Analysis

Eliminated from Asian Cup reckoning, what should be the target for Malaysian football?

Having officially failed this week to qualify for the 2019 Asian Cup, the norm over the past three decades, Malaysia desperately need to start planning for the years ahead. The AFF Suzuki Cup is up next, but there are other reasons why 2018 is an important year.

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The Football Association of Malaysia (FAM) previously set a target of qualifying for the Asian Cup but the national body, under a new Tunku Ismail Sultan Ibrahim-led administration, has since admitted the Tigers stood very little chance of achieving that aim.

While the senior team has suffered in 2017, the country’s junior sides have been doing Malaysia proud

Moving forward was the message from Malaysia coach Nelo Vingada following their 4-1 defeat to North Korea on Monday and that is what Malaysia needs to think about, with or without the Portuguese coach.

The coming year could well define Malaysia’s future and if they get it right, it will set them up for the 2023 Asian Cup. It may be six years away, but qualification will start in 2019 and Malaysia’s preparations best begin next year.

FIRST UP – THE SUZUKI CUP

Winning Suzuki Cup gold has been placed as a more reasonable target than Asian Cup qualification, but even that will require a massive improvement as the likes of Thailand, Indonesia, Myanmar and Vietnam have been pulling away from Malaysia.

Yet setting sights on the coveted regional trophy may be a short-sighted vision.

Granted it is the most logical silverware for the Malaysians to chase and sending their best players – including a certain Natxo Insa – would give Malaysia a better shot against stronger neighbouring countries, unlike the 2016 edition.

But Malaysia needs to be thinking beyond that tournament and use the regional competition as preparation to get to the 2023 Asian Cup.

North Korea proved far too strong in Asian Cup qualifying

Malaysia won the 2010 Suzuki Cup with a bunch of youngsters led by Safiq Rahim. There were only four players above 25 in the squad and the oldest was 29-year-old Amri Yahyah. Fadhli Shas was the youngest member at 19.

A similar approach would bring to a close the international careers of Safiq, Baddrol Bakhtiar, Shahrom Kalam, Amirul Hadi Zainal, Aidil Zafuan Abdul Radzak and Safee Sali.

FAM last week announced a long training camp for the under-23 squad starting at the end of November right through until the competition

If some experience was needed, Malaysia should look no further than Johor Darul Ta’zim’s (JDT) Insa, who despite being 32 next year, will bring bags of experience with him. Since his arrival this season the former Levante midfielder proved to be the best player in the MSL.

The likes of Nor Azam Azih, Safawi Rasid, Syamer Kutty Abba, Adam Nor Azlin and Syafiq Ahmad have looked good in their senior debuts following the 2017 SEA Games with the Malaysia under-22 side.

Fazly Mazlan, Matthew Davies, Rizal Ghazali, Azrif Nasrulhaq, Afiq Fazail, S. Kumaahran and Akhyar Rashid are the others in contention to make up the youthful looking side for the Suzuki Cup.

Ahmad Hazwan Bakri and Fadhli Shas still have a role to play as they would be 32 in 2023 and could be the most senior players in the squad by then.

THE LOOMING AFC AGE-GROUP COMPETITIONS

While the senior team has suffered in 2017, the country’s junior sides have been doing Malaysia proud.

Ong Kim Swee led the country to qualification for the 2018 AFC Under-23 Championship, which takes place in January, while Bojan Hodak and Lim Teong Kim respectively ensured the Under-19 and Under-16s also qualified for 2018’s showdown among 16 of the best teams on the continent.

FAM president Tunku Ismail Sultan Ibrahim, in a bold statement in April, claimed the 2026 World Cup was a target for Malaysia

This is where Malaysia’s future lies and every effort should be taken to ensure the players are groomed into becoming better players than many in the current national team.

After some initial reluctance towards allowing ample preparation time, FAM last week announced a long training camp for the under-23 squad starting at the end of November right through until the competition.

It is still unclear if the under-19s will enjoy a similar preparation period as the competition takes place towards the end of the Malaysian season.

The under-16s are unlikely to face similar problems as they come under the government-led National Football Development Programme (NFDP) and have been preparing for several years now.

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The under-16 side is also the first batch of NFDP trainees since it was put under a microscope by Sports Minister Khairy Jamaluddin in 2013. Qualifying for the 2019 Under-17 World Cup is the target set.

The players from these three squads, and a few more from the senior squad, are those Malaysia need to be shifting their attention towards.

FAM president Tunku Ismail Sultan Ibrahim, in a bold statement in April, claimed the 2026 World Cup was a target for Malaysia.

If so, these three age-group teams would form the core of the squad – the under-16s would be 24 in 2026, the under-19s would be 27 and Ong’s charges will be 30.

It is time to forget short-term goals and build for a sustainable future.

Photos: Asiana.my