2021 sees juniors outshine toothless Harimau Malaya


KUALA LUMPUR – If the para athletes were the saving grace of Malaysian sports in 2021, then surely the national Under-22 squad can be described as the saviours of Malaysian football.

While the seniors flopped on the international stage – failing to qualify for the 2023 Asian Cup (on merit) and the 2022 World Cup Finals as well as flopping in the ASEAN Football Federation (AFF) Cup – the Under-22 squad rose to the occasion.

Not only did head coach Brad Maloney’s boys book a spot in the 2022 Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Under-23 Asian Cup Finals in Uzbekistan, they also did it in style – by topping their qualifying group with seven points.

Not to mention they did it without the benefit of any international friendlies and with the majority of the players in the squad aged 20 and below.

Having beaten Laos and Mongolia by identical 1-0 scores, the Malaysian Under-22 team knew they only needed a point against Thailand in their final group match to confirm their place in the AFC Under-23 Asian Cup Finals.

And that’s exactly what they did – holding Thailand to a 0-0 draw in their final Group J match in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia on Oct 31.

When Malaysia head to Uzbekistan for the Finals, to be held from June 1-19, 2022, it will be their second appearance in the Under-23 tournament. In the 2018 edition in China, Malaysia made it to the quarter-finals.

Let’s hope they can go further next June.

As for the Harimau Malaya, they could roar (at times) but clearly lacked the bite.

To be fair, they can still qualify for the 2023 Asian Cup Finals, to be held in China, via the final round of qualifiers scheduled for next year.

It’s been 41 years since Malaysia last qualified for the Asian Cup Finals on merit in 1980 in Kuwait. The Harimau Malaya have since made one more appearance in the tournament when Malaysia co-hosted the 2007 edition.

The Harimau Malaya, under head coach Tan Cheng Hoe, ended their Group G 2022 World Cup/2023 Asian Cup Qualifiers, held in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in June, in third spot behind the hosts and Vietnam.

That closed the door completely on Malaysia’s quest to qualify for the 2022 World Cup Finals in Qatar but left an opening wide enough for Malaysia to sneak into the 2023 Asian Cup Finals – via the third round of qualifiers next June.

Overall, in the 2022 World Cup/2023 Asian Cup Qualifiers, Malaysia defeated Indonesia and Thailand but had the tables turned on them by the UAE and Vietnam to end their Group G campaign in third place.

That, however, was expected seeing how their preparation was hampered by the COVID-19 pandemic as they headed to the UAE armed with only two friendlies, which they lost to Kuwait (4-1) and Bahrain (2-0), at the end of May after 18 months of inactivity.

Any hopes of the Harimau Malaya squad redeeming themselves in the AFF Cup were also dashed when they crashed out of the biennial tournament in the group stage.

Cheng Hoe’s men began the tournament in Singapore in style – defeating Cambodia 3-1 and thrashing Laos 4-0. Then came the reality check as they fell 2-0 to defending champions Vietnam and 4-1 to arch-rivals Indonesia.

Malaysia, who won the AFF Cup in 2010, ended their Group B campaign in third spot behind Indonesia and Vietnam.

It was a disappointing end indeed for the Harimau Malaya, who were also the 2018 runners-up, as they failed to meet the target set by the Football Association of Malaysia (FAM) – which was to reach the final in Singapore.

As for the national women’s team, who are coached by Jacob Joseph, they too failed to qualify for the 2022 Women’s Asian Cup Finals after recording one win and one loss in the qualifying round in September.

On the domestic front, the Malaysia League (M-League) – featuring the Super League, Premier League and Malaysia Cup – was successfully completed despite the uncertainty following the COVID-19 pandemic, which resulted in most matches having to be played behind closed doors.

Johor Darul Ta’zim (JDT) again stole the limelight when they won the Charity Shield before going on to lift the Super League crown for the eighth consecutive time while Negeri Sembilan overcame stiff competition from Sarawak United to emerge Premier League champions.

Selangor FC striker Ifedayo Omosuyi emerged top scorer in the Super League with 26 goals while Fernando Rodriguez (JDT II) and Jordan Mintah (Terengganu FC) notched 16 goals each to jointly top the scoring chart in the Premier League.

For one team – Kuala Lumpur City FC – Nov 30 will forever remain etched in the hearts and minds of the City players and their supporters.

That was the day they finally ended 32 years of pain and tears by lifting the prestigious Malaysia Cup after stunning defending champions and favourites JDT 2-0 in the final at the National Stadium in Bukit Jalil.

Meanwhile, youth development continued to be hampered by the COVID-19 pandemic, with FAM deciding to cancel the Youth Cup and President’s Cup tournaments for the second straight year.

The Malaysia Premier Futsal League (MPFL) and the Tun Sharifah Rodziah women’s tournament also fell victims to the pandemic, with FAM cancelling both tournaments as well.

There was, however, some feel-good moments for Malaysian football when four national legends, including Datuk Soh Chin Aun (195 caps), joined the FIFA Century Club that is reserved for players with at least 100 international appearances.

There are now seven Malaysians on the updated list. The three other Malaysian legends who made it to the updated list were Zainal Abidin Hassan (116 caps), the late Datuk M. Chandran (115) and Datuk Santokh Singh (100).

Previously, three legends, namely Datuk Abdul Shukor Salleh (163 caps), the late Datuk Mokhtar Dahari (138) and the late Datuk R. Arumugam (131) were given recognition as members of the FIFA Century Club.

In the meantime, Datuk Hamidin Mohd Amin managed to defend his post as FAM president for a second term for the 2021-2025 period after being returned unopposed at the 57th FAM Congress.

He, however, relinquished his post as president of the Malaysian Football League (MFL) and was replaced by Datuk Ab Ghani Hassan.

Despite the setbacks, in terms of results and the impact caused by COVID-19, it is hoped that these challenges will spur Malaysian football to rise again next year.

And all hopes will be on the senior squad to qualify for the 2023 Asian Cup Finals and the Under-22 squad to shine bright in next year’s AFC Under-23 Asian Cup Finals in Uzbekistan.