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Jul 7, 2012

Malaysia: A new hope

There was one thing that even the mighty Mokhtar Dahari, the Malaysian marauder with tree-trunk thighs who mesmerised Asian defences in the 70s and 80s, didn't do. He never played in the European leagues.

• Lomas: Moulding a new Malaysian generation

Former team-mates tell of offers spurned from the likes of Arsenal - a team he destroyed in a 1975 friendly - and others. In those days, the buzz from such a player took a long time to reach the big leagues, if it ever did. Terry Mancini, part of the Gunners' backline on that steamy night in Kuala Lumpur, talked of the conditions and the location with wonder, a part of a different and very exotic world. Things have changed. If Mancini was playing now, the owner of his club could be Malaysian.

On the field though, the country has yet to make much of an impact in Europe. That could change in the next few years and not just because of the growing numbers of businessman involved with western clubs but because there is a new generation of very young, and very talented, players breaking through.

Seeing stars in the big leagues is an end in itself for Malaysian fans. As well as the national pride that fans across Asia feel when they see their compatriots playing in front of packed European houses, there is something more at stake.

It wasn't that long ago when Malaysia were the kings of Southeast Asia and respected around the continent. The likes of Japan with Yasuhiko Okudera and South Korea with Cha Bum-Keun often headed to Kuala Lumpur to fight it out with Super Mokh for the Merdaka Cup, a valued prize and a replica of which still sits proudly in the lobby of the Korean FA headquarters.

There were some memorable matches, not least a 2-0 win over Japan in 1976 in front of 55,000 in Kuala Lumpur and a Mokhtar diving header in his 100th appearance. That's not all. Olympic qualification in 1972 and 1980 (though the team joined the boycott of Moscow), third place at the 1974 Asian Games and successive qualifications for the Asian Cups in that decade made Malaysia a worthy adversary.

Super Mokh tragically died in 1991 at the age of 37. In that decade, the domestic league was hit by corruption and mismanagement. The new millennium didn't bring much of a change of fortune. The 2007 Asian Cup was a nadir with the co-host losing all three games. The Tigers bounced back to win the ASEAN title in 2010, a much-valued prize in the region, but the glory days still feel like the distant past.

It has been a long journey but there is some light shining through with a new generation of young stars like Nazmi Faiz, a cultured midfielder with composure on the ball that belies his 17 years. He has already agreed to join Portuguese top tier outfit Beira Mar. A one-time home of Eusebio, a striker perhaps not too dissimilar in style to Super Mokh, it could be a fantastic place for the player, who will sign his contract in August when he turns 18.

Jose Mourinho himself gave this special one his seal of approval for the move when he visited Kuala Lumpur in June. "The Portuguese League is a good place for them to adapt to European football," he sid. "It's a little bit like Brazil... in terms of technique and creativity. The people in Portugal are nice and will make foreign players feel welcome."

Nazmi previously came close to a move to Cardiff but couldn't get a work permit and many in Malaysia agree with Mourinho's assessment, feeling that having to swap South Wales for Aveiro could be a blessing in disguise.

The increasing number of Malaysian tycoons in Europe could be another stroke of luck. Asian owners will, rightly or wrongly, often look to bring their countrymen to their club. When Manchester City belonged to Thaksin Shinawatra, City did their best to sign Thai talent but there just wasn't any that met the required standard. Instead of heading to the upper reaches of the Premier league immediately, Cardiff and QPR could provide more accessible stepping stones for those with the ambition and the attributes.

As well as Nazmi, a look at the qualification campaign for the Asian Under-22 tournament reveals other talents. Take Rozaimi Rahman. When your first two appearances in the shirt of your national team are against Chelsea and Syria then you get an inkling that the career is going to be an interesting one. The 20-year-old took the qualification campaign by storm.

Six goals in the first two games caused clubs in the Netherlands and France to take notice and watch in the next game against Vietnam. He grabbed a hat-trick and more European attention. "What can I say about Rozaimi?" coach Ong Kim Swee said, asking the question on millions of Malaysian lips. "He is an asset to the team and the country and it's very difficult to find a striker who can score consistently in three or four games. His performance is a very good sign for youth development in the country."

Malaysia have an interesting youth set up. Ong is also the coach of Harimau Muda A - a feeder club for Malaysia's Under-23 team and one that plays in Singapore's S-League. There is little doubt that the youngsters benefit from serious time playing together under Ong's watchful eye. The man himself has become something of a father figure to a young generation of players and is recognised as one of the best coaches in the region when it comes to working with youth talent.

The talent is there but it is not that simple. In the final game of qualification earlier this week and needing to win against hosts Myanmar to seal a place in next year's tournament, the Young Tigers just could not produce the goods - although there are serious allegations that Myanmar had fielded overage players.

Once again in Malaysia, just as expectations started to rise, the team failed to deliver. Switching off when the pressure is on has been a familiar trait over the years. Now it's up to this new generation. If the Young Tigers can avoid falling prey to old habits then a new start is on the cards for Malaysia.

It would be good for Asian football if they can do so. Some old foes around the continent are waiting to do battle once more. This Malaysia may not have Super Mokh but a decade from now, who knows where their stars will be shining.

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