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Progress of Malaysia's junior teams offering hope to the toothless Tigers

While the senior Malaysian team struggled through a winless year, the country’s junior sides broke some impressive new ground in 2017. The challenge now is to translate those results into some overdue success in the senior ranks, as FourFourTwo explored…

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Malaysia’s success in recent youth-level tournaments and qualifying campaigns would appear to have the country’s football development on the right path towards producing quality players for the senior team.

In previous years, our Under-23 and Under-19 sides rarely made AFC’s tournaments, so it shows we are progressing

- Ong Kim Swee

The national Under-23 team, under coach Ong Kim Swee, served up a surprise when it qualified for the AFC Championship for the first time after topping its group in Bangkok in July.

Ong’s side, represented by players who went on to take the silver medal at the SEA Games in Kuala Lumpur in August, finished ahead of favourites Thailand and Indonesia.

It will not be easy in the tournament proper in China on January 8-27, however, as Malaysia have been drawn alongside 2013 champions Iraq, Jordan and 2014 finalists Saudi Arabia in Group C.

In the AFC Under-19 qualifiers, Bojan Hodak’s side finished second behind hosts South Korea in Group F in Paju, but made the cut for the tournament for the first time since 2006 as one of the five best group runners-up after results in other pools fell its way.

Ong's young team took a big step forward

It was a remarkable achievement considering Hodak only took over the team in mid-August. Prior to the AFC qualifiers, the team finished runners-up to Thailand in the AFF Under-18 Championship in Myanmar in September.

The AFC U-19 Championship will be hosted by Indonesia from October 18 to November 4.

Our youth footballers should not only look at playing in Malaysia. They should have the ambition to play abroad

As for the government-funded National Football Development Programme (NFDP) Under-16 team, it will be hosting the AFC Championship in Kuala Lumpur starting September 20 next year.

But the qualifiers in Bekasi, Indonesia highlighted the gap between Malaysia’s juniors and Asia's best. The team finished second in the qualifiers ahead of Singapore and Guam to ensure its place, but received a 4-0 hammering by Japan along the way.

Coach Lim Teong Kim now has less than a year to get his team ready for the AFC Under-16 Championship, where the target is to qualify for the 2019 Under-17 World Cup.

Ong said the success of the three youth teams puts Malaysia on the right track, but efforts must be taken to make sure the players progress accordingly.

Malaysia's under-22 side ahead of a friendly earlier this year

“It is, of course, a good sign for our football. In previous years, our Under-23 and Under-19 sides rarely made AFC’s tournaments, so it shows we are progressing.

The objective here is to see our national team become better and more competitive

“We need to look after these players as they age through a well-defined structure. By doing this, it will strengthen our future national senior teams.

“However, our youth footballers should not only look at playing in Malaysia as a main objective.

“They should have the ambition to play abroad as the experience will help them progress.

“The objective here is to see our national team become better and more competitive,” said Ong, who recently extended his contract for another two years with the Football Association of Malaysia (FAM).

[NEXT: The areas where Malaysian youngsters need to improve]