Asian Games litmus test of Harimau Muda

Astro Arena Managing Editor Dez Corkhill believes in maintaining the Harimau Muda experiment, no matter the results for Datuk Ong Kim Swee’s young charges at the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea.

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Let’s be realistic. Malaysia Under-23 head coach Datuk Ong Kim Swee will go into the 2014 Asian Games in South Korea under some pressure to exceed expectations and qualify for the knock-out stages from a group that includes the hosts, Saudi Arabia and Laos.

Notwithstanding the triumph at the Merdeka Tournament last year, semi-final defeats for the national team at the AFF Suzuki Cup in 2012 followed by the Under-23 SEA Games penalty shoot-out loss to Indonesia have seen the group of young tigers, in many people’s eyes, take a backwards step after the SEA Games and Suzuki Cup successes between 2009 and 2011.

The Harimau Muda won the Merdeka Tournament last year

I fear for the Harimau Muda at the forthcoming tournament that kicks off on September 14th. The fear stems not so much about the results for the team on the pitch, but for what will be an overly negative reaction if, as most are predicting, Datuk Ong’s selection fail to progress from that really tough group.

To make things more difficult, Malaysia generally have a poor record at the Asian Games. Bronze medals won back in 1962 and 1974 are a dim and distant memory. In that 1974 campaign, Malaysia actually beat this year’s hosts South Korea 3-2 in the group stages. However, since 1978 Asian Games, the Koreans have won the tournament twice (once shared) and have participated in five out of the last six bronze medal matches, while Malaysia have never got beyond the group stages until 2010. How fortunes have changed.

I can already sense the destructive headlines – particularly if the team are well beaten by South Korea – comparing the relative progress of the country's football representatives since the 1970s and 80s. The fear I have is that a negative reaction – or worse, an apathetic one – may cause the opinions of those who oppose the idea of a separate Harimau Muda selection to hold sway, and that the resources pumped into the already contentious experiment may be diverted elsewhere.

Yay or nay to Harimau Muda?

Following the disastrous 2007 AFC Asian Cup, which demonstrated that football was on a downward spiral in the country, the Football Association of Malaysia (FAM) decided that something out of the box needed to be done to help the development of young players in Malaysia. That out-of-the-box idea was the Harimau Muda initiative.

It is quite confusing to an outsider to see how things work in the Harimau Muda set-up. Simply put, the people from the Bukit Jalil Sports School to those selected to train and work full time with the team identify the talented youngsters in the country and develop them into being capable of playing at the highest level. Currently there are various age range teams, with the top three being a "C" team competing in the FAM League, a "B" team playing in the S-League in Singapore, and the Harimau Muda "A" who competed in Australia’s National Premier Leagues Queensland in the last few months.

Datuk K. Rajagopal oversaw the project from 2007 to 2009

By separating groups of young players from the state squads, the Harimau Muda achieved success, winning the 2009 FAM League, the 2010 Suzuki Cup and the SEA Games in 2009 and 2011 to give this policy instant credibility. And if you look back to the Asian Games four years ago, where the abiding memory was Australian referee Ben Williams (harshly) dishing out three red cards to the Malaysians in a loss to China, it wasn’t all that bad because the team, for the first time since 1974, qualified for the Round of 16 where they eventually lost to Iran. However, in many ways it has put even more spotlight on the Harimau Muda set-up.

Those achievements mean that the same, or better, is expected from subsequent Harimau Muda teams, with many people arguing that international glory has been non-existent since the 2011 SEA Games. Semi-final losses in the subsequent SEA Games and Suzuki Cup tournaments have resulted in the seven-year old experiment being called into question – is everything the Harimau Muda have done so far worth it?

One can easily argue that separating the Harimau Muda players from the state and club teams that make up the M-League is detrimental to the development of the players, as the best players aren’t put into the cut and thrust of competitive action with older, more experienced colleagues. Or, that the President's Cup tournament for Under-21 players has been weakened by the state teams not having access to their best players. There’s one problem to both arguments, though: the kind of thriving and competitive scene to develop young players, which you can easily observe in European football, doesn’t seem to exist in Malaysia.

You can spend long, fruitless hours searching for information about the M-League and where to play competitive football in this country. If the leagues and competitive structures do exist, then they are superbly hidden. The end result is that players of all ages don't get the chance to play organised or competitive football. If they are unable to get opportunities to play the game and to find a level at which they can compete and improve – never mind how good or bad the facilities are – then the chances to progress are stunted at source. The likes of FRENZ United and the 1MCC organisations have tried to address some of the issues of player development and competitive leagues for junior players, but the fact that these organisations are so prominent merely confirms that there are few real alternatives out there.

Nazmi Faiz Mansor, one of the brightest talents to emerge from the set-up

Another seemingly weakness to develop young players capable of stepping up to international competitions is that when foreign players are employed by clubs or states, they invariably take up the positions down the spine of the team and absorb most responsibilities. That means centre-back, central midfield and striking positions become the near exclusive preserve of the foreign signing.

Where will the local players learn their trade if they can’t play regularly? Similarly, why will a coach under pressure to get results play a young local striker when a foreign signing can provide him with a more certain outcome?

There is no doubt that the presence of good foreign players is a real asset to the league. Therefore, to revert back to the no-foreigner policy, which happened between 2009 and 2012, will be a backwards step. To me, the Malaysia Super League of 2014 is a far more competitive league than 10 years ago. It seems counter-productive to weaken a league that is clearly improving, so the alternate solution of the Harimau Muda is as reasonable a way as any to go.

Furthermore, by exposing young players to the M-League, S-League, and then taking young players to the likes of Slovakia and Australia, Datuk Ong is taking the players out of their comfort zones and testing their mettle to make them better players. Then again, the experimental foray to play in Australia's physically demanding second tier has produced a curious mixture of encouraging and demoralising results. The team could be blown away 6-0 one week, bounce back to win 4-1 three days later before losing 3-0 the next weekend.

The likes of Mahali Jasuli, Wan Zack Haikal and Fadhli Shas have graduated to star for the senior team

Former Australia international Scott Ollerenshaw, who facilitated the training stint in the Land Down Under, reckoned that the expedition was positive as he said: “Datuk Ong wanted the team to play in a tough, physical league playing for points rather than meaningless friendlies like in Slovakia last year. The physicality and high tempo of the league were an eye opener for the players, but as the season went on they did make adjustments and improve in these areas.”

Realistic expectations

The hope from the supporters of the Malaysia Asian Games team is that Datuk Ong can orchestrate an upset and progress to the knockout stages. That will be the best result of all to emerge from Incheon. Realistically, though, being competitive in the matches against the hosts, who are the current Under-22 AFC Championship winners, and Saudi Arabia in particular is what might be seen as progress.

A medium term hope would be that the likes of Gary Steven Robbat, Fandi Othman and co. will take their years of involvement with the Harimau Muda set-up into the Super League environment and thrive. We've got some examples of individual development from last year’s Merdeka Cup winning squad in Fadhli Shas, Izham Tarmizi and Wan Zaharulnizam Zakaria graduating from the Harimau Muda set-up to play in the Malaysia Super League. Wan Zack Haikal would surely have joined that list were it not for his career threatening injury problems.

Longer term, one would also hope to see truly competitive leagues being developed at the state level at various age ranges to encourage football to become a mainstream weekend activity for far more people than it currently is. Perhaps that is too much to hope for, in which case, the need for initiatives such as the Harimau Muda’s Australian exposure will continue to be the way forward.

It's at events such as the Asian Games that the real value ought to be seen. In the absence of strong regional feeder competitions and leagues, and for the sake of the future of the Harimau Muda experiment, I am fervently hoping the Young Tigers can take the hard lessons learned in Australia’s state league and in the new, improved Malaysian top flight, and come together to cause an upset.