Ong Kim Swee's unfinished business
At the age of just 28 and dogged by persistent injuries, Ong Kim Swee knew his playing career wasn’t going to pan out as he’d envisaged and he now had a choice to make.
He could give it all away, perhaps follow in his father’s footsteps as a technician for the local electricity board or he could become a chef in the family restaurant. But he still had the game coursing through his veins.
So he made the decision to try to stay in football, enrolling in a series of coaching courses. Several years later he had the Asian Football Confederation’s (AFC) highest qualification, the Pro Licence, on his resume and a new career helping to develop young players on the boil.
The decade-and-a-half Ong has spent nurturing the country’s brightest young talents have criss-crossed some of the darkest and brightest days of Malaysian football.
It’s also been a time, increasingly so, where back-room interests often take precedence over on-field demands. Where various officials and club bosses feel they can step in and steer the course of a ship in which they barely recognise the deck controls and Ong’s current predicament certainly sees him in choppy waters.
Feted after successfully defending the SEA Games title in 2011 in front of a raucous crowd at the Gelora Bung Karno in Jakarta – a moment he calls his career highlight – and reaching the last four two years later, he now finds himself at a career crossroads after failing to progress from the group stages at this year’s edition in Singapore.
While his contract runs through until the end of the year, a period in which there are no matches scheduled, there is an ongoing internal review after which it’s widely expected the 44-year-old may be out of a job.
From standing in the heat of that Jakarta night in his blue buttoned shirt, rolled up at the sleeves like he was about to attend a business meeting, to standing crossed arm in a short-sleeved, faux tiger print number as Vietnam smashed in goal after goal in a 5-1 drubbing in Bishan, it’s been a long four years.
The man himself is clear where blame for the differing performance lies.
Whereas for both the 2011 and 2013 editions he had the players in a semi-fulltime environment with lengthy spells spent playing club sides in Slovakia, for the recent tournament he had barely a fortnight to gel the group into a team.
“Based on our history we prepared very well during those two tournaments with the time in Slovakia and so on, but this time around I got the players just three weeks before the first match and with a group that was not used to being together,” he explained. “And don’t forget many were not playing regularly at their clubs so it was really a limited preparation.”
Ong knows as well as anyone that the recent failure means his job is on the line, but as the internal machinations at the Football Association of Malaysia (FAM) rumble on there are some principles he’s not prepared to budge on even as he seeks a contract extension.
“Of course I want to continue in the job, but it all depends on what the association wants,” he said. “But I also need to put in certain matters regarding what I want and we need to sit down and talk.
“I don’t know if I can do it again if I have the team just three weeks before.”
The short-termist approach to football throughout much of the region is also something that concerns Ong and he cautions that it could take two decades for the seeds currently being sown to bear any kind of fruit.
“What I can say is that we have plenty of things to do not only regarding youth development but also coaching development.
“If you look at Thailand they are leaving many of the other Southeast Asian nations behind and it’s vitally important that we look overseas for ideas that can help develop football in the region.
“We have the players and there is good technique but the education and coaching development is often missing.
“Even in Malaysia we have good facilities, but we need to implement a good system of grassroots coaching and it’s vitally important that people see we cannot have instant results everywhere.
“In Malaysia people want instant results and the level of expectation is high, but I think after last year where the government spent a lot of money in trying to help develop young players, the results won’t be seen for 20 years.
“This pool of players is our future but we need to caution against always looking for instant results – sooner or later Malaysia has to iron this out.”
Ong's coaching credentials in this part of the world were recognised recently when he was named in FourFourTwo's list of the Top 15 ASEAN coaches.
If his contract with Harimau Muda isn’t renewed (a decision is expected within four weeks), then he has his sights set on a club job within the region where he can continue to hone his craft. He also hasn’t ruled out setting his sights further abroad than Malaysia.
“At some point in the future I’m definitely looking forward to coaching senior teams and I’d certainly love to work outside Malaysia and gain experience in other countries,” he said.
“I learned a lot from many of the coaches I played under and maybe one day we can see a coach move from Asia to a big European league, like Arsene Wenger did when he went from Nagoya to Arsenal.”
For the boyhood Arsenal fan that’s an apt parallel, but he also sees certain barriers that prevent Asian coaches from looking abroad.
“There are certainly many good coaches in Asia, especially in countries like Korea and Japan, but often I think it’s the language ability that holds them back and also maybe some aspects of man management.
“Certainly even here in Malaysia it’s becoming harder and harder and with the amount of money players are now earning in the region, coaching these days is as much about building a team as it is in technical aspects.
“Coaching is not just a matter of doing it on the field, but also how you get along with players and how you get them to play for you, especially in our region.”
Whether the likeable, would-be chef gets to continue that progression with some of Malaysia’s most talented young players only time will tell. But you can't help but feel Ong Kim Swee will be around Southeast Asian football, in one form or another, for a long while yet.