Sitting in my living room watching the Malaysian Cup Quarter Final 2nd Leg tie Between JDT & Terengganu recently, I could not help but be impressed by what I saw. A game played with high intensity, players – both local & foreign – showing great skill & technique , good passing interchanges and from JDT,s perspective three quality goals that would not be out-of-place in the English Premier League.
Sitting back after the game, I found myself questioning that if the Malaysian Super League is capable of producing such quality football at club level, then why does the Malaysian National Team consistently struggle on the International Stage ?
Make no mistakes, Malaysia is blessed with some highly talented and technically blessed football players. Many are showcasing their talents in the Malaysian Super League and you see week in, week out, great skill & technique, accurate passing; both long & short, brilliant dribbling, poise & balance and lastly some brilliant goals.
So again I ask the question. WHY does Malaysia struggle internationally ? An age-old excuse is that the foreigners take up the crucial positions in the team at the expense of local player development but I don’t buy that argument. Top foreign imports add significant benefits to any league, in fact Germany, like Malaysia has foreign players in their league and they recently won the World Cup. The issue lies deeper than that.
As a foreign player playing here in the 90s I worked out pretty quickly that Malaysian footballers could most definitely play, however I also realized that the structure and discipline of most teams completely broke down in the last 15 minutes of the first half & final 20 minutes of the second half. What this meant was that teams lost their shape as fatigue set in, which led to massive gaps in the lines between defence, midfielders & strikers. Any striker will tell you the more open the game, then the more goal scoring chances he/she will get. In my case I wasn’t concerned if I hardly touched the ball in the first 20 minutes of each half because I knew that at the back-end of both halves the game would become stretched and that was my cue to get involved and make dangerous runs into areas where I could score goals. Having not exhausted myself earlier in the game I was then fresh enough to take advantage of the opportunities I was given.
Fast forward 20 years on from when I played and we still have the same problem. So what is the solution ? In an earlier column I spoke about the fantastic youth development programmes being implemented within Malaysia. The next generation, the 16 & 17 year olds at these academies need to be conditioned; both mentally & physically on the importance of maintaining the team structure , balance & shape, particularly in transition moments from offence to defence throughout the game .
National coach Dollah Salleh can work with the National Team on tactics & game plans. However only having the team for short pre-match camps , it’s too late for Dollah to change the habits of, for example, a 28-year-old national team player. Unfortunately by then, it’s simply too late to suddenly develop the physical & mental attributes to compete for the full 90 minutes against international opponents who, through their year round club training & league competition environments are battle hardened to maintain the necessary intensity & structure that lasts the whole game.
Astro’s Dez Corkhill is a friend of mine, even though we rarely agree on matters related to Football. Dez will argue that it’s all about entertainment, that end to end football with lots of goalmouth action is what the viewers & fans love. Well Dez, I would argue that the fans also want a successful national team . Just like in Spain, Italy , Germany and more locally Japan who are physically & mentally ready to play as a unit for the full 90 minutes, as opposed to going out playing off the cuff football and hoping for the best. Coincidently the Leagues in these countries are highly entertaining & attract huge crowds & tv audiences and their national teams are quite good which by my reckoning, counters Dezzies’ argument.
Put bluntly, there’s no doubt in my mind that Malaysian players have the ability for mental discipline and/or physical fitness to play with structure & discipline and maintain there shape . The issue is the inability to maintain this for the full 90 minutes, and until that happens, Malaysia will continue to struggle on the international stage. To be fair, this is not just a problem within Malaysia but rather the main problem with all South East Asian powerhouses in the form of Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam & Singapore. How far are we from a SE Asian team qualifying for the Asian Cup ?
There are so many components in the development cycle of a player and a team, which I’ll talk about in future columns. However to stress my point and to enable Dollah Salleh and Ong Kim Swee to at least have a fighting chance of leading the national team to success, they need to have players that can maintain their intensity to enable their undoubtedly ability to compete both physically, technically and tactically for a lot closer to 90 minutes than they are able to now/