Malaysia embracing AFF Cup as a chance to cement turnaround
Malaysian fans are usually a fairly pessimistic bunch, and not without reason when it comes to the national team.
Recent years have been disappointing, with coaches coming and going while the team slipped down FIFA rankings. There have been some rays of light of late, however, and if a young Malaysian team can give a decent showing at November's AFF Suzuki Cup, that could really get the fans believing that a corner has been turned.
But first, rewind to the end of 2017 -- with memories of a 2015 that included three 6-0 losses and one 10-0 humiliation still fresh -- and there was little to be happy about.
The attempt to qualify for the 2019 Asian Cup was dismal, with one point collected from six games. It ended with successive 4-1 defeats at the hands of North Korea after games were delayed by the political row between the two countries that followed the assassination of Kim Jong-nam at a Kuala Lumpur airport. It was a messy situation that seemed to sum up the malaise in the country's football scene.
Since then, though, former assistant Tan Cheng Hoe has made the step up to the senior role and has been rewarded with some promising signs of renewal. In January, Ong Kim Swee led the under-23 team to the knockout stage in the Asian Championships, only to lose narrowly to a strong South Korean side. At the Asian Games in August, Malaysia got revenge by defeating and finishing above eventual winners South Korea but were "rewarded" with a second-round tie against Japan. A 1-0 loss was a reasonable effort.
These results have at least given some hope for the future. Under Tan, the senior team defeated Bhutan 7-0 in April of this year, a first victory since November 2016. Three of the last four matches have been won and, while Fiji and Bhutan are not the toughest of opposition, September's 3-1 win in front of 50,000 fevered fans in Cambodia excited by the arrival of Keisuke Honda as coach was a good showing.
The Tigers struggled early in the game and went a goal behind. They kept their cool however and, helped by some astute substitutions, turned it around and took their chances when they came.
"The players bounced back with a better performance today even though we conceded an early goal. I have to compliment the players for their fighting spirit," said Tan.
"I want to see the players to be more composed playing in front of a partisan crowd in the future. There's a lot of positives in our team but also a lot of weaknesses. We still have October and November to prepare."
The next stage of Tan's revolution comes with October friendlies against Sri Lanka and Kyrgyzstan, followed by their AFF Suzuki Cup opener against Cambodia on Nov. 11. As well as the hope that the younger teams have given fans, the senior squads are more youthful. Just two of the 24 named by Tan on Tuesday are over 30. It makes sense to bring some of that Asian Games feel-good factor into the first team. The younger players have had success and deserve the chance. Fans love to see new faces come through the ranks and will be a little more patient and forgiving too.
There are, however, considerable challenges ahead for the softly spoken Tan. The lack of a reliable goal-scorer at senior level is glaring. Shahrel Fikri impressed in the recent win against Cambodia and the 23 year-old Thai-based forward looks set for a lengthy international career. There is excitement as naturalised Gambian winger Mohamadou Sumareh got his first call-up too.
Much depends on the defence, though, as Malaysia don't look to have what it takes just yet to go toe-to-toe with rivals offensively.
Luckily, Malaysia find themselves in the easier of the two AFF Suzuki Cup groups. The opener in Phnom Penh will set the tone. Three points there and the expected win at home against Laos would make the visit to group favourites Vietnam not quite so daunting. The final home match with Myanmar may well be decisive in determining who goes to the last four. At one time, Malaysia would have been strong favourites, but their decline has come as Myanmar's White Angels have improved. Home advantage may well make the difference.
In the end, Malaysia's tournament will be measured by results: Getting out of the group means success. Malaysia were poor in 2016 and deserved to miss out despite making the final two years earlier. Nobody is demanding the trophy, which they won for the first and only time in 2010.
For Tan, it is all about showing progress with a young team and providing stability after a period that has been one of the worst in the team's history.
Malaysia have started to win a few games and are showing some steel and spirit. A couple more victories in November would go down very well and would not only provide a place in the last four but give fans the hope that better times are ahead.