Meet three of the four amigos behind PKNS’ ambitious push for major honours...
Lunchtime is almost over in Mont Kiara, Kuala Lumpur. White-collar professionals are beginning to finish their meals and get back to work in the affluent neighbourhood, but three, well, two and a half South Americans casually go against the flow and walk into Michaelangelo’s Italian Restaurant, where FFT has been waiting to catch up with them. There is no commotion created when they enter, as off the pitch they look every bit like regular expats, which comprise the majority of the total residential population in the area. But on it, along with Argentine striker Gabriel Guerra, PKNS’ Gonzalo Soto, Juan Manuel Cobelli and Matias Hadwa have proven to be menaces for their opponents in the M-League.
“I’m sorry that Gabby [Guerra] cannot join us. He is not free today,” Soto, as PKNS captain, apologises for the absence of his lethal marksman, who is the joint-top goal scorer (13) in the Malaysian Premier League alongside Malacca United’s Ilija Spasojevic at the time of writing. “He is a bit shy,” jokes Cobelli before the trio proceed to order cannelloni ricotta spinaci, raviolo sardegna and insalata dei cesari. Those are “spinach and ricotta cannelloni”, “ravioli stuffed with spinach and ricolla” and “Caesar salad” to us in English.
Italian food seems to be an odd choice, but the restaurant has been specifically picked as our rendezvous spot by Soto himself, again being the leader, who admits they frequent the establishment a few times every week. “[The restaurant] is close to where we are living now,” the defender tells us. “It is an Italian place, but its selection of food is similar to what we usually have in South America. Pizza, lasagne, spaghetti…”
“We miss our food, so this is as good as it gets,” Hadwa, the only non-Argentine and Chile-born Palestine international in the group, adds before emphasising on how much he misses his mother’s cooking and authentic South American cuisine in general. The other two agree with him. Even though the four of them have been in Malaysia for more than five months – even longer than that for Soto and Guerra, having already played for the Selangor club a year before Cobelli and Hadwa joined – local food is still something they have not truly grown accustomed to. In fact, they have been dumbfounded by the Malaysians’ love for spicy food.
“We cannot take spicy food,” reveals Soto, much to FFT’s shock and horror. “In South America, we do not eat spicy food at all, and what you all eat here is too much for us. For example, it will only take one bite to give problems to my stomach for an entire day.” As for Hadwa, the midfielder hates it with a passion. “Never in my entire life have I [willingly] eaten anything spicy. I just hate it. Don’t get me wrong, Malaysian food is great, but you put too much chili and spices in almost everything.”
“Other than that, we love the food here. We especially like to eat roti canai and roti telur,” adds Cobelli. It is a bit disappointing that they do not share the locals’ love for nasi kandar, curry mee, et cetera, but to be fair, they have not travelled halfway around the world to wine and dine. They are here to play football and win, and whatever food they have been fuelling themselves with, it has clearly worked.
At the midway point of the season, the South Americans have bagged 43 goals of PKNS’ total of 49 in all competitions – Soto the defender managed to grab one in an FA Cup match against Terengganu. It is a ridiculous goal-scoring rate even by Super League standards, which has helped the Red Ants trail just four points behind Premier League leaders Malacca United, and eliminate three Super League sides and Sime Darby en route to the FA Cup final. Furthermore, it is definitely something that not many could’ve predicted at the beginning of the season when PKNS lost to Kuala Lumpur and Malacca United in their first two league games. With Soto and Cobelli’s aerial dominance, Hadwa’s driving runs from midfield and the potency in front of goal of Guerra – who, by the way, is such a confident penalty taker that his team-mates hardly make runs from the edge of the penalty area to pick up any rebound – goals have been aplenty for the Selangor side since the disappointing opening stages of the season.
When quizzed on the reason behind their good form on the pitch, Soto believes the fact that the PKNS quartet hailing from the same region has played a big role. “Besides the language factor, football is played similarly in South America. So it is very easy for us to understand one another.”
“Sometimes we don’t even need to directly communicate with each other. When one of us is about to make a run, the others will know what to do,” Hadwa adds.
Besides their almost telepathic understanding, the trio also hail head coach E. Elavarasan for their goal-scoring feats, and are thankful to him for the trust he has shown in them. “I really appreciate him because he has made me feel very comfortable from the first day I arrived at the club,” says Hadwa. “He always talks to us and encourages us.”
“I have been working with the coach for over a year now,” Soto says. “We have achieved great results together and the team keeps improving under him with each passing day. [We lost in the first round of the FA Cup last year but] this year we made it to the final, so you can see the difference. He works very hard and does not accept anything less than 100% from us, which is good because it can rub off on the team.”
With goals getting scored for fun, FFT wonders, do the attacking trio compete on who will score the most goals? Before Hadwa and Cobelli could answer, Soto stamps his authority as captain. “If they ever compete with each other, I will kill them.”
“Yeah, we do not compete,” Cobelli immediately echoes his skipper’s sentiment before Hadwa chips in: “We don’t really care who scores, whether it is any of us or the locals. In the end, the objective is to win. We want to win trophies, not the golden boot.”
Speaking of trophies, team glory did almost come their way in the recently concluded FA Cup, where PKNS lost 2-1 to Johor Darul Ta’zim in the final. PKNS took the lead first through Guerra, but the Southern Tigers secured the trophy thanks to goals from Safiq Rahim and Jorge Pereyra Diaz.
Looking back at his team’s first-ever cup final appearance, Soto remains proud of their achievement. “The team did a very good job and fought to the end,” he explains before highlighting a defeat to the Johor side is not a thing to be ashamed of. “They have a good and big team with great supporters. They are good champions, and it was a good experience for us.”
Hadwa also feels the same way. “We did not win, but in my opinion we made it a very good game and played as equals. JDT are currently the biggest team in Malaysia, while we are like a little family that is still growing. The important thing is we played against Terengganu, Felda and JDT in the FA Cup and showed that we can compete with them. We proved that the differences between the Super League and Premier League are not that big. So I think we did a great job.”
The positive attitude they are showing is not only felt throughout the lunch but has been evident on the pitch as well. After the FA Cup final defeat, they immediately bounced back by beating DRB-Hicom 2-1 before swatting the same side 5-0 a few days later, showing no signs of setback. Most importantly, the first of the two wins against the Great Bees ensured their qualification for this year’s Malaysia Cup, giving PKNS another opportunity at winning a trophy this season. However, for Soto and Co., there are no questions about what their focus should be on.
“We understand the importance of the Malaysia Cup for football fans in this country, but the main objective [we have set since the beginning of the season] has not changed. We want to get promoted to the Super League,” insists Soto, who was part of last year’s squad that surprisingly topped their Malaysia Cup group ahead of then defending champions Pahang, Super League side PDRM and newly-promoted Penang before they were knocked out by eventual finalists Kedah. “This year’s [promotion race] is tighter than last year with so many good teams like Malacca and Kuala Lumpur competing with us. It will be very difficult to be promoted, but it is not impossible if we continue to do well and play like how we have been.”
So, PKNS really have no Malaysia Cup aspiration at all? “Of course, we will still try our best. We will take it one game at a time [and see how it goes],” concludes Soto, with his two team-mates nodding in agreement. A top two finish in the Premier League, which will secure the team’s promotion, might be their desired entrée, but clearly they have room for dessert.
This article was first published in the FFT Malaysia/Singapore July 2016 issue.
(Pictures: Pixelpix Photography, asiana.my)