Toothless Tigers – the dearth of Malaysian strikers

With the 2014 AFF Suzuki Cup kicking off soon, the attacking options available for the Harimau Malaya have Darren Goon worried...

“Relax lah, like Dollah Salleh.”

That was the piece of advice given by Malaysia’s national team coach in response to a cheeky journalist’s question of whether his current batch of strikers should “play like Dollah” during a press conference before Malaysia’s friendly with Cambodia back in September.

A prolific goalscorer during his own playing days, Dollah surely knows what he’s talking about. However, it is rather ironic that his ascension to the post of Harimau Malaya’s head coach should coincide with one of the poorest selections of strikers in recent memory.

Case in point: The most recent list of 25 players for Malaysia’s AFF Cup training squad features five strikers who scored a grand total of 21 goals in all competitions between them this season. 

Amri Yahyah, one of the best local attackers this season

25-man AFF Suzuki Cup Training Squad's Goal Breakdown

Amri Yahyah (JDT) - 7
Manaf Mamat (Terengganu) - 6
Farhan Roslan (Kedah) - 3
Safee Sali (JDT) - 3
Norshahrul Idlan Talaha (JDT) - 2

JDT’s Amri Yahyah leads the way with seven goals, followed by Terengganu’s Manaf Mamat (six). Amri’s teammates Safee Sali and Norshahrul Idlan Talaha have three and two respectively, while Kedah youngster Farhan Roslan netted thrice – though he’s more of a winger than a striker.

Worryingly, Safee, Norshahrul, and Manaf are the only proper strikers in that squad, as 11 goals all season between them are as many as JDT star striker Luciano Figueroa’s goal tally in the Super League alone.

On the pitch, both Safee and Norshahrul have become shadows of their former selves. To be fair, Safee has been plagued by a succession of injuries to his groin and knee in recent seasons, and was unfortunate to pick up acute tendonitis in his left leg when offered a rare start up front against Kelantan in August. Norshahrul, meanwhile, has more often than not had his name linked to events off the pitch, than on it. For instance, he was in trouble after failing to report for the first day of centralised training at Wisma FAM in February, citing personal issues.

Norshahrul struggled in the 2014 Oppo Malaysia Cup final

To clarify the commonly-held belief that both strikers rarely appeared from the bench over the past season, Norshahrul actually started 13 league games for JDT last season, with five more appearances off the bench; Safee did not fare as well, making only three starts in his nine appearances. In contrast, Amri missed only one league game due to suspension. Of course, that could be attributed to his positional versatility and consistent performances, whereas both Norshahrul and Safee had to contend for just one spot beside the undisputed main man, Figueroa.

But that was until JDT replaced Pablo Aimar with Jorge Pereyra Diaz in the April transfer window. The young Argentinian’s ability to play on the wings and up front meant that he was often preferred in tandem with Lucho, at the expense of Safee and Norshahrul. Undoubtedly, Diaz’s eight goals in just seven league games helped his cause for a starting spot in attack, but many will continue to lament local teams’ overindulgence in foreign forwards as one of the main reasons for local strikers’ drop in form.

Foreigners killing the local stars?

The Football Association of Malaysia (FAM) once banned the hiring of foreign footballers beginning January 2009. At the time, then-FAM deputy president Khairy Jamaluddin told the New Straits Times: “The council felt that with the presence of foreign players, local players have not been given the opportunity. We are back to the drawing board, our focus now will be development,” before adding, “It may be seen as a backtrack measure but we have to bear in mind that this is the only way to raise our football standard.” 

This was the second time they had enforced such a ruling after the first ban was introduced in 1999 in the wake of the Asian financial crisis. It was revoked three years later, the same amount of time it took for the 2009 ban to be overturned in order to keep Malaysian teams competitive at AFC Cup level. In 2012, M-League teams were allowed to sign two import players. Fast forward two seasons, and that number has doubled to four, including one mandatory AFC player, though only three could take to the pitch at one time.

Figueroa and other foreign strikers dominated the 2014 headlines

Nonetheless, in the three seasons without import players, the Super League’s scoring charts were (obviously) topped by Malaysians, with Nizaruddin Yusof, Ashaari Shamsuddin, and Abdul Hadi Yahaya claiming the Golden Boot from 2009 to 2011. Without foreign footballers, the average goals scored per match dropped from 3.08 in 2008 to 2.98 (2009), 2.62 (2010), and 2.4 (2011). While that does not indicate that the league was any less entertaining than it was with import players, the spell happened to coincide with Harimau Malaya’s most successful period in in recent memory – two SEA Games gold medals and one AFF Suzuki Cup in the space of three years. Not a bad haul at all.

While far from the only reason for the team’s success, the ban allowed players like Safee (who was 26 when he won the Golden Boot at the 2010 AFF Suzuki Cup), Norshahrul, Ashaari, and Amirulhadi Zainal to enjoy playing time at club level and continue with their football development, which was reflected in their showings on the international stage.

Can Safee roll back the years?

Goals win games, and with the possibility of signing up to four foreign players, Malaysian teams stocked up on attackers. At the start of the 2014 season, 21 of the 44 (48%) foreign players in the league were forwards, while that number rose to 50% (22/44) after the April transfer window, an average of two attackers per team. With two imported strikers to contend with, it’s no surprise that some local strikers found opportunities hard to come by. A prime example of this would be at Pahang, where Fauzi Roslan featured in all 11 Malaysia Cup matches, but only four as a starter, coming off the bench seven times for Dickson Nwakaeme or Matias Conti. He still managed to score three goals in the cup, mind, all as a substitute.

The local supporting cast like R. Gopinathan and Safiq Rahim have ample opportunity to practice their crosses and through-passes week in, week out in competitive matches, but in the national team set-up they don’t have strikers of equivalent ability or match sharpness to put those chances away. Case in point: Malaysia’s seven international goals in 2014 to date were all scored by wingers/attacking midfielders.

Gopi can provide assists, but who can finish?

However, Dollah stressed that clubs and foreign players should not shoulder all the blame, telling FourFourTwo in May: "When every team signs and plays foreign players, it will definitely sideline the locals [and affect the national team]. To me, if you're a professional player, you have to fight for your place in the team. Whether you are a local player or not, if you can put up a fight, train well and perform, I will play you.

"During my playing time, everyone including myself had to compete with foreigners. So, why can't today's players do it?"

Unselected Strikers' Goal Breakdown

Bobby Gonzales (PDRM) - 12
Nor Farhan Muhammad (Terengganu) - 8
Fauzi Roslan (Pahang) - 6

Oddly enough, he omitted the two top-scoring Malaysians in all M-League competitions this season from his training squad, Terengganu’s Nor Farhan Muhammad and PDRM's Bobby Gonzales. Nor Farhan had seven league goals (eight in total), the highest-scoring Malaysian in the Super League, whereas Bobby netted eight league goals (albeit in the Premier League) and 12 in all. The latter's absence is all the more surprising since he worked alongside Dollah with PDRM this season, and contributed an assist for Joseph Kallang Tie in the 4-1 friendly win against Cambodia in September.

The national team training for the Cambodia match

While he has yet to announce Malaysia’s final 22-man squad for the AFF Suzuki Cup, Dollah’s forward department in the current training squad seems a tad lightweight, despite identifying the strikeforce as his biggest problem in the same pre-match press conference for the Cambodia match. “I have Amri and Norshahrul, good players who can take on players, but I don’t have one with the killer instinct of scoring goals, especially like Safee Sali.”

Being ruthless and relaxed? Dollah’s looking for a cold-blooded killer of a striker. With the tournament just around the corner, he doesn’t have long to put the bite back into his Harimau Malaya side.

(Photos: asiana.my, Jason Kang)