As the world's eyes are fixed on the 2015 FIFA Women's World Cup in Canada this month, Ariff Aziz wonders if Malaysia will be part of the showcase someday...
For years, Malaysia have not done well on the international stage - not just the men's team but also the women's. For the ladies, they have constantly struggled to keep up with regional rivals and powerhouses Thailand, Myanmar and Vietnam. For instance, the Tigresses have not qualified from the group stages of the AFF Women's Championship for the past five tournaments, and the number of times they made it to the knockout rounds of the SEA Games since 1995 can be counted with one hand.
In fact, speaking of the SEA Games, they had the worst tournament in the 2009 edition in Laos. They finished bottom of the group stages, losing all matches, scoring only one goal and conceding 34 goals. Of that total goals conceded, 14 of them came against the Thais in a completely one-sided game.
Two years after that 14-0 thrashing, the Football Association of Malaysia (FAM) took a drastic measure of disbanding the women’s national football team and banning the squad from taking part in any championship except for friendly matches for a year. The rationale behind it was to focus on unearthing new talented players from the grassroots level in the hopes of building a stronger team. Former ATM head coach Jacob Joseph was then immediately tasked to take charge of the new team.
Now, in 2015, Malaysia's fortunes have hardly changed. Sadly, the most notable change is in the coaching department as former Sabah futsal head coach Asyraaf Abdullah was appointed as the successor of Joseph, who has taken the reins at FAM League side MISC-MIFA, last April - just a month before the 2015 AFF Women’s Championship in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam kicked off. At the eighth edition of the regional women’s competition, it was the same old story as Malaysia finished bottom of their group, lost all three matches and conceded 14 goals.
It is easy to comprehend how the Tigresses' development has stagnated over the years, especially if they take a quick glance at Thailand. The Thais made their much-publicised debut at the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup in Canada, earlier in June, which even got former FIFA president Sepp Blatter to congratulate them.
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Their historic 3-2 win against Ivory Coast marked the first points garnered by Thailand at a FIFA World Cup event and also showcased their unwavering determination against a seemingly stronger opposition. So, what is the secret of their recent success? The answer could very well be the establishment of Thai Women’s Premier League (TWPL) in 2009. The league is participated by eight teams, complete with a promotion and relegation system to Thai Division 1. On top of that, programmes and initiatives encouraging the involvement of girls and women in the game of football – such as the Live Your Goals campaign – have contributed to the talent development in the country.
In comparison, Malaysia's talent pool at the disposal of Asyraaf has been incredibly scarce. With the absence of a national football league, the nucleus of the 25-woman squad called up for the 2015 AFF Women’s Championship comprised of mostly professional futsal players, who predominantly ply their trade at the recently-concluded National Futsal League (LFK). It is indeed in stark contrast to the level of infrastructure dedicated to women’s football in Thailand. However, dejected Malaysian fans could perhaps finally see glimpses of light at the end of the tunnel.
Against all odds, under the guidance of coach Zhang Hong, the national U14 girls' team recently made history by qualifying for the semi-final stage of AFC U14 Regional Championship in Hanoi, Vietnam. The historic feat was achieved after performing admirably in the group stages which included a 2-2 draw against last year’s runners-up, the Philippines. Malaysia will face a monumental task playing against defending champions Thailand in the semi-final on June 27th, but regardless of the result, it remains a positive sign for women’s football in the country.
Moreover, the FAM will also be hosting the once prevalent Tun Sharifah Rodziah Cup this August, as part of a campaign to rejuvenate the national women’s football scene. The cup competition is rich with history, with its first edition dating all the way back to 1976 as a result of the initiative by the late Tun Sharifah Rodziah, who was an avid supporter of women’s football. She was also the former president of the now defunct Ladies’ Football Association of Malaysia (LFAM) and Asian Ladies’ Football Association (ALFC). After a four-year hiatus, the competition will be making its much anticipated return.
After years in the abyss, perhaps it is fitting that the revival of the cup competition borne by the sheer passion of the first Prime Minister of Malaysia's wife could assist in turning over a new leaf to Malaysian women’s football. France 2019 should be too soon for Malaysia to emulate Thailand, but a man or, rather, a woman can dream.
(Pictures: Football Association of Malaysia)