kick-off in February, with newly-constructed schedules allowing more matches to be played on weekends, as opposed to in mid-week. The broadcast unit of MFL will be producing even more content to generate excitement on the league, while the resurgence of sleeping giants like Selangor, is undoubtedly set to add a fresh new twist to the battle for supremacy.
As for the national team, Tan Cheng Hoe’s biggest task will take place in the middle of the year – Round 1 of the Asian Cup and World Cup qualifiers is scheduled to take place in June. Between now and then, it will be incredibly crucial for the Malaysian boss to continue developing strategies that will further accelerate and strengthen the brand of football he has been able to implement in the last two months or so.
Meanwhile, Datuk Ong Kim Swee and his U23 boys will be firmly focused on the AFC U-23 Championships, which will take place in March. With the Philippines and China in the same group, the Young Tigers are certainly up against a tricky task.
FOX Sports Asia Report Card Rating: A-
There is plenty to be proud of, as far as Malaysian football is concerned, this year. JDT’s historic fifth MSL crown, coupled with Perak ending their long-wait for silverware, is enough to showcase the kind of romance local football brought to the table this year.
Then there’s Tan Cheng Hoe’s Malaysian boys, who made millions of Malaysians dream with a highly-spirited showing at the AFF Suzuki Cup. Just the sight of the Bukit Jalil Stadium turning into an absolute fortress, across four games, in one month, is enough for us to give Malaysian football an ‘A’.
But of course, none of this must dilute systemic issues that continue to plague the local football scene. Unpaid wages, bureaucratic failures, poor managements and political games.