Malaysian football – A curious case of confidence issues?

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Confidence is a peculiar thing.

In 2008, in the midst of a brewing financial crisis in Wall Street, the US House of Representatives took a bold stance against banking institutions that were deemed too big to fail. They failed to pass Treasury’s bailout plan and the decision sparked a massive drop within stock markets as investor confidence went on a downward spiral. And believe it or not, US$ 1 trillion was lost in a single day; bringing back memories of the infamous ‘Black Day’. It’s fascinating that all it took for a catastrophic economic purge was the nonexistence of ‘confidence’.

Earlier this year, Marco Veratti revealed an incident within the PSG dressing room, that sparked massive amounts of #DareToZlatan hashtags on Twitter.

“Before winning the 2012/13 league title, we were getting ready to play against Lyon,” Verratti told FourFourTwo Magazine.

Zlatan-Ibrahimovic_3059124
Photo Credit: provenquality.com

“Carlo Ancelotti was a bit tense, so Ibra approached him and asked him if he believed in Jesus. Ancelotti said yes, so Ibra told him: ‘Good, so you believe in me. You can relax!’ Zlatan is like this – he has a lot of self-confidence. This helps him to be a great player.”

The resemblance between Zlatan Ibrahimovic and salt is uncanny. Take a pinch of salt and drop it in almost any dish out there and it will find a way to blend in and make it taste better. That’s how Zlatan operates. He’s been a champion in every single club he’s played for – bear in mind that it’s a list that includes Barcelona, AC Milan, Juventus and more recently, Paris Saint Germain.

Even at Barcelona, where he did not see eye-to-eye with head coach Pep Guardiola, Ibra still amassed a total of 16 goals in 29 appearances; a no mean feat for a player that could have easily fallen into the trap of low-confidence. After all, the boss of the company did not trust him.

Malaysian football will relate to this incredibly well. There was a point in our history when Asia used to be wary of our national football team. There was a point when we produced magnificent players in the mold of Mokhtar Dahari, Zainal Abidin and even Azizol Abu Hanifah. Atmospheres at the Merdeka Stadium are largely talked about till today.

Photo Credit: Utusan
Photo Credit: Utusan

Calm down though, it wasn’t because we had the best youth system within the region, nor did we have the best facilities as well. Players played their hearts out, but more importantly, they were extremely confident. Speak to those who’ve had the privilege to catch Mokhtar Dahari in action – words describing his desire to take on defenders would predominantly fill the conversation.

Bear in mind that these were players who were not full professionals. The likes of Mokhtar Dahari, Soh Chin Aun and even Santokh Singh had full time jobs that they had to pander to, and football was a side activity that didn’t only give them a respite, but also an opportunity to make the nation proud. And part of the reason they were able to do so, was because they believed in the team and in themselves. Why wouldn’t they? They were challenging Asian teams consistently. Malaysia had a football league – albeit semi-pro – at that point; a liberty that wasn’t present in most Asian nations. Hence, the mentality of our players was far different.

The 1994 match-fixing scandal arrived in style, sending shock waves across the Asian football scene. Countless amount of players were arrested and charged, the existence of a comprehensive bookie network was revealed. They don’t just come and go either, incidents like this always leave a trickle-down effect. As soon as the news broke, the entire Malaysian football fraternity crumbled within a matter of days.

Photo Credit: Straits Times
Photo Credit: Straits Times

Malaysia wasn’t exactly an economic powerhouse back then. The Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of the country was US$74.5 billion dollars, compared to our current GDP of US$326.9 billion dollars. But the low spending power of citizens did not stop fans from forking out cash to catch their teams in action – after all, it was a matter of pride. So when 1994 happened, every single bit of that passion was crushed. And the trickle down effect continued.

Stadium atmospheres were never the same, viewership on national television went on a downward spiral. “People were frustrated and I wouldn’t blame them. I was too. It almost felt like we were being used. We supported the team with all our heart, only to find out that the outcome was already fixed, so I don’t blame anyone for being frustrated or if they stopped watching Malaysian football,” an elderly Malaysian football fan, who preferred to remain anonymous, told me recently.

It was harsh on the players who remained faithful to the game though, including the upcoming ones at that point. Unfortunately, they had to face the reality of trying to restore public confidence in the local football scene, though it was never going to be easy. Years passed, and nothing changed.

But wait, maybe one thing did. Player confidence.

Photo Credit: oocities.org

Imagine stepping onto the pitch, knowing that most people out there doubt your sincerity and values. Every single mistake you make on the pitch – you know someone on the stands will associate it with match-fixing. Every single goal you fail to score or concede – chants of ‘bookies’ emerge from the stands. What do you do then? You start being cautious.

“For as long as I can remember, there has been a little voice in my head that highlights my weaknesses and undermines my confidence … I think too much during the games. Most players analyse performance after a game; not me: I do it all the wrong way – I think about how I’m playing as I play. Three bad passes and I’m looking at the touchline …” Chelsea legend Tony Cascarino revealed, in his biography.

The context of his quotes wasn’t related to match-fixing, but it was the reality for most Malaysian footballers back then, and as years progressed, it evolved into a mainstay. Almost as if it was a pre-requisite for players to be mediocre, in terms of confidence. Take a look at our performance during the 2007 Asian Cup – I mean, watch the games if you can, don’t look for the scores. The results were bad enough; we conceded a total of 12 goals in three games, scoring only once. The more shocking aspect of the tournament was our sheer performance on the pitch, there was barely any desire or belief, that the impossible wasn’t absolute. The odds were obviously stacked against them, but every underdog miracle stemmed from a perennial sense of confidence.

Two years later, things changed.

Photo Credit: SEA Games
Photo Credit: SEA Games

Under the guidance of K. Rajagopal (now Datuk), the Malaysian U-23 team triumphed at the 2009 SEA Games, before he led the national team to an unprecedented triumph in the AFF Suzuki Cup a year later. Everywhere you turned and looked, there was a venerable record player of customary praises but the man himself stood nonchalantly on the edge of the touchlines, never once looking perturbed. He was an excellent coach – that’s a given – but he was a better motivator. King Raja got the best out of his young prodigies because he made them believe in themselves. They were young, talented and had nothing to lose. So while everyone raved about Malaysia’s comeback triumph, having lost the opening match 0-5, King Raja knew it was possible all along – his players believed in themselves.

Today, Malaysian football is enjoying a level of support that hasn’t been seen within the country in a very long time. Even a Singaporean fan I spoke to recently, felt the same. “There’s a reason why most Singaporeans prefer following LionsXII, compared to the S.League. The Malaysian league is far more exciting and the atmosphere in every game is incredible,” he acclaimed. So now that public confidence is revived. what comes next?

The shift in mentality needs to happen as well. Every single Malaysian player needs to believe that he/she is capable of matching the best in the globe. They need to watch old footages of Mokhtar Dahari and absorb the belief he possessed. Take a fine look at Azizol Abu Hanifah and exemplify his ability to confidently spray passes across the pitch.

Photo Credit: Goal
Photo Credit: Goal

Names like Safee Sali and Norshahrul Idlan, were at one point South-East Asia’s most dangerous players, but both men have suffered a massive slump in their form, as their career progressed. Problem is, we don’t know if they will ever be able to rediscover it. Ashley Young is a fine example of how important confidence is, to a football player. Fernando Torres is another. But the difference between both men is that it only took a change in manager and trust to get Young back to his devastating best. Torres on the other hand – despite his improved form this year – continues to look a shade of his old self.

You can never run away from the pressure, it will always be there. But what makes a difference is sheer old-school belief. Perhaps, that’s the shift that’s taking place in Thai football right now. Their young guns were absolutely impressive during the Suzuki Cup last December. Chanatip Songkrasin and Charyl Chappuis – Two players that never stopped running at defenders and they do so with plenty of confidence, knowing they are capable of beating their defenders.

The positive signs are certainly there, particularly with the National Football Development Program. “It’s not just about football. We must instill values in the kids. The people who carry out this responsibility are the coaches. They are the most important people for me, right now,” NFDP’s Project Manager Lim Teong Kim recently told Al Jazeera. Judging by his quote and the level of experience he has, Malaysia seems to have the right man in charge. But it mustn’t stop there. The paradigm shift needs to be one that’s deeply rooted and alter the way in which we look at the sport.

Photo Credit: www.underground-voice.com
Photo Credit: www.underground-voice.com

That, is for the long-term. Dollah Salleh is currently leading preparations for the upcoming World Cup qualifiers, where they will be taking on Timor Leste and Palestine. It’s a tad too idealistic to say that chartered flights from Malaysia to Russia would be required in 2018, but the national team has more than enough, to at least cause several upsets along the journey. But when they step on the pitch, every single inferiority complex needs to be kicked out of the way – it’s the only way legends have been created in this game.

For footballers, confidence can sometimes be a niggling issue. You can prepare as much as you want, possess as much ability and skills as you may, but if confidence is absent from your mind and heart, you are bound to suffer to on the green pitch as soon as the whistle is blown. It’s always a mental game and confidence dictates proceedings. For what it’s worth, Andre Pirlo seems to have figured it out.

“I don’t feel pressure … I don’t give a toss about it. I spent the afternoon of Sunday, 9 July, 2006 in Berlin sleeping and playing the PlayStation. In the evening, I went out and won the World Cup.”

Confidence – it certainly is a peculiar thing.