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Performance, youth and ranking – Tan Cheng Hoe and the new FAM’s mission

Winds of change in Malaysia are taking place both on and off the pitch, with the promise of better times, and Harimau Malaya boss Tan Cheng Hoe may be tempted to take an all too familiar approach borrowed from his time as assistant during the K. Rajagobal era...

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It was only Bhutan but for Malaysia, the match – a day before the resgination of Tunku Ismail Sultan Ibrahim as Football Association of Malaysia (FAM) president was accepted – gave them a first international win since November 2016.

Having failed to win a single outing in 12 matches, the Tigers have also slipped to a record low No.178 in the FIFA rankings.

Harimau Malaya were never going to be fixed overnight and the one-year stint of Tunku Ismail was perhaps too short a time for that

While efforts could have been more concerted, Harimau Malaya were never going to be fixed overnight and the one-year stint of Tunku Ismail was perhaps too short a time for that.

Deputy-president Datuk Yusoff Mahadi is currently acting-president but it has been already publicised that he is merely saving the seat for current general-secretary Datuk Hamidin Amin, who Tunku Ismail had suggested as successor.

Having tightened up some loose ends at FAM, Tunku Ismail has also pledged to support the Hamidin-led national body.

While administration should really be Hamidin’s forte considering how he rose the ranks at Selangor Football Association to his current role, the national body will almost always be judged on how well the national team does.

Hamidin, who flew to Beirut to be with the team when they faced Lebanon last week, is expected to stay close to the national side. He was team manager with Ong Kim Swee was in charge.

Like his relationship with Ong, Hamidin and Tan will need a great working relationship to ensure the biggest ‘stakeholders’ – the fans – are on their side.

Tan was just about everyone’s pick for the Malaysia top job when Portuguese Nelo Vingada looked inept at changing the fortunes of the Tigers

Tan was just about everyone’s pick for the Malaysia top job when Portuguese Nelo Vingada looked unable to change the fortunes of the Tigers.

Tan had served two Malaysia coaches as assistant and had turned Kedah from an inconsistent second-tier side to a Malaysia Super League (MSL) contender, all while playing a brand of football that won admirers.

The 50-year-old didn’t have the best of starts as the national team came under fire following a 2-2 draw against Mongolia and the bizarre decision to drop all 14 Johor Darul Ta’zim (JDT) players “upon pressure by the fans”.

Yet Tan has only come out stronger from it, rallying what looked like a second-string Malaysia side to eye-catching performances, first in Beirut despite the late stoppage-time 2-1 defeat and then the 7-0 win over Bhutan to end a 12-match winning run.

While a big-scoring against a lowly team is really nothing to shout about, let’s not forget that two years ago Malaysia were held 0-0 at home by Macau, who were then the second-worst side in Asia.

It was the performance and tempo of the Malaysians against Lebanon and Bhutan that won admirers but Tan was quick to later remind his players that “it was important to keep the momentum going and continue working on fine-tuning their game”.

The youthful side led by experienced Zaquan Adha Abdul Radzak may encourage Tan to include more youngsters

Tan, however, is likely to have a few dilemmas. Does he keep with the current squad or recall more? Two – Nazmi Faiz Mansor and Syafiq Ahmad – of the 14 players he had dropped were later recalled and they repaid his faith.

The youthful side led by experienced Zaquan Adha Abdul Radzak may encourage Tan to include more youngsters.

Irfan Zakaria looked capable in the heart of defence, Nazmi Faiz Mansor showed just why he was tipped as the next Safiq Rahim a few years ago, Syafiq Ahmad got two goals and 18-year-old Akhyar Rashid gave defenders plenty of problems.

The likes of Matthew Davies, Akram Mahinan, Adam Nor Azlin, Fazly Mazlan, Safawi Rasid and Haziq Nadzli are some of young players Tan could build the team around.

The poor performance of some senior players against Mongolia should be a signal that the Tigers are due for a change of guard.

Tan will remember the time he was assistant to Rajagobal when Malaysia went to the 2010 AFF Suzuki Cup with a squad comprising many Under-23 players from the SEA Games gold-medal winning side the year before.

Once ranked a lofty No. 75 in 1993, the Tigers have slipped below the likes of Cambodia, Nepal and Maldives.

That remains the only time Malaysia had won the competition since its inaugural edition as the Tiger Cup in 1996.

While injecting youth and building performance may be Tan’s biggest priority ahead of the 2018 Suzuki Cup and later the 2023 Asian Cup qualifiers, which starts next year, Malaysia’s rankings will also be a cause for concern.

The rankings have been a cause of concern and topic of debate for a good amount of this decade. Once ranked a lofty No. 75 in 1993, the Tigers have slipped below the likes of Cambodia, Nepal and Maldives.

A better ranking could lead to a more favourable draw for the 2023 Asian Cup, a competition will be truly a yardstick to measure the side's progress after failing to qualifying for UAE 2019.

While another opponent there for the taking like Bhutan could be appealing to kick off the next international window in September, Malaysia need to start looking at their rankings or risk a further slide considering their poor performance over the last four years.

FAM are reportedly looking for teams to play in July or August. The international break from September 3-11 offers FAM an opportunity to revive the Merdeka Tournament, which has only been held once (2013) since 2008.

Malaysia, having ended their barren run, must start believing they are capable of taking on such teams.

Once a prestigious tournament in Asia, the Merdeka Tournament no longer holds the charm to attract teams such as Japan, Korea or even Thailand, but there are a number of teams ranked inside 150 that may be willing to feature.

It’s an open secret that rankings are not a true reflection of a team’s current form or strength. Some Asian teams have benefitted from good draws, well-strategised opponent selection in international friendlies and AFC Challenge Cup.

But, matches against teams inside the top 150 offer more ranking points compared to those in the 150-200 bracket which Malaysia currently is in.

Malaysia, having ended their barren run, must start believing they are capable of taking on such teams.

Photos: Football Association of Malaysia