Amazing! Incredible! Unbelievable! None of these superlatives come close to describing Malaysia’s SEA Games football final against Indonesia. It was a brilliant and eventful roller coaster ride, made even better because it was our very own country playing. Malaysian football at its very best. The victory achieved will definitely remain in the hearts and minds of many Malaysians for sometime. I know of people who will label this win as ‘no big deal’, considering that this was merely a South East Asian competition and that we were defending champions.
I beg to differ.Yes, it may be ‘just a South East Asian competition’ but do not forget that 3 years ago we were nowhere even in South East Asia. Countries such as Thailand, Singapore and Vietnam were the favourites. Yes, we were the defending champions. But we were faced with numerous difficulties both on field and off field on our path to victory. Injuries to two key players (Wan Zack and Gary Steven) dented our hope before the competition even began. Having our head coach sent off for the semi-finals and another 5 players injured for the final was an even bigger blow to our title aspirations. Adding that to the fact that we had to travel to the stadium in armoured vehicles and face down 100,000 hostile fans at the Gelora Bung Karno (with the support of only 100 local fans) made triumph look increasingly difficult if not impossible. And yet, even as we made the worst possible start (conceding a goal after 4 minutes), we lifted ourselves through pure determination and perseverance to defy the overwhelming odds and retain our SEA Games title.
Nothing should be taken away from our victory and its importance should not be belittled even the slightest. This win is a much needed confirmation that the mini revival we have had in Malaysian football since 2009 is no fluke and that our young team is still making progress. Credit must go to head coach Ong Kim Swee for his tactical acumen and excellent team management. His ability to make mid-game tactical tweaks and choose consistent match winning team selections even in the face of the massive injury problems proved crucial to Malaysia’s triumph in Jakarta.
So now, let’s answer the million-dollar question. Where do we go from here?
The immediate challenge we face is trying to qualify for the 2012 London Olympics. As much as we have improved in the past 2 years, beating the likes of Japan, Bahrain and Syria will still remain extremely difficult. What we can hope for is for the team to produce good and fighting performances in games against these countries. What we should aim for is to qualify for the 2014 ASEAN Games and the 2015 Asian Cup. Being the champions of South East Asia should be a motivating factor for us to improve and compete on par with the likes Asian giants such as Japan and South Korea.
This young team also needs to mature and be slowly integrated into the national team. The stints in Slovakia have done our players a world of good. Such stints should be increased. Next year, the U-23 team would head to Australia for a 2-week stint and also play a season in the S-League. Such a move is beneficial due to the fact that the S-League allows imported players and our players will be given exposure against technically and mentally much better players.
In conclusion, I would like to say that my proudest moment was not when Khairul Fahmi (our goalkeeper) saved Indonesia’s last penalty. Nor was it when Baddrol Bakhtiar scored the winning penalty. The moment I felt the proudest was when players from all major races took the field in the final. It was when I witnessed Malaysians, young and old, male and female, Malay, Chinese, Indian, Kadazan, Iban and other races alike standing up and cheering for our football team. It was not Harimau Malaya that day, it was Harimau Malaysia.