By any standards, Harimau Malaya have had a dreadful 12 months, with the 2-1 loss to United Arab Emirates (UAE) on Tuesday capping a disastrous 2015. Vijhay Vick takes a look at the importance of 2016…
Malaysia’s show of grit against the Gulf nation in their final international of the year was commendable, but it does not bode well that a 2-1 defeat could in fact be the highlight of 2015.
The Malaysians played 11 matches in 2015 – losing six (five in the World Cup qualifiers), beating two Southeast Asian minnows and drawing three – and finished with a best-forgotten goal difference of minus-27.
They conceded a whopping 34 goals in that span and scored just seven.
Sliding world rankings (now at an all-time low No.171) and a succession of heavy, morale-breaking losses mean it will be a tough year ahead.
The Malaysians are virtually certain their route to the 2019 AFC Asian Cup qualifying final round will be through the playoff between the 12 worst teams in the continent, battling for the final eight places.
While there are deep underlying problems in Malaysian football that need to be addressed urgently – including proper development and better management – Football Association of Malaysia (FAM) must also think of the near future.
For this, FAM must determine their national coach as soon as possible or risk facing another crisis. It will allow FAM and their new man to properly plan the journey ahead.
The Malaysians cannot afford to miss out on that Asian Cup final qualifying round as failure would mean the lack of competitive football – sans the AFF Suzuki Cup, which is merely a friendly tournament – until after the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia. Playing in the final round will secure competitive matches until 2017.
It would not work as a blessing despite a school of thought the Malaysians could revamp the national team and fill it with young players in preparation for the 2022 World Cup qualifying campaign, which could again double as the 2023 Asian Cup qualifiers.
Such a situation would spell disaster. The lack of competitive football equates to less exposure and less opportunities to collect points. Friendly matches offer little benefit compared to the Asian Cup qualifiers.
The slide in rankings will only bring even tougher groupings in future.
Caretaker coach Ong Kim Swee used his audition for the Malaysian hot seat by showing Harimau Malaya have young players coming up through the ranks. In his five matches in charge, the former Harimau Muda coach has utilised a host of players 24 years of age and below.
The likes Matthew Davies (20 years old), Nazirul Naim Che Hashim (22), Fazly Mazlan (21), Izham Tarmizi Roslan (24), Syahrul Azwari Ibrahim (22), Shahrul Saad (22), Wan Zack Haikal Wan Nor (24) and Ahmad Hazwan Bakri (24) could form the core of the national team in coming years.
So 2016 has to be a transition year, as much as qualification for the Asian Cup playoffs is crucial.
Ong has already hinted at his plans for the national team if he is given a permanent role. Whether or not the FAM entrusts Ong to the position, young players must be given exposure next year.
Winning the 2016 AFF Suzuki Cup should not be a target. The Thais, Vietnam and Singapore all have better youth squads. Just as there was little of note in reaching the final with an aging squad and losing to a group of Thai youngsters in 2014, success with a mature squad does no good.
Actually, the Malaysians could have a decent young squad to challenge the region’s better countries at the AFF Suzuki Cup if the players are given as much exposure as possible until the tournament next November.
For this, they will need a lot of matches and the FIFA international calendar alone may not be sufficient.
FAM could – as in previous years – allow more International breaks in their domestic calendar to help the plight of the national team.
But this comes with a caveat – Malaysia must find other countries willing to play outside the international calendar. Playing clubs will not help the national team rankings, which simply need to go up.
It is a long tough road ahead for the Malaysians but it all starts in 2016. The sooner FAM name their man for the coaching position, the quicker they can start planning.