KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 28 — The year 2017 has been a season of gloom in the history of Malaysian football, although the Football Association of Malaysia (FAM) was going through a transitional phase under the leadership of Tunku Ismail Sultan Ibrahim, who was appointed president for the 2017-2021 term.
Among the drastic measures taken by the Tunku Mahkota of Johor (TMJ) immediately after winning the post uncontested during the election held together with FAM’s 53rd Annual Congress on March 25, was restructuring the coaching line-up of the Harimau Malaya squad by appointing Portuguese Nelo Vingada as the new head coach.
The move also saw former captain Safiq Rahim along with S. Kunalan, Amirulhadi Zainal and Mohd Aidil Zafuan Abdul Radzak return to the national squad, shortly after announcing their retirement.
However, Vingada, nicknamed ‘The Professor’ due to his past successes, seemed to have ‘lost his sting’, as he took the national squad through their worst streak in history, with six defeats and one draw in seven internationals.
Four of the six defeats came at the hands of Lebanon, Hong Kong and two against North Korea in the 2019 Asian Cup qualifiers, breaking the hopes of millions of home fans who wanted to see the national squad feature in the finals in the United Arab Emirates.
The two other defeats came against Syria and Myanmar in friendlies, while the only draw was against Hong Kong at Hang Jebat Stadium in Melaka, in a Group B match of the 2019 Asian Cup qualifiers.
The embarrassing performance saw Malaysia’s Fifa ranking drop to its worst level since 1993 – 174th, which is below Singapore (170th), Indonesia (154th) and Thailand (132nd).
Vingada finally gave up his post on Dec 6 — six months after taking charge — following criticisms from various parties, including the local media, national football legends and former players, as well as football fans.
However, amid the doom and gloom, fans could breathe a sigh of relief with the impressive performance of the country’s youth squads, who showed their mettle throughout the year.
This was evident when all the three — Under 23 (U-23), Under 19 (B-19) and Under 16 (B-16) teams — qualified for the finals of the 2018 Asian Football Confederation Cup championships in their respective categories.
Former Harimau Malaya head coach Datuk Ong Kim Swee, who was chosen to lead the country’s U-22 squad in March, recorded nine victories, one draw and four defeats in 14 internationals.
Of the nine wins, four of them were recorded in the build-up to and during the 2018 AFC U-23 qualifying round, where two crucial wins over Indonesia and Mongolia saw them top Group H during the campaign.
The remaining five wins were recorded at the 2017 Kuala Lumpur SEA Games (KL2017) in August. However, their 0-1 defeat to neighbours Thailand in the final saw Kim Swee’s men settle for silver.
At the same time, the country’s U-19 squad also made its mark after ending a 12-year wait to play in the 2019 AFC U-19 Football Championship final, as well as making it to the 2017 Asean Football Federation (AFF) U-18 final for the first time in nine years.
In addition, Bojan Hodak’s squad also showed consistency throughout the year, recording eight wins, two defeats and one draw from 11 games.
Meanwhile, the U-16 squad coached by Lim Teong Kim, which often travelled overseas for exposure against some of Europe’s best teams, did not disappoint either.
Although they lost to Mexico, Austria, Croatia and Russia in the 2017 International Youth Football Tournament in Austria in April, the experience was invaluable for this young team to improve the quality of their game ahead of the 2018 AFC U-16 Championship in Kuala Lumpur.
The impressive feat of the three squads gives hope that the country’s number one sport has a line-up of top quality players that can be featured in the future.
Apart from efforts made by FAM, the Malaysian government has also played a major role by continuously providing various forms of assistance to help revive the golden era of national football like in the 1970’s and 80’s.
The RM1 billion allocation announced by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak for sports development including the National Football Development Programme (NFDP) in the 2018 Budget would definitely help towards achieving the goal.
Meanwhile, the Malaysian League (M-League) this year saw Johor Darul Ta’zim (JDT) prove themselves yet again, as they won the Super League title for the fourth year in a row, and lifted the Malaysia Cup for the first time.
The Premier League featured an exciting run-in, as Kuala Lumpur were crowned champions on goal difference ahead of Terengganu. Both teams will feature in the Super League next season.
There were also many issues in the M-League this year including clubs letting go of their coaches, among them PKNS FC head coach E. Elavarasan, who was forced to resign following the Red Ants’ poor performance in the Super League.
Apart from that, delays in payment of salaries by several clubs also forced M-League administrator, Football Malaysia Limited Liability Partnership (FMLLP), to intervene by issuing a warning to impose penalties on the teams involved. — Bernama