From champs to chumps: Why have Malaysia fallen so far?
It was a cool evening in Vientiane, Laos in 2009, when Malaysian football was thrown into the spotlight for the right reasons again. A late own goal by Vietnam defender Mai Xuan Hop handed the Malaysians their first SEA Games title in 20 years.
A year later, the bulk of the under-23 side had graduated into the senior team and buried the ghost of an opening day 5-1 defeat to hosts Indonesia with a win over the Garudas in the two-legged AFF Suzuki Cup final. It propelled the team and head coach K. Rajagobal to national stardom as Harimau Malaya lifted the trophy for the first time.
The Malaysian under-23 side, this time under Ong Kim Swee, retained the SEA Games gold medal in 2011, but these success ultimately proved nothing but a false down.
Malaysia reached the 2014 AFF Suzuki Cup final, losing out to a vastly superior Thailand side. Yet it was nothing to shout about, with critics pointing to some sheer luck along the way and the fact the Singapore surprisingly didn't show up for the final group match – in what was then their biggest game at the new Singapore Sports Hub.
Malaysia's opponents in the final dominated the competition from the very first match and it was no fluke looking at how Kiatisuk Senamuang’s side has carried that momentum into its recent World Cup qualifiers. The War Elephants lead Group F with 13 points and are virtually certain of a place in the World Cup qualifying final round comprising 12 of the continent’s best teams.
By contrast, the Malaysians have shipped in a whopping 26 goals – averaging one scored for every 13 conceded – and lie fourth in Group A with only four points that carry no weight in the fourth-placed teams seeding.
Malaysia almost certainly need to contest a playoff round before having any chance of making it to the 2019 Asian Cup qualifying third round.
FourFourTwo takes a look at how and why the Malaysians have self-destructed since their all-too-brief glory years. This disregards the lack of development at grassroots level, a long-standing issue prior to 2009.
Ditching the plan
Success between 2009 and 2011 came during a time when Football Association of Malaysia’s (FAM) development side played its football in the Malaysia Super League (MSL) and had an eight-month stint in Slovakia in 2010.
A large core of those teams came from the Harimau Muda project. Harimau Muda won the 2009 Malaysia Premier League under K. Rajagobal before going on to win the SEA Games that year. The Slovakia stint, though an ill-fated one for head coach Azraai Khor, came before Rajagobal guided Malaysia to the AFF Suzuki Cup in 2010. In 2011, Ong’s Harimau Muda finished fifth in the MSL and later retained the SEA Games title.
Yet FAM then decided to enter Harimau Muda into the S.League in 2012 after signing a Memorandum of Understanding with their neighbours Singapore, which resulted in LionsXII taking Harimau Muda’s place in the MSL. The rest was history, as they say – for both Malaysia and Singapore.
While the Singaporeans have made the most of playing in the MSL (winning the 2012 AFF Suzuki Cup with 12 members of the LionsXII squad), Ong pulled his team out of the S.League after just one season, citing the need for more competitive matches.
Harimau Muda went on to tour Europe in 2013 and played in the Queensland National Premier League in 2014 as a guest team. There was nothing to shout about by the Malaysian under-23s nor the senior team during this period.