Fortunate to hang on to his job, Malaysia coach Dollah Salleh is trying to pick up the pieces ahead of the latest round of World Cup qualifers, as John Duerden reports…
Palestine. It is going to be a word forever etched into the psyche of Malaysian football fans. The English have Hungary in the '50s, while Brazil have that semi-final against Germany to haunt them for years to come. There are no positives to take from losing 6-0 at home, apart from the slightly clichéd and often desperate hope that it can be a turning point. That remains to be seen for Harimau Malaya.
To have a hope of doing so, there are demons that need to be exorcised as soon as possible. Mention the P-word to coach Dollah Salleh and he laughs, perhaps to mask the hurt that came his way on June 16.
As long as they want me as a coach, I will stay. There's still a lot of work to do
“Even now, I am always thinking about that game, every day,” Dollah confesses in an interview with FourFourTwo. “It is on my mind all the time. We will use it as motivation. That's what I say to my players. We don't want this thing to happen again; we don't want to lose 6-0.”
The former Pahang boss admits that it was his worst day as a coach, but maintains that it could have gone differently. “In the first half, we had two clear chances but we just could not score goals, that was the problem. At half-time [trailing 3-0] I told them that if we can get one then we can get two and if we get two then we can get three and so on, but after the fourth goal everything collapsed.
“I was in shock but it happened. I never imagined it would, but it is now part of our experience and we have to learn from that. Experience plays a big part in improving and that is what we have to do.”
Many thought he wouldn’t get the chance. After a public summoning from the Football Association of Malaysia, there was an expectation the axe would fall faster than the ringgit. There was instead a stay of execution, but the boss admits it was not a pleasant experience.
“They said a lot of things but I don't care. I don't worry about that. I just want to concentrate on the next games. As long as they want me as a coach, I will stay. There's still a lot of work to do.”
The first part comes on Thursday in Abu Dhabi against United Arab Emirates – a daunting prospect especially for a team that has scored just once in the last five games. The most recent blank came in a disappointing goalless draw in a home friendly against Bangladesh on Saturday.
UAE finished third at the 2015 Asian Cup and have a real chance of qualifying for what would be a second World Cup. Dollah has faith that a shock – and it really would be that – is on the cards with a squad that has 10 changes from that named back in June.
“We will do our best. We know that the game will not be easy, but we are confident. Hopefully we can show something extra like we did against Liverpool (a Malaysian XI drew 1-1 with the English giants in July). If we can't win then at least we can get a draw.”
A point would be a great result but perhaps the best thing to hope for is an improvement. “I don't care about the UAE and how they will play, the most important thing is that my players know the concept of how I want them to play and play with discipline. We may play 5-4-1, I haven't decided yet.”
One decision that has been made is that they won’t be man-marking any UAE stars. The likes of Omar Abdulrahman, the playmaker linked to numerous members of Europe's elite, and the 2015 Asian Cup’s top scorer Ali Mabkhout will be watched closely, but no special plans will be put in place.
“We have a lot of information on them and have watched lots of videos. We will be talking to our players to remind them of UAE's key players. I won't put anyone to mark Abdulrahman or anyone else but I will remind them that they have to be stopped.”
The UAE provide some inspiration to Malaysia. A young generation of players have come through the various youth teams together guided by Mahdi Ali, a coach who has risen with them. Such consistency and long-term thinking would be welcome in Kuala Lumpur, where too many people talk with nostalgia about a so-called golden age, rather than make concrete plans for the future.
For the coach, the basic problem is that the country just does not produce enough talent. “The first thing I can tell you, to compare the quality of the players in Malaysia to the rest of Asia is not easy. There are past times, in the ‘70s and ‘80s, when they were not much different.
Even now, I am always thinking about that game, every day. It is on my mind all the time
“But now to compare with Japan, Saudi Arabia, the gap is too far. We need to do something.” Having more time with them would help, though this is a common coaching complaint.
“It's a big problem,” Dollah says. “It's not easy as a coach as we have pressure to go and play against a good team after just three or four days together. We had a problem to get players from JDT and Pahang who are involved in the quarter-finals of the AFC Cup. I need players that I can spend time with.”
The best way to do that is to get to the final round of qualification and benefit from 10 games against some of Asia's top teams. That is not going to happen this time around, but there is still the 2019 Asian Cup – hosted by UAE – to aim for. Finish as high as possible and Malaysia could be returning to Abu Dhabi four years later, which really would be a sign of progress.
Progress. Now that’s a P-word everyone can get behind and would be less painful for Malaysian ears than the current one. “By hook or by crook, we will finish as high as we can,” Dollah said. “Hopefully, we can do something in UAE to make us to forget about Palestine.”